Scarlet Ribbons – Reviews

Cover for Rosemary Bailey - Scarlet Ribbons: A Priest With Aids


Reviews of Scarlet Ribbons

Sara Maitland
“Honourable…impassioned and tender.”

Lambda Book Report (USA)
“The book, unpretentious and geared to simplicity, has earmarks of a classic work in its genre. This is because it is unabashedly honest – stripped to essentials, sparing no one’s feelings, refusing to yield to sentimentality – and at the same time, extraordinarily sensitive and tender.”

Review. The Observer. Nov 9th 1998 by Emily Ormond
“A priest can be anything, greedy, uncaring – and heterosexual. But if you are homosexual, you can be the most beautiful person in the world, but not a priest…” Rosemary Bailey has written a tender and soul-searching testimony of the progress and implications of her brother’s illness and of the love his ministry inspired in his parishioners in the mining village of Dinnington, near Sheffield. His struggle to accept the Aids virus ravaging his body is remarkable for its courage and determination, as is his insistence that priests are flawed human beings like everybody else, and merely act as conduits between God and the world. Simon Bailey lived two years longer than his doctors expected him to, finished two books and continued to lead his community through the cycle of the Christian year until a few days before his death in 1995, at the age of 40. His pragmatic intelligence and impressive sense of responsibility led him to take a stubborn stand against the hierarchy in matters such as the ordination of women and the issue of sexuality and the priesthood, for he came to believe that his homosexuality contributed positively to his vocation. His sister describes with wonderment the traditional rituals he reintroduced in his services, and her documenting of the practical life of a church is fascinating. Above all, the dignity she discovers both in Simon and in all those who loved and supported him is inspiring.

From Kirkus Reviews
Successfully integrating her voices of loving sister and dispassionate reporter, the author, a journalist, tells the life story of her brother, Simon Bailey, a gay priest in the Church of England who died in 1995 of AIDS. Drawing from his journals and sermons, from interviews with parishioners, other family members, and friends, the author traces the rocky path her brother walked from his youthful awareness of sexual difference, to his conversion out of the austere Baptist Church in which he was raised into the more “esthetic and sensual” Church of England, to his ordination, years of ministry to Dinnington parish in Yorkshire, and his final physical decline under the tender watch and care of his devoted parishioners. Much of the drama of the story unfolds in the step-by-step process by which the priest admits friends, close parishioners, family, church hierarchy, and the pressin that orderto the knowledge of his illness, a sequence that moves the author frankly to confess how “immensely sad” it is that she, her siblings, and parents were not among the first to be trusted with the news. That unself-justifying candor is part of what makes Bailey the perfect memorialist of her brother. Though she joyfully communicates the high points of reactions to his illnessespecially the unprecedented public support he received, as an AIDS-afflicted Anglican priest, to continue actively in his priestly office, as he wished, up until he diedshe also admits to moral misgivings over the secrecy he kept for so long. Simon’s shortened life reminds Bailey of the dying Beth from Little Women; but his capacity to transform private suffering into eloquent and edifying sermons will suggest to many readers of Scarlet Ribbons another, more ambiguous literary portrait from Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter: the long-suffering minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. The ambiguities in Simon’s life that the author preserves in her memorial of him will deepen and extend the impression he leaves. (16 b&w photos) — Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Book Review by Christopher Byrne – Scarlet Ribbons: A Priest with AIDS by Rosemary Bailey
Published by Serpent’s Tail, 216 pp. with photographs

Simon Bailey was ordained in the Anglican church in 1982, was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1985 and died in November 1995. He has the distinction of being the first Anglican priest who not only was openly gay, but living openly with AIDS. Other gay priests, HIV-positive or not, generally were asked to resign when they came out. That he was able to remain a priest in the tough mining parish of Dinnington, is still more remarkable. In addition. Father Bailey was an outspoken supporter of the ordination of women as priests.

Rosemary Bailey, the author, is Simon’s older sister. Their father was a fundamentalist Baptist preacher who was also a socialist. In rebellion, Rosemary rejected God altogether and Simon became a liberal, high Anglican priest. Scarlet Ribbons is as much about Rosemary’s coming to terms with Simon as it is with Simon’s coming to terms with being gay and living with AIDS.

Simon was no activist in the traditional sense. He felt strongly that his primary purpose in life was to minister to his parish. As a result, he revealed both his sexuality and his serostatus gradually, until he became the subject of a documentary in the BBC’s Everyman series and had his story published in the Sheffield Star under the headline, “Vicar dying from AIDS.” He had almost no contact with the local gay community, told no one about his lovers (after he died, his sister found only one photo of any of his lovers out of hundreds of photos), and refused to seek assistance from the local AIDS service organization.

Even after having a Hickman tube attached, he gave himself all of his own medications and relied on his parishioners and family for care as he became ill. Still, he made no secret of the fact that he was sexually active and that he traveled out of the parish to gay clubs in towns where he was not known. That this attitude flew in the face of the Church of England’s position on homosexuality was part of Simon’s anger at the idea that straight priests could marry, but that gay priests had to remain celibate. In his journal he wrote, “One thing I should like to achieve in whatever time I have…is to tell more people–everyone–that I am gay: not merely so that the HTLV III is less of a shock…I want people I’m close to to know that I’m gay and normal–that bit of education, that fraying away of prejudice, I can contribute.” He definitely succeeded.

Rosemary Bailey is writing from the position of the caring older sister who is also a journalist. Despite her respect for her brother, his faith and his perseverance, she writes, “But in the end such a story…does not increase my faith in God. It does increase my faith in humanity.” Using Simon’s journals, his published stories about living with AIDS (The Well Within), interviews with Simon, their family, parishioners, members of the Anglican clergy and other journalists, Rosemary presents a complex life without glossing over her own doubts or Simon’s weaknesses.

My biggest concern with the book is that it assumes the reader has lots of knowledge of how the Anglican church works and British culture in general. Also, the amount of emotional reserve demonstrated by everyone in the book, even in the face of AIDS, will be frustrating, if not downright shocking, to North American readers. On the other hand, it was refreshing to read about a priest who was not only openly gay, but also living with AIDS and who used these as a way to spread a Christian message about caring and responsibility for others and be accepted for it.

Copyright © 1998 Mountain Pride Media, Inc. Authored by Lenna Cumberbatch
Scarlet Ribbons: A Priest With AIDS by Rosemary Bailey
Serpent’s Tail, 1997

Simon Bailey was an Anglican priest. He was a gay man. He had AIDS. All of these things identify him as part of one community or another, and you might expect Scarlet Ribbons, which is the story of his life, to be more the story of these outside, greater forces than that of any one man. Reading Rosemary Bailey’s report of her brotherÕs life and death, however, I was struck by just how much this was the story of a man.

Simon Bailey was born a Baptist, but as he grew he found himself called away from that faith to that of the Anglican Church, just as he found himself drawn away from the sexual identity it was assumed he had towards that in which he knew he belonged. Like any other man, Simon had friendships and hardships, shortcomings and forthcomings. He loved the paintings of Matisse, and dancing, and walking through the English countryside, and the poetry of R.S. Thomas. and being the parish priest in the village of Dinnington, an old mining town in Yorkshire. Rosemary Bailey recalls all of Simon’s life in detail, from their hellfire-and-damnation Baptist minister father, who wanted his children to be missionaries, “or at least, a doctor, a priest, a missionary, and a nurse–some sort of crack team to Save the World;” to one of his best friends, Alma, a woman who wished to become a priest before such things were possible, but who is “far from the humble, gentle figure the image might suggest; instead she is a pugnacious, outspoken Yorkshirewoman, who smokes assiduously, and can in her own words ‘talk the hind leg off the donkey,'” to Jenny Bott, a short blonde woman, one of the first people Simon met in Dinnington, who showed up, sleeves rolled up and ready to go, as soon as he mentioned wanting help to paint the vicarage.

What sells the story, mostly–though it has “everything, after all; sex, religion, disease and death”–is that this conservative, small-town parish, upon finding that their vicar was gay and dying of AIDS, received him with open arms. set up care teams to help him, and began to wear their scarlet ribbons to show the world their solidarity. But as you read the book, you realize that their support was not remarkable: it was natural. Simon Bailey, as a priest, abandoned his lectern, saying, “I am not different from you, not holier, not stronger, not better. . . . but trying, like you, to be a clearer channel of grace.” Though he fought for the ordination of women, for the acceptance of gay clergy, and for many other causes, Simon Bailey did not see himself as a poster child or a victim. His parish, in turn, did not see their care for him as an obligation, but rather as the only natural response they could make to the situation of their beloved vicar, neighbor, and friend.

This past summer in Canterbury, 750 Anglican bishops, most not of English origin, eleven of them, for the first time, women, processed into the Cathedral to mark the opening of the 1998 Lambeth Conference. For ten years they have undertaken a “deep and dispassionate study of human sexuality,” study that led to a resolution which, while it does not condemn homosexuality, still does not allow it as part of the just and proper use of God’s creation. Were he alive today, Simon Bailey would have been gladdened to see the women processing, though disappointed at the continuing rejection of homosexuals by the Church. I recently heard Christopher Epting, the Bishop of Iowa, speaking about the Lambeth Conference. In small groups of bishops from each corner of the world, he said, they discussed productively, worked together, and got along, despite their different views. It was only when the moved into full council that contention ruled over cooperation. Simon Bailey would have been saddened by the Church’s views, but he would not have left the Church because of them. The Church as a whole might disapprove of Simon’s sexuality; the world might fear his continuing to drink first from the chalice at communion before he passed it on, but just as the bishops worked together in small groups, in the small the parish of Dinnington, Simon was accepted and embraced.

Scarlet Ribbons is not a book with just one story to tell, nor is AIDS a crisis with a single plot or setting or theme. Its two greatest symbols are red ribbons and the Quilt. The ribbons, though made of varying materials, are all the same: a show of solidarity and support. In the Quilt, however, each panel is different, each revealing something of the many different threads which ran through the life of that person. I do not know if Simon Bailey has a panel in the Quilt, but Scarlet Ribbons provides the material for it: the Church, the arts, his parish, his family, his friends. Sometimes as you read, you may feel bogged down in detail: there are too many characters, too much description of ceremony, too many quotations from this or that. In the end, though, just as fabrics and paints and trinkets go to compose a Quilt panel, these pieces too compose a life.

10 December 1998

909. Scarlet Ribbons: A Priest with AIDS, by Rosemary Bailey. 1997.
Serpent’s Tail, 180 Varick St., 10th Fl., New York, NY 10014. 216p., bibliog. ISBN 1-85242-521-0. $16.99.
(Descriptors: Popular Works; Christianity; Priests

This is the story of Reverend Simon Bailey, a priest with AIDS, in the Yorkshire mining village of Dinnington. The story is eloquently told by Simon’s sister, Rosemary Bailey, providing “an unsentimental and poignant story for our time.”

As a young priest, Simon had to accept that he was gay and then to discover and accept that he was HIV positive. He was truthful with his parish and told them, as well as the Church of England, not knowing what the outcome would be or the reaction of each individual parishioner. There was always the constant fear of media exposure and scandal but the decision of the individuals and the Church of England was to support and care for him. This book tells how all of this was brought out to the people of this mining village and to the Church of England. It is a touching story of compassion. It is, also, a story of a sister who learned so very much in trying to understand her brother’s life and ultimate death. She states it well toward the end of the book: “Sue Proctor once said to me that I could not come out of this story not believing. I have tried to open myself to it all. But in the end such a story, this story of South Yorkshire does not increase my faith in God. It does increase my faith in humanity.”

A recommended book for all libraries.

Editorial Reviews From Library Journal

This profound story tells of the life, and complicated death, of Simon Bailey, the Anglican priest in Dinnington, a Yorkshire mining village. After struggling to accept his identity as a gay male and becoming sexually active, Simon was faced with a foreshortened life when, in the early 1980s, he found out that he had AIDS. He told no one until he fell ill. In response, his friends, family, and parishioners rallied around him with care and support. This beautifully written book by Simon’s sister, a journalist, candidly takes things that may be unfamiliar, including gay sexuality, AIDS, Anglican spirituality, and English church life, and makes them familiar and human. This quiet story of profound faith and courage, in which the cross Simon bore led not only to death but to a quiet triumph of the spirit, is recommended for all public libraries. John R. Leech, Brooklyn, NY

Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.