This was one of three adresses celebrating the life of the Reverend George Mervyn Kingston at a memorial service held at St George’s Church, Belfast on 8 February 2014. Mervyn was a wonderful priest, a loyal friend and an unlikely prophet, whose prophetic ministry was particularly concerned with reconciliation between Northern Ireland’s churches and communities. He co-founded Changing Attitude Ireland with his husband and partner, Dr Richard O’Leary.
I hadn’t been long back in Belfast in 2007 when I chanced across the website of Changing Attitude Ireland. Mervyn and Richard had set the organisation up a few months before, and it had yet to catch a fair wind. I sent them an e-mail and a cheque, a sign of my good wishes and a salve for a conscience that felt it could do little more. CAI was still very small – I think I was member number 6.
I had no intention of becoming involved, with a busy career, and the comfort of worshipping in a Liberal parish where my sexuality wasn’t an issue – as long as I ignored the world beyond St George’s churchyard gate. Mervyn had other ideas.
And so came a succession of text messages and e-mails, over months that stretched into years: inviting me to this event and that, to write an article or a letter to the Church of Ireland Gazette. For Mervyn was very persistent. Some might even say he was a bit of a nag.
He was also very keen that I join the Harlandic Male Voice Choir, which I had equally little intention of doing. But every Thursday he texted me to say the Harlandic needed more Bottom Basses, and that he would see me in St George’s Parish Hall at 7.45 that evening. It was always a statement of fact rather than a request. Eventually I caved in – with both the Harlandic and with Changing Attitude. I was glad I did.
I rejoice in all of it. Singing with the Harlandic was a joy; being involved with Changing Attitude showed me how many agreed with us, but also dragged me into some of the nastiest incidents I have ever experienced. Nasty but necessary. So often Mervyn was the victim. I wondered what it was about this sweet, gentle, man with his transparent Evangelical faith, that provoked such spite from other Christians. I came to realise it was because he was so transparently a “saved Ulster Prod” who was proud to be gay, regarded his beloved husband Richard as a gift from God, and lived freely and openly. In short he was a victim of homophobia.
In retirement, he was denied a licence to function as a priest by the Bishops of both Down & Dromore and Connor, just because he was in a civil partnership with Richard. Old friends came up to the stalls he manned at Diocesan Synods – on the rare occasions this was permitted – to tell him how much they wished him to fail. Wobbling on a stick and with his face visibly blotchy from the cancer that raged him, he was even denied entry to public worship, allegedly because despite his illness he was going to be part of some part of stunt. There was no evidence – but he was gay, so that was grounds enough for accusation.
Through all this he always turned the other cheek, but never agreed to be silenced. And when I vented my fury at the perpetrators of injustice, Mervyn told me, sometimes firmly, that as a Christian I must forgive and love my enemies. Whatever I think intellectually, I still haven’t got to that point emotionally, but Mervyn made me see that I had to ask God to forgive what I, in my frailty, could not.
He could have lived a quiet life, either hiding Richard in church company and denying him a civil partnership; or withdrawing from the Church to live in a secular Greater Belfast where gay couples are nowadays not just pass-remarkable, but popular. Instead, he lived with the tension of being both openly gay and openly Christian, and publicly so with all that implies in Northern Ireland. He did it because he had a Christian duty to witness to the thousands locked deep in the closet, especially in rural Ulster, hating themselves and afraid of the world.
A Christian’s duty is always to witness to the truth. These were the truths Mervyn witnessed to: that being out is happier than the closet; that homosexuality is not a sin; and that the Scriptural case for condemning gay relationships is pitiably weak.
In all of this he was supported by Richard, their marriage an inspiration in fidelity, hospitality and Christian service. Mervyn survived for 11 years after a cancer diagnosis that would have seen strong men die in three. That wouldn’t have happened without Richard. Those were years when Mervyn and Richard were the instigators and motors of Changing Attitude Ireland, which led the gay Christian movement in Ireland away from being just about praying together in private and into speaking for justice in public. As a great ecumenist, Mervyn was delighted that his work in the Church of Ireland helped and inspired others in the Catholic Church, the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church.
Mervyn always reminded me of the persistent widow in Luke’s Gospel. He was polite and gentle, but unrelenting and absolutely clear that his faith in Christ did not permit him to remain silent in the face of injustice.
St Luke’s widow eventually sees justice when the distant judge can’t cope with her nagging any more. Mervyn never saw justice from the Church of Ireland – either for himself or for LGBT people more generally. But like Moses, he died having had a glimpse of the Promised Land. I had dinner with Richard and Mervyn at their home in Seahill on the night of the House of Lords vote on marriage equality. It was the last time I saw Mervyn. A margin of 3-to-1 in favour from a body that had once been the UK’s most powerful bastion of homophobia was astonishing, and moving, and a sign that years of work by so many had paid off.
Where Mervyn and Richard led, a small group of us followed. I remember it as a time of deep friendships, robust arguments and long train journeys around Ireland. We were a body of Christians gathered together in the tradition of the apostles – the real apostles whose story is told in the Scriptures, not the plastic saints we’ve created for ourselves over 2000 years. So we sometimes got things wrong, and we sometimes fought among ourselves and occasionally we must have made God wince. But like the apostles, we were the people who Christ called to do His work – and like the apostles we were an eclectic bunch: Northern and Southern, queer and straight, men and women, cradle C of I, converts from Catholicism and people from elsewhere.
I can see a Thomas, and I can see a Peter and I can definitely see a bit of myself in the Sons of Zebedee. Mervyn? I think Mervyn was like St John. His love for Christ was deep.
Mervyn was most of all a dedicated teacher of the Faith, and although this isn’t a religious service and some here have good reasons for rejecting Christianity, as a good Evangelical he would be disappointed if I didn’t take the opportunity to tell you something about the Faith that he and I shared.
The symbol of our Faith is a Cross, a particularly brutal instrument of execution. Christ promised those who followed Him in building the Kingdom would endure abuse, and contempt, and at times outright persecution. It was the hierarchy of His own faith, not the unbelievers, that had Christ put to death. The parallels with Mervyn’s life are clear. Christ presents dire warnings in the Gospels to the religious leaders who use the letter of Scripture to beat down the outcast or the “sexually broken”. But this is Mervyn’s day, not theirs, so we shall leave them, and instead look at the reward promised to those who suffer for Christ and endure to the end.
And that is very simple: resurrection and eternal life. Not immortality. Not a gigantic mansion with a swimming pool or endless sex with 800 virgins. We shall all be changed, into something quite beyond our comprehension, that mere words can at best paint a crude picture of. Perhaps it was that mad, visionary, poem written by a persecuted Christian 19 centuries ago, that we now call the Revelation of St John, that comes closest. And this is what it says.
The Reverend Mervyn Kingston has entered heaven! He was welcomed by Jesus Christ, his friend, brother and Lord, who said, “Well done good and faithful servant, come and share your master’s happiness.” Christ led him to join the great multitude that no one can count, of every tribe and nation, and the angels and the archangels sang to bid him welcome.
Now he sings before the great throne with men and women from times long forgotten and times yet to come, those Thursday evening practices with the Harlandic the perfect preparation for his eternity. Some of those now singing along with him were his persecutors in life, redeemed by the God who is absolute love, who promised to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
So, as we celebrate the wonderfully useful life of this gentle but persistent servant of God, let us remember that it was this vision of heaven that enabled to him to bear the crosses he had to bear to change the world. Mervyn’s faith was in a God who was absolutely real and who would judge our eternities, but it wasn’t about pie in the sky or cheap piety. It was faith in a God who became one of us and hung around drinking with prostitutes and foreigners and backwoods culshies and complacent middle-class officials and loved all of them – except the Bible-bashers.
Mervyn didn’t worship a God who demanded people believed in Him – he worshipped a God who believed in everyone.