A 'VICARS and tarts' party has led to an unholy row – after a fun-loving South Shields clergyman donned a short skirt and high heels.
The Rev Martin Wray, of St Lawrence the Martyr Church at Horsley Hill, has been on sick leave for almost three months after some of his parishioners expressed alarm at his part in a charity night at the town's Steamboat pub in August.What was meant to be a fun-filled affair has divided opinion, with claims that the vicar's decision to dress up as a "tart" brought his parish into disrepute.But today a friend of the clergyman claimed his participation had been "blown out of proportion" – and suggested there was a "whiff of homophobia" about the reaction, because the Rev Wray is gay and entered into a civil partnership with his partner, Lee, in May.But parishioners at St Lawrence's claim a photograph of The Rev Wray at the party, published in the Shields Gazette back in August, was "just a trigger" amid other concerns.One member of the congregation – who refused to be named – said: "Having his photograph taken in the Gazette was something he should not have allowed to happen, associating St Lawrence's, as it did, with the event." The event was held partly to raise funds for the church congregation itself, to pay for activities and outings.However, the unnamed parishioner added: "It was a mistake, but that incident was just a trigger. We had other concerns. "We have not heard from Reverend Wray for some time, but the congregation is sticking together and keeping the church services going. "We're not sure what his intentions for the future are."The Rev Wray, who has been at St Lawrence's for five years, did not want to speak to the Gazette directly, but a friend, speaking on his behalf, said his participation in the 'vicar and tarts' party was "made in good faith to support a worthy cause".He added: "He is being pilloried for something that was meant to be just a bit of fun in support of a good cause."I can't help but think there is some sort of homophobic undercurrent here, which is very disappointing. "He just dressed as a tart because he's a vicar, and coming to the party as a vicar really wouldn't have made sense."It was a very respectable event. "There were two former mayors in attendance, although they weren't dressed up. "The money raised on the night was to be divided between the Arts 4 Wellbeing charity in South Shields and St Lawrence's. "In the end, St Lawrence's refused to accept the money, claiming it was 'tainted'. I think it's a terrible attitude."The Rev Stuart Bain, archdeacon for Sunderland, who helps oversee the work of clergy in the town, said: "Martin took part in a charity event for a good cause and it's true that some of his parishioners – I'm not sure how many – were unhappy with his participation. "It was clear there was no intention on his part to create upset in any way. It can happen that parishioners fall out with their clergy for all kinds of reasons."With a shortage of clergyman nationwide, efforts are being made to ensure that all services, funerals and baptisms are covered at St Lawrence's.