Rev. Dr. Jeff Heskins was born in Australia but moved to the UK as a child and was educated in Kent. He was ordained in London diocese, where he served the first part of his ministry in parish and youth work, and as chaplain to Charlton Athletic football club. As Rector of St Luke and St Thomas, Charlton, Jeff and his parish offered services of blessing to same-sex couples. He is now lives in the east Midlands, where has been a Director of Vocations since 2007.
“When I was a curate, in my first curacy, I came across my first lesbian couple who wanted a committed partnership. And I remember observing the vicar doing a very simple prayer of blessing over their rings, which they exchanged quietly, without any fuss, after a Sunday service, in the side chapel. There was no ritual, no liturgy, no pomp and ceremony, no singing of hymns, it was just done, on the quiet, while everyone else was having a cup of tea at the back of the church.
And I got to know Sheila and Helen really quite well. And had dinner at their house, and of course I discovered the things you discover about most gay or lesbian couples, and that is that they do the normal things that normal people do. They have rows. They do the shopping together. They do the cleaning and the ironing. They have conversations, and occasionally they invite friends round – they have friends! And in this particular case I became one of them. I became very fond of Sheila and Helen. They’ve since gone their separate ways, but they’ve both stayed within the church, which is fantastic. They’ve both been ordained now.”
“By the time I went to Charlton I wasn’t phased by any of this. I had been someone who had shared in the support of gay and lesbian couples but like most clergy in those days, did it on the quiet. It wasn’t a secret, but it wasn’t something that was held publically. What happened at Charlton was that I found myself entering a parish with a 25 year history of supporting gay and lesbian couples by the time I got there. And it had been done with quite a lot of publicity.
The one thing I wanted to do was to deflect the accusation that this was the pet baby of one rather eccentric priest. Which was an easy accusation to make of my predecessor because no other people had been involved. But I was fairly determined we were going to spread this wide. And when we’d done (some research as a congregation), I handed the thesis over to a liturgical group that I convened at the church, and I said I would like you, based upon the insights and the finding of this research to produce a liturgy that reflects that. And they did. And that was a liturgy which they then presented to the Parochial Church Council, which was received by the Church Council who then, at the end of that time, formulated an official policy.
And that policy stayed in place, as it was, until the government produced legislation for civil partnership rites. At that point the PCC reviewed its previous policy and agreed that what we had been looking for in our 30 year campaign by then, was equal rights for those in same-sex partnerships, to have the kind of safeguards and legal infrastructure that everybody else had. And once civil partnerships came on the scene, the PCC altered its resolution to say that they would only do services of blessing for those who had been through a civil partnership.
What was interesting as that we did ourselves out of a job. Because by the time civil partnership came in, by and large people stopped coming to us, unless they were committed Christians, who wanted to do something in church. But by and large, they didn’t come to us.”
“I was very angry with what had happened (to Jeffrey John) and I thought, after Lambeth, in 1998, Issues in Human Sexuality was just a disaster, really. Given that they’d gone out of their way thereafter to say that they would listen to gay and lesbian voices, I thought well, how are they going to do that because every gay and lesbian person is probably too scared to give voice to what they think or feel. So I thought, what I’ll do is (this): we all know that, particularly in the capital, there are any number of clergy who are in relationships. Let’s find out a bit about them. And so having been invited to the Clergy Consultation, which is a specially confidentially convened meeting of gay and lesbian clergy who want to gather together, and I was asked to speak at it. And I have to say it was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had. I cast my eye and around the room – over a hundred men and women, many of whom I’d known for years, but hadn’t got the foggiest idea about their personal life.
Out of that I made an appeal. I asked if any of them would volunteer to be interviewed, as couples. Many of them did and I gathered together over 30 hours of interview material which formed the basis of Face to Face. The title came about because it struck me that one of the things that had been missing was any kind of meaningful face to face dialogue between those who were advocating policy, and those who were the recipients of it. This I thought would be a safe way of enabling that to happen. It’s really a book a bout listening and how you listen to people. And how you move on from the whole business of us and them, there are two sides to the story. Well what I actually discovered was that there were not two sides to this story. There were at least three. There’s my story, there’s your story, and there’s what your story does to me. And mine to you. What I discovered many things in researching that book and I had enormous admiration for the couples that I met, none of whom wanted to get out of their prams, none of whom wanted to shout and rage, but all of whom just wanted to be taken seriously.”
“I think when I reflect on it now the thing that really strikes me most of all is just how awed the young people in my congregation were when they were interviewed about all of this. Simply because as teenagers they to a boy and a girl knew people at school who were gay. So sexual orientation was something that was much more openly known about, talked about in school at a younger age, and that wasn’t the case for you and me.
So there is a sense in which I think that for my children, it’s all a bit of a joke. I have this conversation with my wife now where I say, when I die, the thing that I hope happens is that when they come to clear out my books, my children look at these and they say, do you remember? The old man did this. What on earth was going on in those days? And I think with another generation, that’s where we’ll be. It may not happen in your or my lifetime but I think it will happen in another generation. ”
You can listen to Jeff’s interview here.
You can find out more about the work of Jeff’s predecessor at St Luke’s, Tony Crowe, here.