'Gay bishop' ends up not doing anything about either.

The spring of 2003 has seen cracks appearing - or re-appearing - in the Church of England. For quite a while now there has been a fragile peace between the church's various factions. There are two faultlines, almost at right angles to one another. Since the days of the Oxford Movement in the 19th century there has been a division between the more protestant low church or evangelical wing and the Anglo-Catholic or high church wing which sees the C of E as an essentially catholic, though independent, body. The low church is characterised by charismatic worship; spartan, modernist aesthetics; and a tendency to a degree of fundamentalism. The high church, in contrast, is characterised by ritual and sacramental worship; ornate, traditional aesthetics; and a tendency to borrow material from the Roman Catholic church. The second split is between liberal and conservative. The liberal faction tends to be more morally permissive and theologically adventurous, while the conservatives retain an absolute commitment to traditional perspectives on such matters. There is something of a bias to liberalism in the Anglo-Catholic portion of the church, and to conservatism in the evangelical part. A number of conservative Anglo-Catholics (including some married priests) joined the Roman Catholic Church following the decision to ordain women as priests in 1992.

In late May 2003 it was announced that Dr Jeffrey John, Canon Theologian at Southwark Cathedral in London, had been selected to be the next suffragan bishop of Reading, in the Diocese of Oxford. (Reading is pronounced Redding.) Dr John is a respected theologian, and a noted member of both the liberal and Anglo-Catholic movements. Both these points would certainly have recommended him to Dr Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, who is another high-church liberal. What made Dr John's appointment significant was that he is openly homosexual. (He also bears a certain resemblance to his namesake Elton John, a fact which has not escaped the wags at Private Eye.) Somewhat intrusive investigation by the media, especially the right-wing Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph newspapers, prompted the disclosure that Dr John has a partner of 27 years' standing, who is also a priest. Dr John stated that their relationship had been celibate since the production in 1991 of the church document Issues in Human Sexuality, which specifically required homosexual clergy (though not laity) to refrain from consummating their relationships. Although Dr John has voiced disagreement with this position, he nevertheless abides by it. The conservative evangelical pressure group Reform was among those which called for Dr John to stand aside. Reform had also called for the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, to decline his own appointment, last year, claiming that Dr Williams' known sympathy for gay rights and ordination of gay priests made him an unsuitable candidate. Dr Williams himself is married, but like Dr John is liberal, moderately catholic, and a prominent theologian. Bishops weighed in on both sides of the debate, with nine bishops writing an open letter to the archbishop criticising the appointment, followed by eight others offering their support for Dr John.

A more serious concern came not from Reform but from the Anglican church in Nigeria, which is resolutely fundamentalist and conservative, and the largest member of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Its presiding bishop, Archbishop Peter Akinola, said that his church would not remain in communion with the C of E if Dr John's appointment went ahead. Mr Akinola's views, as expressed in an op-ed column in the (moderately liberal and catholic) Church Times (4 July), were strident. He describes homosexuality as an 'acquired aberration', '[an] aberration, unknown even in animal relationships'. Having stated that homosexual people make themselves neither male nor female, in contradiction of God's creation of two sexes, concludes: 'Homosexuality or lesbianism or bestiality is to us a form of slavery, and redemption from it is readily available through repentance and faith in the saving grace of our Lord, Jesus the Christ.' This attitude met with distinctly mixed sympathy from within the C of E. Reform and their allies naturally voiced support for what they viewed as a principled stand, while others, both evangelical and Anglo-Catholic, expressed dismay at such an intolerant and bigoted position. The BBC and other media organisations canvassed vox-pops which principally revealed that far more people have strong ideas on how the C of E should be run than actually attend its services week by week. Numerous self-professed atheists and agnostics queued up either to say that homosexuality and Christianity were incompatible, or that the church should be endlessly flexible in the wind of public opinion. The views voiced by Christians in these polls were equally pronounced, but bore little resemblance to the day-to-day experiences of most Anglicans or to the more informed debate in the Church Times. One point which was only clearly expressed within the church press was the hypocrisy of those who demanded that gay priests be celibate, and then also required the removal of a celibate bishop-elect because he was gay.

Additionally, claims were made that a large proportion of Anglican clergy in the UK - as many as a third, according to one priest - were themselves homosexual. Certainly within the mainly Anglo-Catholic diocese of London the number of priests who are either known or tacitly assumed to be gay is high. It seems unlikely that as many as one in three of all C of E priests are, though. On the other hand, several bishops are commonly thought to be homosexual, but have not admitted it. The previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, has reluctantly admitted that during his time as archbishop, he ordained two priests as bishops whom he suspected of being gay. However, he also stated that he would refuse to ordain anyone he knew to be a practising homosexual. Dr Carey is evangelical and somewhat conservative, but was instrumental in enabling the ordination of women to the priesthood. He also presided over the subsequent disarray caused by the Act of Synod - a document which excused those who disliked women priests from accepting their ministry.

Simultaneously with this dispute, a number of other related issues arose. The Canadian diocese of New Westminster began blessing same-sex relationships, prompting further outrage from Nigeria. A practising homosexual man was elected bishop of New Hampshire, in the USA. And the British government announced plans to introduce a form of registration for same-sex relationships, offering equivalent rights to those of civil marriage. As with the Reading affair, this move prompted a number of non-sequitur objections. On one hand, gay rights activist Peter Tatchell was among those complaining that no equivalent registration was being offered to heterosexual couples - despite the fact that that is what civil marriage is. And on the other hand, right-wingers argued on religious grounds that such a scheme would undermine marriage, even though the government's plans would have no effect whatever on religious marriage rites. Dr John has previously voiced support for such a scheme, and has himself reiterated that it would not be marriage, but would offer homosexual couples a valuable means to demonstrate their fidelity.

For a few weeks it seemed that Dr John would take up the post, as there is no facility for such an offer to be withdrawn once it has been made and has received the royal assent. Then, somewhat unexpectedly, on Sunday July 6, 2003, it was announced that Dr John had chosen to decline the appointment and remain at Southwark. He made a brief statement, but Rowan Williams made a much longer one (full text below) in which he expressed considerable unhappiness with the situation. It emerged that the previous day had seen a six-hour emergency meeting at Lambeth Palace, to which Dr John was summoned. The meeting, it seemed, had been of the Archbishops' Council, a recently-created body responsible for quite a lot of the governance of the Church of England. Significantly, the entire Council is populated by people appointed by Dr Carey. There were suggestions that some new evidence had come out which would have made Dr John's appointment yet more problematic, although it is not yet clear what evidence, if any, that might be. It was also said that Dr Williams had been the victim of a sort of boardroom coup, forced to sacrifice Dr John to the demands of the Council. The dispute is unlikely to go away, however, as the New Hampshire appointment went ahead in the face of Nigerian objections. Jeffrey John became dean of St Albans Cathedral and Abbey in June 2004, which was seen as something of a consolation prize. One lone protester turned out to oppose his installation there.

Bishops signing the letter expressing concern at Dr John's appointment:

Bishops signing the letter expressing support for Dr John:

Archbishop Rowan Williams' statement, Lambeth Palace, July 6, 2003.

"As most of you will know already, Canon Jeffrey John has announced his intention of withdrawing from his appointment as Bishop of Reading. The road that has led him to this point has been extremely arduous and I must pay the warmest public tribute to the dignity and forbearance he has shown throughout, often under the most intrusive and distasteful personal scrutiny. The Bishop of Oxford and the people of the diocese have also had to endure difficult times. And there too has been much patience and graciousness in the heart of the controversy. All involved will need our prayers.

"The announcement must give us all pause for thought. I hope that there will be proper opportunity to reflect on all this in depth. We have to grasp that Canon John's appointment has brought to light a good deal of unhappiness among people who could by no means be described as extremists, many of whom have willingly testified to their personal respect for Canon John. They are convinced, however, that there is a basic issue at stake relating to the consistency of our policy and our doctrine in the Church of England and that this issue has arisen in this particular case in a way for which there are no obvious parallels. Such unhappiness means that there is an obvious problem in the consecration of a bishop whose ministry will not be readily received by a significant proportion of Christians in England and elsewhere. For the divisions we have seen do not exist only at diocesan and national level, but internationally as well. The perspective of the Anglican communion requires careful consideration here. The estrangement of churches in developing countries from their cherished ties with Britain is in no-one's interests. It would impoverish us as a Church in every way. It would also jeopardise links with other denominations, weaken co-operation in our shared service and mission worldwide, and increase the vulnerability of Christian minorities in some parts of the world where they are already at risk. Any such outcome would be a very heavy price to pay.

"Much of the doubt expressed over the appointment was in terms of accountability to biblical teaching. Two weeks ago, I warned against interpreting the appointment as an illegitimate attempt to short-circuit the Church's continuing obedient engagement with that teaching. I must be equally clear now. Canon John's withdrawal should not be taken to mean that the Church can now stop being concerned about how it discerns the will of God in this area of ethics. Later this year, a significant study guide to the debate in the Church of England on Issues in Human Sexuality will be published. I hope that this will be fully used to deepen our understanding. Whatever the difficulties, we cannot afford to ignore or foreclose the necessary work. And this will involve people at every level in the Church's life.

"Let me add that some of the opposition expressed to Canon John's appointment has been very unsavoury indeed. A number of the letters I read displayed a shocking level of ignorance and hatred towards homosexual people. Our official policies and resolutions as Anglicans commit us to listening to the experience of homosexuals and recognising that they are full and welcome members of the church loved by God. Not everyone, it seems, takes equally seriously this element in the teaching of the Anglican Church; and some letters that came from non-believers suggest that the level of foolish and hurtful prejudice in our society is still uncomfortably high. Christians who collude with this are simply not living out their calling.

"This has been a time of open and painful confrontation in which some of our bonds of trust have been severely strained. As I said earlier, we need now to give ourselves the proper opportunities honestly to think through what has happened and to find what God has been teaching us in these difficult days."

Text adapted from the BBC News website, www.bbc.co.uk

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