It’s 22 years since Simon Bailey died of Aids. His story – that of a gay rector’s 10-year battle with the disease and the South Yorkshire pit village that took care of their dying priest – is a deeply touching one.
Simon’s struggle and his parishioners’ response was chronicled in a book – Scarlet Ribbons: A Priest with AIDS – written by his sister Rosemary Bailey that was published two years after his death.
To coincide with the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which partially decriminalised homosexuality, it has just been republished. “It was emotional, but re-reading the book made me even more certain that it’s a story that deserved retelling and deserved to be known,” says writer and journalist Rosemary.
The Rev Simon Bailey who was born in Halifax, enjoyed a brief, joyous period of gay liberation before being given the devastating news that he was HIV-positive at the age of 30. The diagnosis came a couple of weeks before he took on the role of rector in the tough South Yorkshire mining village of Dinnington, near Rotherham.
Simon kept the diagnosis from his friends, family and parishioners for seven years until he became ill, and Rosemary’s book describes the villagers’ response and her own journey as she got to know her brother in the last 12 months of his life.
Simon was born in Halifax into a deeply religious family at the centre of which was his father, a strict fundamentalist Baptist. One of five siblings, Simon was a bright pupil who studied at both Oxford and Cambridge.
As a teenager Simon realised he was gay but didn’t tell his family until many years later. “When Simon was a youngster not only was homosexuality seen as a sin, but up until 1967 it was a crime, which gives another huge dimension to growing up being gay at that time.”
It was while he was at university that he decided to join the clergy. He initially wanted to become a Baptist minister but was smitten by the romance of the Anglican Church which, Rosemary says, was a “more comfortable environment for a gay cleric”.
He spent two years working as a curate in Norton, near Sheffield, before becoming parish vicar at St Leonard’s in Dinnington in 1985.
So had he reconciled his homosexuality with his faith? “It was an issue but he wasn’t conflicted about it by the time he became a priest. He’d gone through the gay liberation and he was a happy man,” says Rosemary.
“It was his conviction that there was nothing wrong with being homosexual and that the church needed to accept change, in the same way it needed to accept women priests.
“He didn’t have to struggle with that; what he had to struggle with was the element of the Established Church that didn’t agree with him. He was clear that it was OK to be gay and I would go even further and say that in some ways his homosexuality made him a better priest, in as much as he was used to be being alienated and badly treated and he could empathise with people.”
Simon established himself as a popular member of his community and only his doctors and later on a therapist knew that he had Aids. But as his health deteriorated he had to break the news to his family. “He didn’t tell anyone until it became evident that there was something wrong. So he kept it to himself for all that time.”
This was the early 90s when an Aids diagnosis was seen by many as a virtual death sentence and still shrouded by fear and ignorance. “I think he was worried about inflicting pain on his family. But to carry that burden must have been awful,” says Rosemary.
He had been apprehensive about informing his parishioners. After all this was a tough, working-class mining village in South Yorkshire that had little or no affinity with the gay community.
Yet rather than reject him, they rallied to his aid. “He had been a very effective parish priest, he’d got a very supportive group of people around him who really believed in him and felt he’d helped them.
“He brought a spiritual dimension to the parish but also a political one. He set up a miners’ memorial in the church. The local pit was going to be wiped out and he set up a memorial with the names of the miners who had died over the decades. So in lots of ways he’d engaged his parishioners to the point where they loved him,” she says.
“They were incredibly supportive and their attitude was ‘you’re one of us, we’ll look after you.’ There was no question about it.”
As his health visibly began to fail he needed to be fed via a drip, which meant he required monitoring. Doctors said he needed to be in hospital but a group of parishioners set up a rota so that every night someone would be with him. “They were just ordinary people, there was an ex-miner, a shop owner and a teacher. Sometimes if there was a crisis they would drive him to Sheffield Hospital.”
News of what was happening spread. The Archdeacon of Sheffield at the time, Stephen Lowe, went to a prayer meeting in the refectory where he learned about Simon’s plight and he discreetly contacted the BBC.
They subsequently produced a TV documentary about him and his parishioners that prompted a huge response from viewers. “The phone didn’t stop ringing and there was a flood of letters for weeks and weeks, not just from people responding to having Aids or being gay, but about suffering in general. It touched a real nerve,” says Rosemary.
With his story now in the public eye he agreed for his sister to write a book about his experiences. “I started interviewing him, sometimes even in his hospital bed, and I talked to his parishioners and friends.”
She says it was something she felt compelled to do. “It was difficult and sad but it was also one of those existential moments you sometimes get to make in your life, which is do I do this or don’t I? This felt like a story that I should tell and for my brother to have given me the chance to write it was such a privilege.”
As agonising as it was to watch, Rosemary says her brother’s illness brought them closer together. “You wouldn’t choose this way to get more intimate with your sibling but that’s what happened.
“Simon agreed to the book which was incredibly important. He wanted me to write the book, he had that trust and confidence in me and that is still one of the most precious things I’ve ever had from someone.”
She says her brother’s faith helped him come to terms with his own death. “I’m certain his spirituality helped sustain him; it’s the only way he could have possibly coped.”
Simon eventually died in hospital in November 1995, a decade after he was first diagnosed. “Even though it was terribly sad he had said his goodbyes. It was as good as it could have been. We sat around with music and candles and it was a beautiful experience because we’d had time to prepare ourselves and he had prepared us very well.”
Today, two decades on, Rosemary believes the story still resonates. “What makes this story for me is the way the local parishioners responded, because they responded in a way that was quite surprising. That was the positive and wonderful thing that came out of all this.
“We all have a choice and the people in that village had a choice and they responded in such a positive, loving, spiritual and Christian way.”
Scarlet Ribbons: A Priest With Aids, published by Jorvik Press, is out now priced £15.99.