How a Yorkshire pit village cared for their dying priest….
New edition of Scarlet Ribbons marks 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act July 29th 2017
The reissue of the acclaimed Scarlet Ribbons: A Priest with AIDS, Rosemary Bailey’s account of her brother’s 10-year ordeal, coincides with the 50th anniversary of Parliament’s passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which partly decriminalised homosexuality.
Almost 20 years after the Labour Government’s landmark social reform, the newly ordained Rev. Simon Bailey experienced a brief joyous period of gay liberation before taking up his first post as rector of the tough South Yorkshire mining village of Dinnington, near Sheffield. But a few weeks before he started work, he was diagnosed as HIV-positive at age 30.
The future looked bleak. It was 1985, the gay plague was still only a frightening rumour. Thatcher’s tombstone warning brochures were still being postponed as rather distasteful. Death from AIDS seemed inevitable. Not to mention death by media. Or simply disapproval.
For years Simon kept the knowledge of his diagnosis secret – from his strict fundamentalist Baptist father, his mother and the rest of the family, from his friends and lovers, from the Bishop and from his parishioners.
He immersed himself in the parish of St Leonard’s, getting to know everyone, from the miners to the schoolchildren, the butchers to the hairdressers. Dinnington was still reeling from the miners’ strike of 1984, when they had suffered bitterly. Simon embarked on plans for a permanent memorial to the miners in the church. He led his parishioners on retreats to Holy Island and other sacred sites.
By the time he finally became ill, about seven years after diagnosis, a core group of supporters who loved him declared their willingness to support him. There was no question that he should stay. Some, including the hairdresser and the church warden, were not so sure.
Eventually he told the family. Their main worry was the media – two of them were journalists and had little trust in their profession. Someone from the village called the Sun and a local stringer came round to the Rectory. The reporter said later, “It was obvious he had AIDS, but he didn’t want to talk.” Despite everyone’s fears, the reporter did not write the story.
Simon became increasingly ill and seemed close to death. Stomach problems meant he needed intravenous feeding, which required 24-hour supervision. The hospital said it was impossible for him to do this at home. But Simon was determined to continue in his ministry. It was what was keeping him alive.
“Well, we will look after you.” Thus the parish responded, setting up a rota of people to stay with him. A visiting archdeacon observed the prayer meeting in the rectory, everyone seated comfortably round Simon on his IV drip, and suggested that the story could be made public. There was of course much debate, but eventually it was agreed to make a BBC documentary. (The Church of England at its best…) It was broadcast in 1994 and received a deluge of response.
Rosemary began to write the story, plunging herself into the world of Dinnington and the church. And AIDS. For the next year she interviewed Simon, his parishioners, their mother. Simon encouraged her and saw drafts of early chapters. He died in November 1995, having survived two years longer than his doctors thought possible. Only two weeks before he died he offered communion in his beloved church for the last time.
Scarlet Ribbons was first published in 1997. “More than ever it ‘s a story for our time,” says the author. “The Anglican Church is still torn about homosexuality and gay marriage, and Northern towns like Dinnington are more neglected and alienated than ever.”
But above all, she adds, “The way that Simon was stubbornly supported by his parishioners was what made this such a deeply inspiring story to write.”
Rosemary participated in a service at St Martins in the Fields, on July 29th to mark the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 when male homosexuality was decriminalised. “An ecumenical service of Lament and Hope” with music by the London Gay Men’s Chorus.
Title: Scarlet Ribbons: A Priest with AIDS
Author: Rosemary Bailey
Publisher: Jorvik Press
Publication Date: July 29, 2017
B&W 6 x 9 in. (229 x 152 mm); perfect-bound with matte lamination
224 pages; 21 B&W illustrations
Retail price: UK: £15.95; EU: €19.50; US: $19.95
In 1995 BBC Everyman screened Simon’s Cross, the story of the Rev. Simon Bailey, a priest with AIDS, and the remarkable support he received from his Yorkshire mining village parish. The response to the programme was phenomenal. In his struggle to make sense of his suffering and approaching death, he articulated the suffering of many; the sick, the bereaved, those trying to reconcile their homosexuality; other AIDS sufferers and their carers.
Simon Bailey found out he was HIV Positive just as he took up his first post as a Church of England rector in Dinnington in South Yorkshire. He found inspiration in the love he received from his parishioners, who cared for him and looked after him until he died. He remained rector of Dinnington until the end; the only priest to stay in his parish with AIDS, celebrating the eucharist in his beloved church for the last time only weeks before he died.
There is a compelling story in Simon Bailey’s struggle to accept his homosexuality as a young priest; his discovery of his HIV status; the response of his parishioners and the Church of England when they discovered he had AIDS; their decision to support and to care for him; the constant fear of media exposure and scandal.
Rosemary Bailey felt the roles of journalist and elder sister combine inexorably as she was drawn into a new world of love and pain, coffee mornings and church roof repairs. With Simon’s encouragement she began writing, interviewing and talking to Simon himself, trying as he did to make some sense of his death. Her unsentimental and poignant account is a story of our time; of the integrity of one small community faced with the transforming power of illness and death.