I stood up as the last chords of the hymn ended and ascended the steps into the Pulpit. As I did so, the Church fell silent as the last echoes of the Organ died away.
“My sermon today is on the topic of understanding and forgiveness of those amongst us who sin and have sinned in the past.”
There are a little rustling from the congregation.
“Our Lord teaches us these very things. We have already prayed for them in the Lord’s Prayer. Forgive us our trespasses and those who trespass against us. Those words tell us to forgive ourselves for our sins and those that people do onto us. In order to fully do this we must make the effort to understand why we sinned and why others have sinned against us. When we truly understand the reasons why someone does something that may cause anguish or even harm to themselves or others, only then can you begin to forgive them of those crimes and sins.”
I took a deep breath.
“I hope that the next part of this sermon will go some way to making you understand my reasons for this sermon today and that you will forgive me for my sins.”
There were many anxious faces in the congregation.
I swallowed hard before carrying on.
“I stand before you as your Priest. You know me by name as Maureen Hart. I have to tell you that it is not the name I was given at birth. It is not the name by which our Bishop christened me all those years ago. I was born to my parents as a son. I was given the name Stanley, Stanley Mathews. My father was a mad keen Stoke City fan wanted me to become a footballer. Sadly this and many other things were impossible for me to achieve. I failed him and he has not even tried to understand me and certainly will not forgive me in this lifetime.”
There was some whispering going on.
“I was a normal, if somewhat gangly and accident prone child. I knew that something was wrong with me from an early age. I liked to wear my sister’s clothes. In times past my parents I would have been roundly beaten for this sin against God. However my parents thought that I was ‘queer’ and sent me to see a shrink. I was diagnosed with gender dysphoria. My parents thought that the shrink was just like me queer.”
There was a little laughter from below.
“I tried hard but I couldn’t really be myself unless I was wearing women’s clothing. So as soon as I was sixteen, they kicked me out onto the streets. I was homeless and without a future. Thankfully, the good lord had given me one skill. I could play the guitar so I started busking and was soon able to put a roof over my head and feed myself. What little money I had left over I spent at the makeup counter at Woollies.”
There was some tittering. At least none of the congregation has walked out.
“I carried on busking for three years. In this period, I taught myself to sing and also to read music and became a regular on the streets of York playing a mixture of classical and pop songs and singing along to them. It won’t surprise you to know that most of the songs I sang were for women vocalists. I grew my hair long and people started to treat me as a woman. Then one day my life changed again.”
“A man came up to me and stood listening to my singing and after a while her dropped a five pound note into my guitar case. The then wrote some words on a piece of paper and put it in the case.”
“It was only much later in the day that I read the note. He was the manager of a band who was in dire need of a new lead singer. I felt as if all my prayers had been answered. To cut a long story short, I joined the band and took the name of Passion Fruit. I became the lead singer of the Devil Trees. They were unashamedly Punk Rockers. The guys in the band knew that I was a man but were ok with me to live as a woman. With my hair and a bit of makeup, everyone treated me as a woman anyway. On the plus side, I got to wear some of the most outrageous outfits on stage you could imagine. We even had a few hits and because our manager was also the drummer we kept pretty well all the money that we made.”
“After four years we started to find it tough to get gigs so we played a few festivals and called it a day. Unlike many Punk bands we split up as friends and remain so to this day. I’m godmother to three of the band member’s children. I used the money that we had made to put myself through university. I studied Politics and Economics but during that wonderful time as a student the church agreed to allow women clergy to become vicars. I knew from that moment what my true calling was to be.”
“I studied theology and became an ordained priest. I’m here today standing before you asking your understanding for who I am and what I have done in my life and importantly for your forgiveness in keeping this secret from you these past four years. For that I am truly sorry and I will accept it if you do not want me to be your priest any longer.”
I paused. There was silence in the church. I’d expected half of my congregation to be heading for the exit by now but no one had moved an inch. Feeling slightly heartened, I carried on with the service as if nothing had happened.
“We shall conclude our service today by singing ‘We Plough the Fields and Scatter’ but before we start the hymn, I’d like to remind you all that Harvest Festival is next weekend and some volunteers are still needed to prepare the Church beforehand.
I was about to turn to the organist when a voice popped up from the rear of the church.
“What I wants to know Vicar is, do you still have your tackle? Did you get it chopped off?”
Everyone turned to stare at the owner of the voice. It had to be Tom Forrest. He was the village character.
“Yes Tom. I had the operation. I am legally a woman and have the passport and birth certificate to prove it.”
“That’s all I want to know Vicar. You are a good’un and I for one forgive you for that but I don’t forgive you for being able to drink me under that table at the Lamb. I thought I were taking on a mere woman. You had me fooled there.”
A few people laughed at his remarks but the ice had been broken and so far no one had left the Church in a hurry.
I motioned to the organist and the congregation stood and sang the hymn.
[One week previously]
I’d been in the kitchen icing a birthday cake for the organist, when there was a knock at the door to the Vicarage.
Somewhat reluctantly, and still wearing my apron and well splattered with icing sugar, I opened the door. I was very surprised to see the Bishop standing there.
“Bishop, this is surprise. Please come in. I’m in the middle of icing a cake. It is our organists 65th birthday tomorrow.”
“Thank you Maureen.”
“Please hang your coat up and come through. I’m a bit covered in icing sugar.”
“That’s all right.”
He followed me into the kitchen.
“It is all right if I finish this icing. If I don’t it will set and I don’t have enough icing sugar to make a fresh batch?”
“Please go ahead. The cake looks very nice.”
He sat down and watched as I piped ‘Happy Birthday’ in blue icing onto the white cake.
“Now that is all done, let me clear up and then I’ll put the kettle on.”
He didn’t reply but didn’t object.
Once the kettle had boiled and the tea made we went through into the sitting room. If you have ever seen the TV series ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ then the vicarage I lived in was not all that different from the one shown on TV.
I poured him a cup and then after giving it to him, I poured one for myself.
“What was it you wanted to see me about? Normally I get a call from your secretary when you are paying us a visit?”
“This is very unofficial Maureen. I want to talk to you about a few things.”
He looked nervous.
“Well one thing really. I received an anonymous letter the other day. It made a number of claims about you and your past.”
My heart sank.
“Some of the things mentioned in the letter I already knew about. What I didn’t know... Well you had better read it for yourself.”
He reached inside his suit jacket and extracted a sheet of paper. He handed it to me.
I was already guessing what it contained.
As I read it, I knew that it was mostly true.
I handed it back to the Bishop.
“Most of it is true. I never took drugs. None of the band did. We got drunk for sure but drugs never. The rest of it is true I’m afraid.”
“Oh Maureen? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“How could I Bishop? You are well known for being on the more conservative side of the church. I am still the only fully ordained woman priest in your diocese.”
He didn’t answer my question instead he went onto another point raised in the letter.
“The author is threatening to give this to the press. I am not sure how we can handle this.”
“Am I a good priest?”
“Yes you are. Your parish is regarded as a success.”
“Do you want me to resign? I won’t do it without a fight. It is not as if I am gay or living with someone. I am celibate. My mission is to spread the word of god and administer to my flock just like any caring priest would do.”
“I know that. But...”
I pulled the last ace from my pocket.
“Many years ago when you were a priest in Stoke, you christened a young boy who you gave the name, Stanley Mortensen Matthews. I was that boy.”
This surprised him.
“I never knew.”
“I wouldn’t have expected you to after all this time. I had a miserable childhood because all my Father wanted me to do was play football. All I wanted to do was wear pretty girl’s clothes.”
He looked sad.
“For the first time in my life, I am being who I want to be and doing what I know God put me on this earth for. Are we going to let a bit of publicity put us off our real mission?”
“Maureen, you are right. We will not let this derail us. I will have to inform Lambeth Palace though. And you will have to tell your congregation. The last thing your parishioners want is a swarm of press descending on your village making all sorts of claims about you. It is far better that they know first.”
“Yes. I know. I have thought about this long and hard over the years. I even have my sermon for it prepared.”
He grinned back at me.
“Only if there were more women like you...”
Then he realised what he’d said.
We both laughed.
“I think you meant to say that ‘If there were only more priests who cared about their parish like me’?”
The congregation filed out of the church and as usual, I said the usual few words to everyone as they left. Only the Richardson family rushed away. They were well known to be somewhat snobbish. They bought the Manor house a few years previously and straight away had closed off a footpath that had been used for centuries. They had made no effort to understand the village people.
Most of the others wished me well and forgave me. A few of the older ones we a bit confused. I made a note to go and see them personally in the week ahead.
One young man, Robin Crouch, hung around waiting for everyone else to depart. I liked Robin. He’d been in the choir until a few months before when his voice broke and he decided that being a singer wasn’t for him anymore.
“Hello Robin. Is there something I can help you with?”
He looked really nervous.
Then he stuck out his hand for me to see. I could see the remains of some nail polish on his fingers.
“You had better come to the Vicarage and we can talk.”
He still didn’t say anything as we walked out of the churchyard and the short distance to the Vicarage.
When we were safely inside, I sat him down and waited for him to speak.
Several times he tried but couldn’t.
In the end, I took charge,
“I’m guessing here but I think you are like me when I was your age? All mixed up and without a friend who understands me?”
He nodded his head.
“How long have you known?”
“Years. Ever since I were about six or seven,” he eventual y said.
“How did you get that nail polish on your fingers?”
“Brian Latham and his gang did it last night. They kept calling me a queer and stuff like that. One of them went home and returned with the polish. He’d nicked it from his sister. Then they held me down while the painted my fingers.”
Then he reached into his coat pocket and brought out a pair of glasses.
Both lenses were covered in the same colour polish.
“Why didn’t you try to remove it?” I asked.
“I ran out of remover and me mum is already suspicious of me and her makeup.”
I smiled at him as I remembered my early attempts at putting makeup on.
“Never mind, I have plenty here. We will clean you up. Then we can go and see your parents.”
He went as white as a sheet.
“No. They’ll kill me if they find out.”
“All right, let’s get you cleaned up and then we can talk a bit more. Do you want to stay for lunch?”
“Yes please but I don’t want to put you to any trouble?”
“You are one of my flock and my job is to help them in their times of need.”
Half an hour later we were sitting for to lunch. Sadly it wasn’t my normal Sunday roast but some warmed up chilli. In some ways it was more appropriate for Robin that a helping of meat and two veg.
“I will give you the name of someone who helps people like us. Things are a lot different now and what we have is much more understood.”
“The will kill me if they find out.”
“Who is ‘they’?”
“Brian Latham and his bunch of bullies.”
I knew what he was talking about. If there was any petty crime in the village you could be sure that Brian and his motley crew were behind it. Sadly in a smallish village if you were labelled an outcast then there was no safety in numbers like there would be in a big city.
“The name I will give you is of a doctor. What goes on between you and him is private to the two of you.
He won’t tell your parents unless you give him permission.”
“I’m got gay am I?”
“Why would you say that?”
“I want to be a girl and I fancy girls”
“No Robin you are not. I think that part our brain controls the love and another controls who we are.
With people like us, the who we are is all wired up wrong.”
“Do you fancy women too?”
I could see that he was coming right out of his shell. A little too far out for my liking.
I smiled back at him.
“I have in my time but not since I became a priest. I’m not sure how that would go down in the village. A Transvestite priest is one thing but one that is in a visible relationship with another woman is probably more than a few steps too far. Now let me get that address for you.”
Eventually I got rid of him. He was naturally reluctant to leave a place of relative safety but I had an appointment with the Bishop and a few old friends that I needed to keep.
[That evening, after evensong at the Cathedral]
“That was a nice sermon Bishop. I wonder where you got the idea from?” I said to him as we gathered around after the service.
“Yes Maureen. I have to say, as always your sermons are clear and to the point. You certainly don’t waffle do you?”
I’d sent him a copy of my sermon and he’d incorporated some of its theme into his address.
Just then two of the remaining three band members walked up to us.
I smiled at them.
“Bishop, I’d like to introduce two of my ex band mates. On your left is Brian Truman. He played Bass and next to him is Jeff Swann. Jeff was our nominal manager and drummer so he kept us in order in more ways than one.”
“Pleased to meet you. Maureen sent me a DVD of one of your concerts. Not my sort of music but then again we were all a lot younger back then.”
Jeff spoke up.
“Bishop, Maureen phoned us about the possible story of her change appearing in the press. We are cool with her and always have been. The sly fox that she is, it took us two weeks to twig that she was a boy. We are all happy for her knowing that she is doing something she loves. We all owe her a great debt because without her influence we would never have made it as a band. What we earned then has enabled us to do things in our lives that were mere pipe dreams to us before.”
Then Brian got a few words in.
“If the press come calling then we will tell them that... to be honest Bishop they can go and live with the devil.”
That brought a smile to his face.
“We have an idea that would enable everyone to come out on top.”
This made the Bishop very interested.
“We would like to perform one last time at the harvest festival next weekend and all the proceeds would go towards the Church Roof fund. I am sure we could get a decent crowd along. Naturally, this would be only with your blessing obviously.”
A little later I drove home trying to work on some ideas for my sermon for the next Sunday. I drove with a nice smile on my face. At long last big weight was about to be lifted from my shoulders. I thought to myself, perhaps something from the book of ‘Revelations’ might be suitable?
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