Departing cleric tells of encounter with supposedly ‘homophobic’ vicar that changed his life
A minister who quit the Church of Ireland after accusing it of being “homophobic” has said he will continue to fight for LGBT+ rights in his new role as a social worker.
Andrew Rawding (51), who announced his resignation as rector of the Co Tyrone parishes of Brackaville, Donaghendry and Ballyclog on Sunday, told the Belfast Telegraph he felt he was “a lone voice, completely on my own and very isolated” because of his stance on gay issues.
The former Army officer said that killings of two close military friends during the Troubles had taught him of the need to make the best of life.
He added that he was merely his following his latest calling with his dramatic career move.
Mr Rawding also told how he became a champion of LGBT+ rights after being propositioned by a supposedly homophobic married vicar who then threatened to commit suicide in the face of rejection.
He said this put him on “a journey” towards a better understanding of the complex nature of identity and sexuality within the Church.
The Church of Ireland declined to comment on Mr Rawding’s resignation when contacted by the Belfast Telegraph.
Mr Rawding, who has seven children from his first marriage, and is stepfather to five, having wed his “teenage sweetheart” Loveday (47) five years ago, had been a minister for a decade and had helped establish Pride parades in the mid-Ulster area.
His decision to step away from the Church of Ireland was based on a long-standing belief that it was “structurally, culturally and socially homophobic” rather than a kneejerk reaction.
“No one decision is based on any one single factor, but I’d been in these three parishes for 10 years, and although it’s been an interesting experience, it has also been quite a challenge,” he explained.
“Within the Church of Ireland, at a level above these parishes, I’ve really felt that I’ve been a lone voice.
“I’ve been very isolated in my public stance in supporting the LGBT+ community.
"On the other hand, my stance has been having a positive impact, and there has been progress.
“I helped set up Mid Ulster Pride, which really has changed the face of life in that area in relation to LGBT people.”
Mr Rawdling said being rejected from the Church of Ireland Synod was a major factor in his departure, which reduced many of his parishioners to tears.
“One of the tipping points in my thinking was when I put myself forward and I was not accepted,” he explained.
“My colleagues and peers did not want me on the General Synod. They didn’t want my voice around the table or within their structures.
“But this is not some Andrew Rawding crusade. This is not about me.
“Really, if I’ve got so far, I need to hand over the baton. If what I’ve done has breached the defences and made a crack in the wall, then that’s okay.”
When asked what made him take on the LGBT+ cause in the first place, he gave more details about the clergyman who had tried to engage him in a sexual relationship many years ago.
“A married Church of England vicar attempted to seduce me into a non-consensual homosexual relationship, with the threat of suicide, before I joined the Church,” he said.
“And that really made me think that there’s something more to this.
“I thought, ‘This guy’s married. He comes across as homophobic. He appears to be against homosexuality… so why is he doing this?’
“And why, when I reject him, does he say, ‘You leave me no choice but to go to the saunas in London’?
“That started a journey for me. I began listening to my own personal thoughts on these issues, and I changed.
“And what came to the forefront was not what I believed theologically, but how I was to respond to people pastorally, and I put compassion before anything it says on a bit of paper.”
Mr Rawding said there were countless other “moments” in Coalisland that reaffirmed his core beliefs.
“When I came here, for example, a mother came to me after her child had just told her he was gay,” he explained.
“She knew I would be understanding and I thought, ‘It’s been worth being in these parishes to give support to this parent and through this parent give support to this child’.
“My support for LGBT [rights] is only a very small part of my ministry. It just gets most of the publicity.”
Looking back to his time as a platoon commander in Newry, south Armagh and east Tyrone from 1991 to 1994, the English cleric recalled how Andrew Grundy and Michael Beswick were killed while he survived a couple of direct bomb attacks.
Losing his soldier friends made him realise that he only has “one life” and “from a Christian point of view”, he must “make the very best of it”.
“My calling has always been to follow Jesus Christ,” he said.
“My calling was not to become a reverend or to become a rector in the Church of Ireland. That’s just been part of my journey.”
The next stage in his journey will be at Queen’s University Belfast, studying social work.