Elers, Peter Charles Edward (19301986), Church of England clergyman, was born at 42 Portchester Road, Bournemouth, Hampshire, on 26 January 1930, the only child of Charles Ernest Elers (18671953), of independent means, and his wife, Beatrice Mabel, née Bird (18921971), daughter of Henry Samuel Bird of Bournemouth. Educated at Winchester College and St Catherine's College, Oxford, where he read theology (BA, 1952; MA, 1956), he entered the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, Yorkshire, in 1952 to study for the priesthood, being ordained deacon in 1954 and priest in 1955, serving his title at St James with All Saints', Colchester (19547). On 5 April 1956 he married Gillian Mary (19292012), daughter of the Revd Geoffrey Heald of Wantage, Oxfordshire.
In 1957 Elers became curate of Christ Church with St Mary, Wanstead, Essex. While there he joined the Worship and the Arts Association. In 1960 he was inducted to the living of Kelvedon, Essex. He balanced a busy parochial ministry with serving as secretary to the Worship and the Arts Association, whose chairman, the architect Laurence King, designed a font cover for Kelvedon, commissioned by Elers in memory of his parents. He became a member of the Chelmsford Diocesan Advisory Board for the Care of Churches, bringing him lasting friendships with many ecclesiastical architects and artists.
In 1973 Elers was appointed vicar of Thaxted, Essex, in succession to Jack Putterill, the son-in-law and successor at Thaxted to Conrad Noel, the Christian socialist vicar who had established the parish's distinctive tradition. Joseph Needham, master of Gonville and Caius, Cambridge, and one of the parish selectors, considered Elers to be a young Conrad … he recognises that the gospel is central to all Christian teaching (CUL, Needham papers, L400, Needham's interview notes). Elers moved into the parsonage with his wife and four children (Francis, Nicholas, Clare, and Fabian), Brutus his Labrador dog, Winston the cat, a goat, a coop of chickens, and two MG sports cars in August 1973 and was inducted on 8 September attended by much music, morris dancing, and bell-ringing.
Since his Kelvedon days Elers had been offering a sympathetic ear to homosexual clergy, a pastoral necessity in what he saw as an increasingly hostile environment. At Thaxted he believed he would have the time to develop this ministry, while within the parish he was being noted for his pastoral care to the elderly and housebound, the lonely, and the marginalized. In 1974 he promoted the Thaxted Holst festival in the newsletter of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. This was a prelude to a period of difficult relations within the parish. Elected to the general synod of the Church of England in 1975, he commented before attending the November sessions of the synod that he was greatly looking forward to the break in London as life in the parish is pretty bloody at the moment (Elers to J. Litten, 6 Nov 1975, priv. coll.).
On 17 January 1976 Elers chaired a one-day conference, Christian and gay, at the Institute of Christian Studies, All Saints', Margaret Street, London. A steering committee was formed to promote greater tolerance of homosexuality, and Elers was reported to have disclosed his own homosexuality. In response to expressions of concern within the parish, two bishops in his diocese, John Trillo of Chelmsford and Roderic Coote, suffragan of Colchester, declared that there was no reason for Elers to resign, and that he had done nothing either illegal or immoral (The Guardian 13 Feb 1976). Nevertheless Elers lamented that My churchwardens are now waging war against me via the press (Elers to J. Litten, 8 March 1976, priv. coll.). At the annual parochial meeting, in April 1976, both of his churchwardens, who had been party to his appointment, chose not to offer themselves for re-election. Conversely, Joseph Needham saw the sexual liberation struggle as opening another front in the battles that Thaxted had always fought.
More press coverage followed the establishment on 3 April 1976 of the Gay Christian Movement, with Elers elected as its president. In response Trillo wrote to all the clergy in his diocese defending Elers against his critics. However, reports that Elers had conducted a service of blessing for two lesbian partnerships in the lady chapel at Thaxted in October 1976 led in the following month to a censure by the two bishops, who obtained an undertaking from him not to conduct such services in future. He made a lengthy appearance in a BBC television documentary, The Lord's My Shepherd and He Knows I'm Gay, broadcast on 17 April 1977, and in the autumn of 1977 he was the subject of an extended article in Gay News. Regardless of this media attention he continued to exercise his priestly duties, in addition to a gruelling round of public speaking engagements on behalf of the Gay Christian Movement.
In the late 1970s Elers complained of headaches, which he ascribed to the strain of a busy life. In March 1981 he underwent surgery for a brain tumour; there was a short recovery, but further surgery in March 1982 was unsuccessful, eventually leading to decline. In 1983 he resigned his living and retired to Cambridge where his wife devoted herself to his care. He was made an honorary canon of Chelmsford Cathedral in 1984, not for his work in championing the homosexual cause, but for his long association with the diocesan advisory committee. As his decline deepened so too did his depression but he remained a welcoming host and grateful for visitors. He died of meningioma at the Arthur Rank House hospice, Cambridge, on 12 March 1986 and was buried in Thaxted churchyard following a requiem mass which, as at his induction thirteen years before, was accompanied by music, morris men, and bells, but this time muffled.
Elers's architectural knowledge, musical abilityhe was an excellent pianistand taste were given good scope at Thaxted, where worship and its setting had pride of place. His was an outstanding personality, with a care and concern for people, and a readiness for friendship. This led him to support causes that others found difficult to accept, but everything he did he saw as an expression and fulfilment of his priesthood.
Julian W. S. Litten
A. Barrow, The flesh is weak (1980) · A. Burns, Preserving the Thaxted tradition (2010) · Crockford (19779) · Essex Churchman (June 1986) · Gay News, 114 (1977) · C. Star, ed., A guide to Essex churches (1980) · priv. coll., King's Lynn, Norfolk, J. W. S. Litten collection, corresp. · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.
priv. coll., King's Lynn, Norfolk, J. W. S. Litten collection, corresp. between Elers and Litten
Everyman: the Lord's my shepherd and He knows I'm gay, BBC2, 17 April 1977
photograph, 1973, Associated Press · B. Workman, photographs, repro. in Gay News (1977)