About eight and a half years ago I started this blog as a place on the net where Church of England people with mental health problems could talk to each other and let off steam about the way their fellow churchgoers, and especially the so-called leaders of their church, treated them because of their condition. Very quickly the blog's audience went through a rapid expansion phase and ended up being a place for people from pretty much every minority group who felt excluded from the institutional church for one reason or another (not including, of course, those who were excluded because they were a bunch of bigots). For the next six or seven years, whilst blogging was the social media of choice for the "thinking classes", I campaigned vociferously for these people, especially the LGBT folk and women blocked from pursuing their God-given vocations. We have, I think it is now fair to say, won all the arguments. It is now just a matter of making sure our victory plays out into real change within our churches.
Whilst all this exciting stuff was going on the original intention for this blog became very much a thing overshadowed. This is not surprising as gay people are creative and fun whilst mad people are depressing and embarrassing a lot of the time. We are repetitive, obsessive people who tend to get on the nerves of both non-sufferers and each other with all our moaning and complaints about being unwell. Mental illness is still very much a taboo subject and no matter what famous and important people might say in public about working to change the situation most people, including the famous and the important, are very much prejudiced against us in exactly the same way the white people among them were all prejudice against black people just a few years back. Nowhere is this bigotry more acute and downright nasty than in the churches of the world where believers appear to still believe that, at best, mental illness is a grave weakness that should preclude the sufferer from any position of responsibility or, at worst, a punishment from God or even demon possession. This leads to people who develop mental health problems losing their roles within their congregations and churches and, very quickly, to their constructive exclusion from their faith communities altogether. At a time when they need the help of others most, others, including colleagues and so called Christian friends, turn their back on them.
It is this aspect of mental illness, the attitude of the sane towards the mad, that has had the biggest negative effect on my life. It has most certainly caused me the most pain and it still does; every single day it hurts more than I could ever put into words. I recovered from the acute, hospitalising phase of my own mental illness. I have learned to live with the ongoing remnants of that illness. I could live as near a normal life as most sane people do. But I am not allowed to because of the bigotry and the incredible lack of pastoral care displayed by Christians.
When I was really poorly, none of my colleagues from before I went into hospital visited me or even rang me up to see how I was doing. In all the years that I was ill my bishop visited me once and that, I am sure, was just to find out when I would be going back to work because my illness was costing the diocese money (that certainly formed a considerable part of what he wanted to talk to me about). Then, when I did want to go back to work because I was recovering well I was told that there was no job for me and that I should retire because my mental illness had shown that I couldn't cope with the stress of work (I have no idea where the bishop got this strange idea from as it was never part of the diagnosis put forward by any of the doctors who treated me). I managed in the end to persuade the bishop to give me a job but it was very much a demotion and for the following eight years I was on short term contracts and, for a while, no contract at all. Eventually, the bishop managed to dismiss me from my post even though I had not had one day off in those eight years because of any illness, mental or physical. After that I was disappeared.
Since being sacked by the bishop of Newcastle none of my former colleagues (except one rebellious woman priest) has dared to keep in touch with me. NONE OF THEM. The worst betrayal was from a rural dean with whom I had met for a pint of beer and a chat every month for years. At the same time that he was promoted to the post of canon at Newcastle, Saint Nicholas cathedral he stopped the meet ups. I rang him and he told me that he was very busy with the move to his new post and that he would ring me back as soon as he had time to arrange to meet up with me again. He never did. The fact that he is gay shouldn't make this betrayal worse but it somehow does for me.
The lack of pastoral care I have received from bishops and archdeacons has been a real eye opener for me. I now know for certain that they are all in their posts for the power and celebrity not because they want to care for the people of God let alone anybody else. One archdeacon told me that he didn't believe that the bishop had a duty of care towards me and that he didn't ever come to visit me because he was afraid I would be angry about being sacked and thrown out of my home. A bishop told me that he could not allow me to work in his diocese because I had said to him that I would need his help to be reconciled with the church and this meant that I would "bring too much baggage with me." The worst, and most painful, insult was the present archbishop of Canterbury, whilst he was bishop of Durham, telling me that I was just being manipulative when I told him that I believed he was the person who would help to reconcile me to the church. That really stung and when I told him this he replied that if I couldn't put up with stuff like that I would never cope with the stress of being a parish priest (back to that old chestnut again).
To be honest, one ends up wondering what the heck these people believe their jobs to be.
When you suffer from or have suffered from an illness that can sometimes include delusional thinking you can become lacking in confidence about your own take on things. I have asked myself many times if I might be exaggerating this whole exclusion thing. However, such doubts are laid to rest by the comments I receive both on this blog and over on Facebook from others who have experienced the ecclesiastical cold shoulder, who have been disappeared themselves for various reasons. I recently received the following:
There is no doubt that Christians are every bit as uncaring and easily embarrassed by difference as everybody else. What makes them far worse than non-believers is that they proclaim themselves not to be and so lure people into trusting them. When these people are let down, as they so often are, by Christians, especially Christian leaders at all levels of the churches, the betrayal and hurt they feel is far more intense than when they are let down by people who haven't promised them that they will care for them.
Jesus hated hypocrites and my church is full of them. No wonder it is dying. It's Lord has turned his back on it because it has turned its back on those who belong to him.
The thing is, tedious as this constant "carping" about the attitude of the leaders of the churches towards those with mental health problems and my own story may be to those who still read this blog, I am not going to shut up about it until my fellow sufferers and myself are given the same respect from the churches that women and LGBT people are on their way to now receiving. What is more, I gave everything to help them and I think it's time that they stopped fighting only for their own cause and other "sexy" matters of injustice, and started fighting to get the church right with less trendy minorities such as the people who sometimes think differently to those who are regarded as normal.