You don’t have to be gay to find yourself at the center of a moral panic in the Church, but it always helps. When I read the shocking story of the way mobile phone data mining had been used to reveal the movements of a Catholic priest and expose his lifestyle, I was utterly revolted. My revulsion was entirely focused on the ‘investigators’—no, let’s not aggrandize their role but call them what they are, spies—who used cutting-edge technology in a what appears to have been a well-funded sting to expose this individual and others as part of a crusade to purify the Church.

I learned about moral panics in the Church the hard way, by finding myself at the center of one, and I always give thanks for that experience because it taught me so much about the Christian life. Nor do you need to sift through personal phone data records in order to create a moral panic: in the mid-1980s there were no mobile phones. The only computers used in the parish office were glorified word processors that could create a database and print labels to send stuff out in the mail. When away from home and you needed to speak to someone urgently, you found a telephone booth. A digital sting was a world away in those days, but a moral panic could still be quickly organized because it only requires people and judgmental behavior to begin; and if some handy prejudice can be added, that will help accelerate a moral panic very nicely.

I was in my mid-thirties and exploring the possibility of ordination in the Church of England. The bishop had told my parish priest that he thought my previous experience was too narrow: I had been a military aircraft technician and had then been to university. Good solid foundations, but he thought I needed more ‘people experience’. So I took this to heart, and I found a place as a volunteer mental health key worker, a residential position in a group home in north London where there were five residents and I had my own self-contained flat. In exchange for free accommodation, my job was to look after the practical needs of these five ex-psychiatric hospital patients. This involved help with budgeting, shopping, planning, and cooking meals, and liaising with the visiting nurse and social worker to ensure residents kept appointments and treatment programs.

My ‘secret Christian life’ continued behind the door of my self-contained flat, unknown to the residents; quite rightly, as my responsibility to them was entirely secular. I studied the Bible and taught myself a little theology and Christian spirituality, and I looked forward to the next interview with the bishop when I could tell him I had gained more ‘people experience’. For example, there would be a wild knocking on my door at 3 a.m. and Bill would tell me that Tom had not taken his medication, was in a florid episode, and had dyed himself completely purple in the bath. Purple kept the devil away, Tom explained to me, which seemed like a reasonable ploy when he had missed his medication. I wasn’t sure if the bishop would see all this as directly beneficial for life in a future parish situation, but there was no denying I was getting ‘people experience.’

After a routine blood test by a visiting community psychiatric nurse, it was discovered that Tom was HIV positive, due to his previous intravenous drug use. Little information was then available about this, so I was advised by the management to attend a training day on HIV/AIDS health issues, with the only organization running such training: a charity called the Terrence Higgins Trust, based in central London. It had been named after a gay man who was the first in the UK to die with AIDS, and his friends had started the charity as the numbers of gay men with the disease began to increase. During the training day, I learned everything I needed to know to be able to give support to Tom, the HIV-positive resident in my group home. I also learned about the shocking devastation caused by AIDS in the gay community in London: a health crisis that was largely hidden from general public view.

The trainers on that day included a Catholic priest and a religious sister, an Anglican Franciscan brother, and a woman Methodist minister. That day was not only an introduction to HIV awareness, but it was also my first experience of denominations working together. That is how I ended up working to support sick and dying people during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. I learned that the charity was dealing with an enormous task, while under-funded and short of volunteers, so I began working a few hours every week as a volunteer at the Terrence Higgins Trust, while I continued my work supporting the people in the group home. This would please the bishop: I was now getting double ‘people experience.’

In my complete naïvety, I had no idea that I had set myself up for a classic moral panic to be ignited around me. As moral panics go, this one was launched in record time! The weekly meeting of the professionals involved in the group home took place and I was given a five-minute slot in the agenda to feed back the experience of the HIV training day, so I outlined how I could work with Tom and help him with his HIV anxieties and issues. I mentioned in passing that the AIDS charity was desperately short of volunteers and I had committed myself to a few hours a week helping out in their offices on admin work, mainly putting health leaflets in envelopes in the mailroom.

That was all it needed in those days to set the ball rolling on the moral panic that would entirely destroy my hopes of being considered for Anglican ordained ministry. The next day the office phone in the group home rang. It was the vicar.

“Can you come to the vicarage immediately?”

It was a worryingly tense tone of voice that I had not heard from him. He had rarely ever needed to phone me, as I was a five-minute walk away and frequently to be found in the sacristy, polishing candlesticks or laying out vestments, in my role as sacristan. I quickly made my way to the vicarage or, as Father jokingly called it, the ‘vice-rage.’ He was fond of jokes originating in spelling errors, but today there would be no jokes at all.

“You’ve really dropped me in it now!”

These days, I always remember those seven words—which he delivered with anger and exasperation—whenever I hear or read about some new moral panic. There is an instant heaping of blame on the other person, a focus on self-preservation and damage control, plus an immediate manufacture of guilt.

“What have I done?” I asked.

“That’s exactly why I wanted you here to explain yourself!” he fumed. “What indeed have you done?”

A short time earlier, the ‘vice-rage’ had been the loud and angry scene of a delegation from the good ladies of the parish, saying they would boycott Sunday Eucharist if I was allowed to receive communion from the chalice (Anglican communion is in both species.) Some went so far as to say they would not come to church at all if I was allowed to attend. They had found out from the professional mental health social worker who had been in the group home meeting—who was also a leading light in the parish—that I was working with “the gay plague” as they referred to it. The speed with which a delegation had assembled to demand that I should be banned from attending church was frightening.

“This is entirely your own fault,” said the vicar, while explaining that I should not attend church again while I continued AIDS work. “People in the parish feel you have put them at risk. Also they now assume you are gay and that has spoiled your reputation for some people.”

“What are you talking about?” I protested. “I joined a charity responding to people who are dying with AIDS. Catholic nuns are sitting there in the mailroom, putting health awareness leaflets into envelopes. Half the new volunteers had never met an openly gay person before joining in this work! How can you judge me for helping the sick and dying?”

“The real question is,” he said, pointing a finger at me accusingly, “what are you going to do about this?”

I was astonished. I then fell into the trap that had been set, and I tried to put the onus back on his pastoral responsibility to address the problem. I suggested he could use some leaflets produced by the Terrence Higgins Trust called “AIDS and the Chalice” which addressed this very issue, showing that HIV was not passed on by this method. Educate the parish: a great opportunity! In any case, I told him, my current involvement with the charity only involved me putting leaflets into envelopes: I was more likely to catch something infectious on a bus or a train!

“No way!” he responded, taking the moral panic into a new and dramatic peak of fresh accusations. “You will not bring your gay AIDS propaganda into my church! Have you engineered this situation just to find an opening for your literature?”

I was devastated, but there was no denying that all this was useful ‘people experience.’ Thus ended my Sunday communion attendance at my church and there would never be another interview with the bishop. It was fairly common knowledge that the bishop had a rather irregular lifestyle involving a certain set of traditionalist Anglican clergy of similar orientation who were seen regularly in certain London clubs, but keeping a low profile. The vicar made it clear to me that any kind of a ‘scandal’ regarding the parish and me, particularly as it centered on a ‘gay organization,’ would ensure that I was too hot to handle, from the bishop’s point of view. My vocational inquiries could therefore be seen as dead in the holy water.

In fact, no message ever came through to me that I was no longer being considered for the ordained ministry. I got the message from that moment, however. I would be dropped due to issues around my ‘lifestyle’ as a consequence of this moral panic. Sometimes people ask me where my strong sense of comedy comes from and it is from such experience of the fragility of human existence and the enormous ironies we encounter at times, particularly but not exclusively in the Church.

It may have seemed an odd thing to say that I give thanks for that ruinous moral panic, but I do because it taught me much about the Christian life and it was a rapid learning experience. The result of being deprived of my church life was my increased volunteer commitment to the AIDS charity, where I eventually became the national conference organizer, replacing someone else at short notice after they fell victim to burnout. This new path also helped my Christian formation, through the opportunities to work with others of different denominations, and I even met Pope John Paul II through my HIV/AIDS fundraising. It was an opportunity to work alongside Franciscan friars and that led to my becoming a friar myself, so, in the end, I can honestly say that the moral panic caused by my simply following a bishop’s instructions to get more ‘people experience’ ultimately led to a wider vision and a journey that took me out of the narrow parochial world I once inhabited.

Author with Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1987.

All this came strongly to mind last week when I read about the outing of a US Catholic priest by analyzing data that targeted his movements. From the very organization that exposed him, to the highest Catholic authorities, there will now be the possibility they too will be exposed, outed, paraded before the public in the same way, as a result of new technological opportunities. It is a truly ghastly prospect. There does not yet exist a digital app, data set, or expensive spyware program to expose hatred and prejudice, so often at the root of moral panics. Nor will hatred and prejudice ever be eradicated, sadly. But let’s learn to call out such behavior whenever it arises, for a moral panic does not need technology to begin its insidious work: it just needs to exploit the flaws in our human hearts.

In the opening words of Part Three of Let Us Dream, Pope Francis says, “In times of crisis and tribulation, when we are shaken out of our sclerotic habits, the love of God comes out to purify us, to remind us that we are a people.” During the time after the moral panic that forced me out of my parish community, I learned much from the strength of another community—a community of which I was not a part, but simply a guest—and this had a profound effect on my approach to people. It was in effect the very human encounter that the bishop had required of me: to get some ‘people experience.’

Pope Francis continues in that passage, “What does it mean, to be ‘a people’?” It is a thought category, a mythical concept, not in the sense of a fantasy or a fable but as a particular story that makes a universal truth tangible and visible. The mythical category of the “people” draws on and expresses many sources: historic, linguistic, cultural (especially in music and dance), but above all a collective wisdom and memory. A people is held together by that memory.” My learning experience in working with the gay health crisis in the 1980s taught me a great lesson about community, as I observed and learned about a community of which I was not part, and as one rejected by my own Christian community, in a classic moral panic, precisely for playing my part in providing help.


Images: Featured image — Adobe Stock. Photo in story — the author with Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1987 during an ecumenical fundraising exercise for people with HIV/AIDS. (Credit Osservatore Romano.)


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Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).

‘Needs more people experience’: How to start a moral panic
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