Priest Outs Himself Before Sermon

Gay Anglican cleric set to stir up debate among his congregation
( [email protected] ) Nov 11, 2003 11:30 AM EST

Father Douglas Torr will stand in front of St Mary's congregation in central Johannesburg and tell them: "I am gay."

He will not say anything more about his sexuality, but will continue with his sermon.

But his declaration may not be met with the same silence - for homosexuality is causing a rift in the Anglican church worldwide.

So divided are Anglicans on the issue that the Church of Nigeria's Archbishop, Peter Akinola, has openly labelled the acceptance of homosexuality as a "satanic attack on the Church of God".

South Africa's Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane has made himself a target by openly going against his African peers.

He accepted the election and consecration of Gene Robinson - the bishop of New Hampshire in the United States who has declared that he is living with a partner of the same sex - which is at the core of the latest rift.

The South African Anglican Church accepts gay priests as long as they are celibate. It also supports the notion of no sex before marriage.

But tensions around homosexuality were obvious even earlier when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, made it known that gays and lesbians were full and welcome members of the Church, just after a celibate gay priest in the Church of England, Dr Jeffrey John, was forced to resign as a bishop .

Now the Anglican Church of South Africa has appointed a commission to lead a dialogue on how the church should deal with homosexuality and the University of Natal School of Theology will be consulting with the church members, civil society and other concerned groups on the issue.

But Torr - the priest in charge at St Mary's - will not wait for this, even though he welcomes the move.

He believes it is important to be honest about his sexuality.

"I would rather be open about who I am and what my sexuality is. If I were involved in a relationship, I would want my partner recognised."

Torr - who has been at St Mary's for two months after replacing a dean who had resigned - realised he was gay at 29.

He said he was troubled by the matter as a student . "A t the time I was studying it certainly would have been a very big problem to disclose I was gay. I wasn't lying to the church because I hadn't come to terms with my own sexuality."

Torr said while he understood that the issue of sexuality may be more contentious than others which had faced the church, he hoped the local commission's dialogue would lead to a better understanding of gay members of the church.

"Dialogue means being willing to change positions . . . Our sexuality in no way distracts from our Christianity."

And he knows first-hand. Torr has previously publicly revealed his sexuality. "When I came out, I was in the parish of Bosmont. I have been out for 10 years now. I first told my parish council and I said if anybody wants to ask me any question they can do so. Some people left the parish."

But he claims most people stayed. "Whether they [those who stayed] agreed with me or disagreed is another question. But I had been with that congregation for about five years.

"When they get to know you as a human being it is much more difficult for them to dismiss you on the basis of your sexuality."

He said he hoped the commission would answer a number of theological questions such as: "What is the church going to say about people's sexuality? How do we respect sexuality as a gift from God? How do we interpret the Scripture?"