Leaving the priesthood: a personal story
After 20 years as a Catholic priest, Richard Barton is struggling to understand why it took him so long to leave the church.
This article is a preview from the Winter 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
Last October I left the Roman Catholic priesthood, having served for 20 years in parishes in the counties of Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire. It all happened quite suddenly. I saw the bishop on Tuesday and, having celebrated Mass for the last time, handed over the keys of the presbytery to a colleague on Friday morning. On the following Sunday the bishop visited my parishes and informed everyone that I had left “for personal reasons”. The departure was entirely amicable but I have not attended Mass since.
Although I am yet to find a new job, I feel enormously happy. This was the best decision that I have ever taken. For years I have struggled with issues of faith and oscillated from one path to another. Now, at 58, I am passionate about helping to build a free-thinking secular society.
I realised during my teenage years that I am gay. I was fortunate in having had a wonderful best friend and partner for 33 years until his death two years ago. Since then I have met a new partner. I have been drawn into his social circle and we share lots of happiness together.
Surprisingly, perhaps, church was actually a safe space for a gay man. At King’s, London, where I studied theology back in the late 1970s, I immersed myself in an exotic and aesthetic Anglo-Catholic milieu. When I became a Roman Catholic, at the age of 20, life calmed and, eventually, I returned to my native Gloucestershire and joined the local constabulary. The police was not a comfortable place for a gay man in the early 1980s and, in my early days, I was often teased by colleagues. My friends who visited were harshly scrutinised. On one occasion, an inspector warned me that if it became evident that I was a homosexual then I would be dismissed. I showed the necessary discretion and settled in the police force, finishing in 1991 as Community Liaison Officer for the City of Gloucester.
Priestly studies began and, cocooned within the often camp atmosphere of seminary, it was easy to forget the official teaching of the church regarding homosexuality. There were always liberal positions which could be argued when it came to sexual morality and we were, sort of, encouraged to do so. To be quite honest, most seminarians seemed to be far more interested in the niceties of liturgy than worrying about the pastoral dilemmas that they would face, one day, in the big world outside.
For years, in the parishes in which I served, I played down the church’s moral teaching and never really preached about sexual matters. Instead I focused on what I saw to be more important issues such as social justice. If asked directly I might offer a personal opinion, and Confession might often develop into a sort of counselling session. Once or twice I raised my head above the parapet in support of equal marriage but this achieved little. Of course my whole situation, my stance on these issues and my personal relationships, was untenable.
Pope Francis actually brought decision day upon me. For many years during the pontificate of Pope Benedict we didn’t hear too much about sexual moral issues as he seemed to be far more interested in Latin and lace. Suddenly, with cheery Francis, topics long forgotten became the buzz for my congregations. They were urged to say what they thought and to contribute to the big discussion. In turn they sensed change and eagerly entered into the process. I guessed that their hopes would be dashed and I knew that eventually, when the euphoria subsided, reality would hit and I would have to stand in a pulpit and justify to them things that I did not believe in. Fortunately I have some personal financial independence so I was able to say “enough is enough” and I resigned. Many are beginning to realise that there is no real appetite for change behind all those beaming papal smiles.
Gay issues were not the sole reason for me leaving the Roman Catholic Church and ceasing to identify as a Christian. I feel that I owe it to many people to tease out why I have left the church and to attempt to answer the inevitable question – “why has it taken you so long?” It is not my intention to criticise the church in this article or to influence others. I have always been treated generously by my diocese and, particularly, by my bishop.
My parents were not very religious and rarely attended church and because of that neither did I. One Sunday, when I was about eight, a schoolfriend took me to the local Anglican church and I was immediately hooked. From the age of ten or eleven I spoke of wanting to become a vicar. St George’s offered a strong community and I enjoyed playing a part in every aspect of its life, including an evangelical prayer group.
Over the years an ever-widening gap developed between what I later perceived to be biblical fundamentalism and the science that I was taught at school. I stopped going to the prayer group and even church. By the Upper Sixth I had fully returned to the fold. I distanced myself from evangelical biblical fundamentalism and became drawn to the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England. From there I leaped into the Roman Catholic Church.
I was ordained in 1995 and began my career as a priest serving in various parishes around the Clifton diocese. I enjoyed pastoral ministry and was encouraged to further my deep interest in church buildings and history. However, within a few years of ordination, I was seriously questioning my faith and oscillating between times of belief and unbelief. The problems did not go away and about ten years ago I felt I needed time to stand back from what I was doing so as to resolve my dilemma once and for all. However, a practical question arose – what would I do if I left this comfortable world where I had received so much love and support from parishioners, colleagues and friends?
After months of discreet enquiry, a local builder offered me a job as a site operative with his respected conservation company. Life on the building site was hard work but fun, at least whilst the sun shone, although I had no obvious craft skills. The men were friendly and encouraging but I found myself still pondering religious questions. After some months I felt drawn to attend Mass again and a return to ministry gradually emerged as the best way forward. Although I would never have admitted it to myself at the time, having set aside my priestly identity I felt exposed. Eventually I saw the bishop and, after jumping through various hoops, I was reinstated.
After a few years, I was once again racked by doubts and uncertainty. I tried to devise a way that would allow me to continue and I turned to the writings of Don Cupitt and tried to adopt a liberal non-realist “Sea of Faith” position, which sees faith as a human creation. Christianity had moulded me, I reasoned, and I needed it not because “God” was real and objective but because this form of spirituality responded to the yearnings that I had over the years developed under its influence. I felt that I could do nothing else but be a priest because, for over 50 years, I had allowed the church to form me into the person that I had become.
We can all criticise the institutional church, yet I would constantly remind myself that at a local level my parish was a unique community of diverse people where young and old could share together, where many cultural differences could be celebrated and moments in our individual stories could be marked and given significance. Through church I had encountered some really lovely people, beautiful liturgies, so much history, fine art, architecture and music. All these facets had enriched my life and my tastes had been nurtured under their shadows. At another level, too, church offered a continual communal response to those who were vulnerable and in need. After all, through ministry I had so many opportunities to help people and to try to walk beside them. I just regretted that I could not be more honest about what I actually thought.
My partner’s death was in many ways the catalyst. He suffered with pancreatic cancer and I found that I could not cope with pious sentiment. God-talk was not what I wanted to hear. My colleagues, bishop included, were hugely supportive during his illness, as were many of the members of my own congregation. Their kindness made it all the more difficult for me to leave when the time came.
As my friend was dying I could not pray in my heart the conventional prayers about healing and heaven. All I could do was try to make some sense of my own thoughts. As he drew his last breath I could not place him in heaven or indulge in all the hopes and fears of most of my Christian brothers and sisters. Yet I also felt I could not undermine the faith of many of my friends and parishioners. Instead I remained silent and chose words cautiously and carefully, often hiding our love for each other. My partner is only alive now in my memories and in those of others. I want to keep that memory alive. But he is dead, he is no more, and no crass words of religious comfort could ever soften that fact.
It was a mistake to continue for so long in Christian ministry and I should have left years and years ago. We are held back by so many nets of our own making – letting people down, potentially missing what we are doing and, of course, our fears for the future. But in the end I should have left.
What of the future? I am trying to be honest with people as to who and what I am. I think that I owe it to people to be more open about being gay and, now, about being a non-believer and secular humanist. I have found support from the local gay and lesbian community in Gloucestershire. I belong to my local Labour party and have joined and supported various LGBT and secular organisations including the British Humanist Association.
Humanist involvement took me to a fascinating conference at Birmingham University focused on the plight of people who are trying to “come out” of faith communities. The courageous campaigner for LGBT rights, Peter Tatchell, and others who suffer for their beliefs, make me feel terribly ashamed. Within the church I have lived a comfortable life and failed to be my true self. Hopefully, this account will help others who are struggling to leave their faith or who are coming out as LGBT. After all, the one life that we each have is far too short to be squandered behind masks of secrecy and dishonesty.