The Reading Story—a personal view

The Times

Colin Coward, Director of Changing Attitude, reflects on the appointment and withdrawal from Reading of Canon Jeffrey John

The news of Dr Jeffrey John’s appointment to Reading was greeted with surprise and delight in the Changing Attitude office. Surprise because his appointment to other positions for which he was eminently suited seem to have been blocked in the past. Delighted because his gifts as pastor, theologian, communicator, author and preacher should be more widely available to the Church. Delighted also because a gay priest living in a long term faithful, discrete relationship (sadly no longer allowed to be so discrete), who has contributed in positive ways in educating the church about gay relationships and experience, had been chosen.

Jeffrey John’s appointment followed two other events – the approval, immediately after the Primate’s meeting in Brazil, of a liturgy for the blessing of same-sex couples in New Westminster, Canada, and the election of Gene Robinson, a partnered gay Canon, as coadjutor bishop of New Hampshire. These three events initiated a period of passionately strong reaction in different parts of the church, making the lives of those involved intolerable at times. The behaviour and rhetoric from certain quarters seemed to be the antithesis of what it means to be a Christian, and the traditional Anglican qualities of generosity, tolerance, openness and inclusivity seemed to have vanished.

For the first week after the appointment was announced, the world was relatively quiet, with many people expressing delight and only a light murmuring to indicate that others weren’t so pleased. One week later, the first voices of disapproval were raised, and after two weeks a campaign to persuade Jeffrey John to withdraw was receiving support from parishes and individuals within the diocese of Oxford, supported by voices from other parts of the UK and the Anglican Communion, most notably Nigeria.

For a brief moment we were living in a new era. The lid had been lifted on several decades of dishonesty implicit in the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy and a decade in which the positive debate had been suppressed and the listening to lesbian and gay experience asked for in ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ largely ignored. Clouds of smoke, some rather dark and dangerous, others light and playful, erupted in all directions…..and I thought, at last, thank goodness! we were about to be given new, visible, open and accessible role models – real people with whose personal gifts, stories and experience those who want to explore lesbian and gay experience could engage. At last we could have a debate which began to listen to the real life stories of lesbian and gay people.

Opposition to the appointment became well orchestrated in Oxford diocese, and Philip Giddings, lay member of General Synod and a member of the congregation at Greyfriars, Reading, was visually prominent in articulating the demand that Jeffrey should withdraw. The press reported, on the one hand, the number of parishes threatening to withhold quota and either leave the church or seek alternative episcopal oversight, and on the other hand, the success Richard Harries and Jeffrey John were having in holding meetings for local people where his appointment was receiving positive acceptance.

Some opponents were reported as expressing their hostility to Jeffrey in strong terms. The language of warfare, battle and winners and losers became prevalent. This has rather more to do wit the story the press wanted to tell than with the actual words being used.

I was invited to take part in recording a TV programme on 5th April to be broadcast on the Sunday during General Synod. The next day, 6th July, the news broke that Jeffrey John had decided to withdraw his acceptance. I was cooking lunch for my mother, partner and another friend. At 2.30, the phone began to ring incessantly with requests for interviews and reactions to the news. My mother thought the world had gone crazy. I felt furiously angry and deeply depressed and disappointed. How could this have happened, given the commitments made by Jeffrey John, Bishop Richard Harries and Archbishop Rowan?

In the 6 hours during which the key players met at Lambeth Palace, the changed environment for lesbian and gay Christians seemed to have been abandoned. We were returned to the dark ages of ‘Issues’ as inescapable policy. I received many phone calls and emails from despairing friends and Changing Attitude supporters. People sought to understand what had happened, and who was to blame—Rowan Williams, the Lambeth bureaucrats, Jeffrey, Richard, fundamentalists, those who had been campaigning to have the appointment overturned.

The Human Sexuality Joint Strategy Group (we have to find a better name) were due to meet on Thursday 10th July, the first time we had arranged to meet prior to General Synod. Representatives from LGCM, Changing Attitude, the Clergy Consultation and the General Synod Human Sexuality Group met in Battersea. We commiserated with each other, reviewed events planned for Synod, and discussed future plans and were filmed for a Newsnight report broadcast the following evening. LGCM were holding a lunch time fringe meeting on Saturday addressed by Malcolm Macourt, a founder member, and Changing Attitude was co-coordinating a mass presence prior to this at the end of the Saturday morning session.

We at Changing Attitude had rented a holiday cottage, and staff members Colin Coward and Sally Rogers were joined by Ursula Hay from Manchester and Louie Crew, the founder of Integrity, from Newark, New Jersey. We four dangerous rebels (Ursula celebrated her 80th birthday with us and a BBC TV crew on Sunday) dreamt up slogans for the placards as we ate breakfast together on Saturday morning.

Arriving at the University we began to meet other supporters. We were in complete ignorance of Peter Tatchell’s invasion of the Synod chamber until members began pouring down the exit stairs. Peter eventually came out himself and was surrounded by the media. We assembled the Changing Attitude banner and pinned up the posters. More supporters arrived until there were 80 of us, in jolly mood, holding the banner and placards and handing out leaflets. Synod members joined us, and the bishops of Birmingham, Guildford and Worcester came across to chat. Standing by the banner, I felt a renewed sense of confidence and enthusiasm. At the LGCM meeting later, those present sought practical ways in which they could help work to change minds and hearts.

My conversations at Synod with bishops, priests and lay members revealed a strong commitment to resist the reactionary forces of those holding a fundamentalist attitude towards scripture and a negative attitude to lesbian and gay Christians.

The fear of judgment and oppression remains strong for many. The press has been full of the language of opponents, in-fighting, schism and a church at war with itself. This is not how Changing Attitude wants to engage in the process. Whilst wanting the Church to respect lesbian and gay people and become properly and fully inclusive, we respect the differences of theology, tradition and culture which are characteristic of Christians in other parts of the church and the world.

We have not threatened to leave the church during the past two months. The threats of schism and the declarations of being out of communion have come from elsewhere. History shows that Anglicans are able to negotiate a way through difficulties and differences to find a resolution which enables us to continue to live together in a denomination which remains faithful to the divine will by being generous and inclusive.

We seem, once again, to have lost our focus on the person and teaching of Jesus Christ and the Gospel of good news for all peoples rooted in God’s self-giving, overwhelming, generous love and his delight in the goodness of all that he has made. This imbalance will change. The love of God for us and our love for one another is still the heart of the Christian story, and though distracted for a moment, this is the heart of the gospel, whether preached in Lambeth or Lagos.

We fervently pray that at the end of all the position-taking, arguing, name-calling and the issuing of dire threats, we will find ourselves worshipping and working together for the Kingdom of God in a church which has risen to the challenge which the Holy Spirit both provokes us into and through grace gives us the resources to resolve in love.

I returned home exhausted and ready for an extended break to find my inbox crowded with emails from people wanting to join Changing Attitude or our online discussion group. The discussion group membership jumped in two days from 125 to 152. In our Community Fund application, we committed ourselves to starting four new diocesan groups this year, with a total of 14 by the end of 2005. Already this year, 7 new groups are being formed, and we may reach our target by the end of 2004. Details of all the groups, old and new, can be found on pages 4 to 7.

From the mess of the last 2 months, a determination is growing that the Church of England cannot continue to ignore the present reality of lesbian and gay lay people and priests. Not only are the four main lesbigay groups working more closely together, a new initiative from other organisations working for an inclusive church seeks to establish new working relationships and an integrated strategy for action.

Thank you, Jeffrey John and Richard Harries, for having paid such a high price in revealing that opposition to gays in the church comes from a small but extreme number of Anglicans, as a result of which we have been more strongly motivated to work for justice and a safe space in the Church of England for all peoples who belong to a minority and persecuted group.

I’ve written this before – Changing Attitude will continue to work responsibly and sensitively to support lesbian and gay Christians and inform and educate the wider church. We will do so in future with much greater resolve, stronger resources and new alliances in the church.

Colin Coward
Director of Changing Attitude

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