The Reverend Chris Tyack writes of his experience of and in the Anglican Church and in particular of his memories of Father Trevor Bulled, openly gay priest for many years at Fortitude Valley’s Holy Trinity Church.
For many LGBT+ people over 40, the Church represents an ancien regime of unhappy memory. My own relationship to the institution is more complicated—especially since I became an Anglican priest. I’ve known many LGBT people in the pews, and also a fair few priests and religious. They, of all people, have wrestled with the ambiguity at the heart of the Church—an often dull, unseeing institution which, in spite of everything, they have called home.
In so many ways, these people saved my Christianity.
Father Trevor Bulled
As a teenager, I happened upon Holy Trinity Church, Fortitude Valley where Father Trevor Bulled was priest. It was no secret Trevor was gay. Indeed, that’s what made him a great priest. He was an outsider, and therefore he knew how to accompany those in pain.
He endured the harassment that came not uncommonly to gay men: entrapped by the Police in the 1980s, falsely accused more recently, and smeared by the Courier Mail. Such was the ‘righteousness of the law’.
The Pharisees are given short shrift in Scripture. Trevor taught me that what mattered most in Jesus’ ministry is the merciful acceptance of others around the table.
Sunday by Sunday at Holy Trinity, LGBT people came together—alongside conventional families, alongside the old ladies in their late 90s (always with their wide-brimmed hats).
Everyone was there. There was a large Torres Strait Islander contingent, too. Some of the parishioners were dirt poor; others had millions. Here so many dividing lines melted away. Here I learnt what St Paul meant by “in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free—for all are one in Christ Jesus.” Whoever we were, we came to make a home for one another. We came to realize a mystical common humanity. That was the magic.
Trevor was no mere apologist for the Church. It angered him often; but he stayed. He sometimes spoke of its better moments.
In the UK, the Church of England under Michael Ramsay supported decriminalization of homosexuality; and, in Joh’s Queensland, Anglican clergy and religious cared for those dying from AIDS. They didn’t come shaking Bibles, but they did hold many hands.
The broken figure of Christ on the wall was enough. What greater symbol of martyrdom and triumph is there? That was Trevor’s religion—inspiring his whole social concern, not only for LGBT people but for many others.
He put blankets over the homeless who slept on his verandah, housed refugees in this home and officiated at annual AIDS Day memorials. For him, Christ was at the margins.
Trevor died 2016, an emaciated figure. Bone cancer seized him quickly, and his chemo was really cutting in. Yet he insisted on saying Mass until he could hardly move. Some have said he wanted to go like St Benedict, who died in the choir stalls.
Really, Trevor died a “wounded healer”—just as he had been in life. His compassion for others had flowed from his own suffering. He had the gift of somehow turning his pain into a blessing for others. He had been Rector of the Anglican Church’s Holy Trinity, Fortitude Valley, for 23 years.
Trevor’s tradition was Anglo-Catholicism. It was the Anglo-Catholics who, in England from the late nineteenth century, revived ritual in worship—especially as a way of dignifying the poor.
The ritualist clergy were increasingly liberal. Even in those days they were open to science, open to biblical criticism, and they nurtured a tolerance for human beings of all kinds. Social justice mattered.
Many of their clergy were unmarried, many certainly gay. Clergy in this tradition had a decisive influence in Brisbane, too—now perhaps the most liberal diocese in the country. Outside St John’s Cathedral, Ann Street, you will see the rainbow flag flying; one of our senior clergy, for instance, is a transgender woman. Perhaps you didn’t hear it in the media.
Yet tragically, battlements have gone up against Western “liberals” like us. From the late 1990s, the post-colonial Churches of Africa, rattled by the AIDS crisis, became leaders of an anti-gay push—with the Anglican Diocese of Sydney their greatest ally in the West. So the Australian Anglican Church itself is torn.
In this, it perhaps mirrors Australian society itself, where a tradition of toxic masculinity which claims “the righteousness of the law” is well and truly alive.
I suspect Fr Trevor would rage at all this, but finally wipe his hands of it. He was never one for capturing the institution—nor did he believe the Church was an institution to be captured, anyway.
The Church is ultimately a mystery that shines out here and there, in moments of human encounter, in moments of love. It belongs to all of us, and none of us.
Above all this pathetic fray, there is Christ—the Christ of the poor, the Christ of the people. It is he who shines out in the Eucharist, martyred and triumphant. That is the magic.
That is what Trevor taught me. So I stayed in the Anglican Church, and made a home here. If you happen to be in the Valley, light a candle for Trevor, a gay man, a priest, who lives in the communion of saints. Whatever might happen to this fragile institution, in the end there is only Christ—and that is all that matters.
Church of the Annunciation
12 August 2019
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