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'I shouldn't have to leave the priesthood to marry my boyfriend'

Rev Jide Macaulay, who is openly gay, wants to marry his partner and keep his job as a Church of England priest
Rev Jide Macaulay, who is openly gay, wants to marry his partner and keep his job as a Church of England priest Credit:  Des Willie / BBC

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Reverend Jide Macaulay cannot imagine a life outside Christianity. Raised in Nigeria, he was taught theology and scripture by his father, a senior clergyman famous in the country for his ultra-conservative religious politics. He moved to Britain as a young man and was ordained into the Church of England at the age of 47, an experience he describes as “life-changing”.

But his time in the priesthood could be nearing its end. Macaulay, 53, has been openly gay since he joined the Church, and campaigns for the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people into the Anglican fold. Now, he has fallen in love with a man and is determined to get married, pushing him onto a warpath with a Church that has spent decades grappling with its approach to homosexuality.

“I want to get married for everything that comes with it - the stability, companionship, love,” he tells me soon after I arrive at House of Rainbow’s east London office, a support group he runs for gay Christians. “I don’t want to compromise my Christian faith and beliefs. I believe in a God that is loving, a God that understands me.”

Macaulay’s case cuts to the heart of the most divisive issue faced by the Church in a generation. The current rules were set by Bishops in 1991, who responded to the increasing visibility of gay and transgender people with their Issues in Human Sexuality document. It allows people with “homosexual orientation” to become clergy, but forbids them from entering sexually-active gay relationships. Since 2005, gay clergy are permitted to enter Civil Partnerships - as long as they remain celibate - but gay marriage, introduced by the Government in 2013, is off the cards.

Since then, however, a number of Anglican churches have begun celebrating gay marriage, including the United States’ Episcopal Church, and the Scottish Episcopal Church, and senior clergymen have called for the Church to re-examine its approach. Pressure was heightened by a series of high-profile resignations, including that of Rev Andrew Foreshew-Cain, who quit his north London parish in 2017 and declared the Church “institutionally homophobic” after claiming he was “blacklisted” for marrying his partner, Stephen, three years earlier. 

Rev Jide Macaulay pictured at his parish, St Margaret with St Columba Church in Leytonstone, east London Credit: Des Willie / BBC

In 2017, the Most Rev Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, who has admitted “I haven’t got a good answer” to the thorny issue, announced a new consultation to replace the 1991 document and write a new Church policy on homosexuality. It will ask bishops, priests, and theological scholars.

For Macaulay, the battle is an intensely personal one. After moving to Britain from Nigeria aged 20, he became heavily involved in the Celestial Church of Christ, which draws most of its members from the African community. He spent much of his time “praying my homosexuality away”, and ended up marrying a woman at the age of 24. Three years in, as he grew increasingly depressed, he sat her down one evening and opened up about his sexuality. They divorced and Macaulay was expelled from his church. He briefly became homeless after church elders turned up to remove him from his council house.

“I stayed at home for two years, [watching] church programmes on television. I had two sets of ideas in my head: my gay life on one hand, and my Christian life on the other. They could not reconcile.” 

Eventually, at 31, Macaulay turned to the Church of England, where he hoped to find a spirit of inclusion. He joined the ministry and was ordained at 47. He now ministers at St Margaret with St Columba Church in Leytonstone, east London, where he says he has “never encountered any negative reactions” from parishioners, some of whom wished him “Happy Pride” earlier this week. “I have provided support for [parishioners] who are gay and also responded to pastoral questions for family members who wish to support their LGBTQ relatives. It’s a very good relationship.”

By asking to marry his partner of two years, who does not want to be named, Macaulay risks angering an influential group of Anglican conservatives who define marriage as strictly between a man and a woman. Permitting same-sex marriage, they fear, would put the Church of England out of step with Anglican churches in conservative countries like Kenya and Uganda, risking the breakdown of the Anglican communion. They also point to Bible verses which they claim condemn homosexual sex. 

Rev Richard Coles, pictured at the launch of his Edinburgh Fringe play last year, lives with his civil partner in a celibate relationship Credit:  Stuart Nicol

In tonight's BBC documentary, Too Gay for God?, Macaulay speaks to Dr Ian Paul, a conservative Biblical scholar, who quotes Leviticus 18:22: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is an abomination.” He also quotes St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, written centuries later, which writes that the “effeminate” will not enter Heaven, nor will the “abusers of themselves with mankind”. 

But Macaulay thinks the Bible says no such thing: “There are six to ten scripture verses in the Bible that are systematically used to condemn homosexuality, but when those scriptures are fully analysed theologically, they do not.” He thinks books like Leviticus must be read in their historical context - other verses condemn shellfish, mixed fabrics, and sleeping with a woman who is menstruating - and thinks the Letters of St Paul, which have been translated from their original Greek, are open to interpretation. 

In previous centuries, he adds, the Bible has been used to justify slavery and the subjugation of women, and the Church has already changed its mind on re-marrying divorcees, which was allowed in 2002. 

Moreover, he thinks that getting married will make him a better priest. “We’re supposed to be providing pastoral care, we should be able to wake up every day and be honest about who we are in our lives. Being openly gay is no longer about us - it’s about those we minister to. Living an attentive life, wholesomely, is going to help [our parishioners].”

This is why he decided against the path taken by Rev Richard Coles, the former Communards singer and Strictly contestant who lives with his civil partner, Rev David Coles, in a celibate relationship. “I love Richard, he’s amazing and authentic. [But] people like Richard are not allowed to openly live their life. There are many priests that will come to church on a Sunday morning and say, ‘At about nine last night, while in bed with my wife, something came into my mind that I want to share with you’. A gay or lesbian priest cannot use that kind of analogy.”

Macaulay’s desire for matrimony is also hindered by his own father, Professor Olakunle Macaulay, one of the most senior clergymen in Nigeria, where gay sex is punishable by 14 years in prison. In 2007, his father pushed for a five-year prison sentence for anybody involved in a pro-gay organisation - a direct threat to Macaulay’s own House of Rainbow group, which was campaigning  in the country at the time.

Prof. Macaulay later gave an interview to a Nigerian newspaper in which he condemned his son’s lifestyle, and said he would not mind seeing him in prison. Macaulay was “shocked and dismayed” to read the interview, but says he still regularly speaks to his father over the telephone; the conversation usually steers clear of religion or politics.

Whilst the Church’s rules on gay clergy have barely changed in 28 years, its stance on transgender issues seems to be in constant flux. Just this week, the Church’s General Synod accepted the principle of transgender marriage, meaning that if a male priest’s wife changes her gender and becomes a man, the Church will still recognise the marriage.

Faced by the most daunting decision of his life, Macaulay is still unsure. He is confident that the Church’s pro-gay wing will eventually prevail - but will it come soon enough, he asks, to allow him a loving marriage?

“I want to be able to bring all of me to my priesthood and church. It will break me if I have to leave the priesthood, [but] I think there are other ways to serve God. My hope is that, sooner rather than later, the Church will change its position, but I don’t think that any decision that is going to change the course of history is going to be easy.”

Too Gay for God? is on BBC One on Thursday 11th July at 10.35pm