Dr Jeffrey John’s appointment bishop of Reading in the Diocese of Oxford was announced on 21st May. He would have succeeded the Right Rev Dominic Walker who had succeeded Dr Rowan Williams as Bishop of Monmouth.
On his appointment he said that he would abide by the House of Bishops’ document, which newspaper hounds discovered he had described as “perfidious and inhumane” in the past. Thus began a chain reaction.
By the 29th May, clergy in the Oxford diocese were calling for an emergency meeting with Richard Harries. One Oxford priest was reported as saying: “Many of us are deeply concerned and don’t understand how, given his previous writings on Issues in Human Sexuality, Dr John will be able to uphold this line as bishop.” The clergy who asked for the meeting were upset that their feelings on the homosexuality issue had been ignored. Nearly 100 evangelicals were reported to have written asking how the new bishop could uphold teaching which he had ‘vehemently’ criticised in the past. Bishop Richard defended his choice, saying that Dr John would be loyal to current teaching and was practising sexual abstinence. This wasn’t enough either for the clergy of Oxford, or for the press.
The 1998 Affirming Catholicism talk
On Friday 6th June the Daily Telegraph revealed that in a talk he gave to a meeting of Affirming Catholicism in York in 1998 after the Lambeth Conference, Jeffrey John said that he had been in a gay relationship for more than 20 years. “From the time I was a teenager most [Anglo-]Catholic clergy would say privately that if you were not celibate, you should avoid promiscuity, find a partner and live as discreetly as you could. By the time I was at theological college in the mid-Seventies the staff took a very supportive line. When I began the relationship I am still in, I went along to the Principal to own up and asked if I should leave. To my astonishment and joy he congratulated me. He told me I had been a miserable, introverted academic and that the relationship would make me a better human being and a better priest. He was right; it did. They were the wisest words I ever heard him utter. When I informed my diocesan bishop, the response was equally kind and supportive. He thanked me for being honest with him and certainly saw no bar to my being ordained. But there was no question of this support and pastoral wisdom being expressed in public. Such truths were to be kept within the Catholic clerical club, where gay relationships were entirely normal, and still are.” The Principal in question turned out to be present Archbishop of York, Dr David Hope, who was principal of St Stephen’s House in the 1970s.
In the talk, Jeffrey John criticised the 1991 House of Bishops’ document Issues in Human Sexuality as political and double-minded. He also criticised bishops who privately supported gay clerics but voted for the 1998 Lambeth Conference motion, passed a few weeks earlier. He said: “We are now in a genuinely evil situation, which has arisen directly from a collective decision to collude in a lie. I do not only mean the collusion of the bishops: to some extent we have all succumbed to it . . . Nevertheless it is disappointing that so few have summoned the moral and intellectual strength to cut through it – or even want to.”
This report opened the door to a new wave of reaction to the appointment. The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Rev Graham Dow, revealed that there was “deep concern” among a number of bishops. He said that they regretted Bishop Harries’ decision, which had “broken the period of serious discussion and reflection” on homosexuality. The Archdeacon of Exeter, the Ven Paul Gardner, chair of the Church of England Evangelical Council, called on Dr John to resign. “The appointment of a bishop who has openly stated that he has been in a long-term homosexual relationship is breathtaking and unless there has been clear repentance he should stand down for the sake of the Church and its unity.”
Richard Harries to the rescue
The next day, Saturday 7th June, Richard Harries addressed the Oxford Diocesan Synod meeting in High Wycombe. He accused fellow members of the clergy of promoting anti-gay feeling and making society a more dangerous, homophobic place and rejected criticism of his decision to appoint Jeffrey John.
Bishop Richard’s text
This is an edited version of the Bishop of Oxford’s statement. He began by describing the process leading to the nomination of Jeffrey John and explained his decision as an issue of principle:
“Because of his well-known views, Jeffrey was not on my original shortlist, but on looking further at his references and after additional consultation with other people, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, it seemed clearly right to bring him into the picture. The references I read offered assurances about his lifestyle and I was particularly impressed by the fact that he had gained the confidence of conservative evangelicals in the Diocese of Southwark. [The advisory group] warned me that if Jeffrey was appointed this would bring a strong adverse reaction. It was here that I was faced with a clear issue of principle. Jeffrey, I judged, has the gifts for the job. Should he be precluded on the basis of the previous stance he has taken?
Jeffrey has made a number of points quite clear. First, he is fully committed to upholding the doctrine and practice of the Church of England as expressed in the House of Bishops report Issues in Human Sexuality. People have asked how he can support in the future a policy he has severely criticised in the past. But Jeffrey draws a clear and legitimate distinction between his previous role as a theologian, whose job it is to explore new ways of thinking, and his future role as a bishop, whose job it is to teach the doctrine of the Church and maintain its unity. He has a very strong sense of the importance of corporate loyalty to the position of the House of Bishops and has committed himself to maintaining it. He will not be using his public role to undermine that position. And in this stance he will not be significantly different from a number of other bishops in the house who share Jeffrey’s views privately but who do not air them in public. There is in fact a very strong sense of loyalty in the House of Bishops to the publicly-stated position of the Church of England – indeed, this has been much criticised by the gay community as stifling debate.
Secondly, Jeffrey is personally committed, as his references made clear, to a personal lifestyle of sexual abstinence. It is now in the public realm that he has a long-standing close friendship. Jeffrey has assured me that he has been sexually abstinent for a considerable time, well before any mention of preferment. He has also assured me that he is committed to a lifestyle that is entirely consistent with Issues in Human Sexuality. Given these commitments, it was a matter of clear conviction to me – a matter of profound principle – that the best person for the job on other grounds should not be ruled out for views which he had expressed in the past. I say this particularly because of the decision of the General Synod and the last Lambeth conference that we need to continue to explore this issue and in particular that we need to listen to the experience of gay and lesbian people.
Given Jeffrey’s public commitments and assurances to me privately, it would have been quite wrong, in my view, not to nominate him. I believe that we now have to ask why there is this campaign against him and where it is coming from. Some of his previous utterances have been hunted down and passed to the press. People are prying into his private life. Archbishops in Nigeria and the West Indies, who do not know Jeffrey or what he has said, have been persuaded to condemn him from afar. Do other appointments receive this treatment? The main theme of the 1998 Lambeth Conference was, in fact, third world debt. Why have not candidates for the episcopate been pursued about their views on this crucial biblical subject? Why is it always the gay issue?
Now I recognise that there are very crucial and profoundly held issues here of both biblical authority and interpretation – perhaps not so much biblical authority which we all accept, but of the hermeneutical key which unlocks the mind of the Lord of Scripture. But the actual facts are that Jeffrey is now the subject of inflammatory articles in the newspapers, with reporters door-stepping him to see whether they can photograph him in a way that will further fuel the opposition to his appointment. Why is it gay people who receive this treatment? And what are we as a Church doing to support them?
I believe that these cruel events should make us ask whether we as a church are, in the end, when it comes down to it, yes or no, pro-gay or anti-gay? Do gay and lesbian people feel warmly welcomed and accepted in our churches? I am not talking about lifestyle. The Church has its position on this which we as a diocese firmly uphold. But when Jesus comes into our churches in the person of a gay or lesbian person what does he experience? Support and affection, or hostility and embarrassment? This is a gospel issue.
Unfortunately, whatever the intention, and I accept that the intention is absolutely sincere, what is happening now can only reinforce homophobic elements within society and within our Church.
I want a diocese that stands in support and solidarity with all harassed minorities whoever they are. Whatever the difficulties or danger of misinterpretation, that is where, I believe, our loyalty and obedience to Jesus should lie. I want a diocese that is able to show everyone, including gay and lesbian people, that they are beloved of God. Are the gay and lesbian people in our churches, of whom there are a good many, able to feel fully accepted by God and their fellow Christians, or are they riven by feelings of self-hatred? When our fellow Christians stand before God, do they think of themselves as an accident, a freak, or deeply loved? And if we want them to feel deeply loved, are our present attitudes as a Church helping or hindering? When our Christian sisters and brothers say, “Who am I before you, O God?”, what answer do they hear from us? This is a spiritual issue, a gospel issue. I want a diocese which conveys through its actions and policies, not just in its words, “Yes, you are deeply loved – flawed and fallible like the rest of us no doubt – but deeply loved.”
Evangelicals try to get appointment rescinded
On the Tuesday following the Diocesan Synod, a delegation from the diocese met bishop Richard to try to force the rescinding of the appointment. Dr Philip Giddings, an Oxford diocesan member of General Synod, who sits on the advisory group for the selection of bishops in the diocese, said afterwards that there was a real possibility that between 40 and 50 parishes would ask for “alternative oversight” and pay their diocesan quota into a Trust Fund rather than into central diocesan funds, which would cause financial chaos. Later, the diocese’s spokesman said that out of 800 clergy only eight or nine parish priests had asked to see Bishop Harries and only two parishes had threatened to withdraw funding contributions.
Bishops intervene to stop the appointment
A week later, on Tuesday 17th June, a group of nine, mostly evangelical, diocesan bishops issued an open letter. Those signing the letter were the Bishops of Bradford, Carlisle, Chester, Chichester, Exeter, Liverpool, Rochester, Southwell and Winchester. The letter was also signed by seven Suffragan Bishops: Bedford, Bolton, Lewes, Maidstone, Penrith, Tewkesbury and Willesden. The text of the letter said:
“The Church’s understanding of scripture and of long-standing tradition is that the proper place for sexual relationships is within marriage. This is based on the order of Creation where men and women are seen as complementary. Sexual intercourse, within the life-long relationship of marriage, is the sign and beautiful expression of that union. Intercourse outside marriage undermines the power of that sign. Any departure from such fundamental teaching must be viewed with grave concern, especially in the case of those who are ordained and called to be examples to God’s people.
It is because of such an understanding of human sexuality, that several bishops … have been troubled by the appointment of Dr. Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading in the Diocese of Oxford. Dr. John has many admirable qualities for the work of a bishop. But the issue is ‘what is acceptable sexual behaviour in God’s sight? By his own admission he has been in a same-sex relationship for twenty years. We value, of course, the gift of same-sex friendship and if this relationship is one of companionship and sexual abstinence, then, we rejoice. We warmly commend such relationships to the Church as a whole.
We are glad at the reassurances from the Bishop of Oxford that Jeffrey John’s life is now celibate. But it is the history of the relationship, as well as Dr. John’s severe criticism of orthodox teaching, which gives concern. More widely, the appointment appears to prejudice the outcome of the Church’s reflection on these matters. We have been repeatedly assured that the House of Bishops’ position stated in Issues in Human Sexuality has not changed. A major study guide to this document is to be published towards the end of this year. It does not, we are assured, seek to change the Church’s mind on the matter. Yet, in view of his previous teaching, Dr. John’s statement that he now stands by Issues has to be received somewhat cautiously.
We must, therefore, express our concern because of the Church’s constant teaching, in the light of Scripture and because of the basic ordering of men and women in creation. We must also express our concern because of our responsibility for the Church’s unity, both in this country and throughout the world.”
A spokesman for the Diocese of Oxford, pointing to the phrase “We value same-sex friendship and if this relationship is one of companionship and sexual abstinence, then we rejoice,” said Dr John’s relationship was compatible with it. “We are waiting for [the bishops] to say that this is that kind of relationship and they rejoice.”
Other Bishops support the appointment
This letter was followed by a supportive letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury signed by the bishops of Hereford, Leicester, Newcastle, Ripon and Leeds, St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, Salisbury, Truro and Worcester. The bishops were anxious not to exacerbate the deepening divisions in the Church, but were increasingly aware of the effect their silence was having on the Church. They said:
“We write in order to assure you that Canon Jeffrey John has our full support for him in his preparation for the work he has been called upon to undertake, and in the context of the serious and unwarranted pressure to which he and his partner have been subject. We write also in order that you and the Bishop of Oxford should know of our loyalty to the decision he reached after consulting you in the matter of the appointment of the Bishop of Reading and of our full confidence in your and his ability to discern the needs of the Church.
We would also want to add that although Dr John’s appointment was related to the needs of the Diocese of Oxford and the Reading Episcopal Area, his arrival in the Bishops’ Meeting will enable our attentive listening to the experience of gay Christians to be in our midst rather than at second hand, and for his willingness to bear the cost of enriching our life in this way we are grateful. Our belief is that the proper, and traditional, response of bishops to the announcement of the appointment of a new bishop is prayer and thankfulness, hope and expectation.”
A Statement by Jeffrey John
The two letters and the distress being expressed, especially within the Oxford Diocese, resulted in Jeffrey John issuing a public statement on 20th June.
“I realise the dismay which my nomination as Bishop of Reading has caused some individuals and church communities in the Archdeaconry of Berkshire and beyond. In so far as I can, I would like to try to alleviate them.
I have already had a number of helpful meetings with some of the leading objectors to my nomination. These meetings have been frank, friendly, prayerful and constructive, and have encouraged me to believe that there is a way forward through continuing dialogue. It is this kind of personal exchange that can best help us see past the labels we stick on each other, and realise that we are all genuinely trying to serve the God we love as members of his Son’s Body. So I hope there will be many more such meetings.
My personal view about homosexual relationships
My own view is that there is a sound argument from scripture and tradition in favour of Christians accepting same-sex relationships, provided they are based on a personal covenant of lifelong faithfulness. I would not term such a relationship a ‘marriage’, but I believe it could be understood as a legitimate covenanted relationship. My arguments for this view are set out most fully in a booklet entitled Permanent Faithful Stable, first published in 1990 and updated in 2000.
Following the Lambeth Conference, I also gave a talk entitled ‘Post-Lambeth Reflections’ to an Affirming Catholicism Conference, which was informally photocopied and privately distributed. This talk reflects the anger that I and many others felt in the wake of Lambeth ‘98. I regret its excessively personal and polemical tone, and the fact that as a result of the controversy about my appointment it has, ironically, been given far wider circulation than was ever intended. Even this talk, however, emphasised as its main point the need for continuing, careful, respectful dialogue on the basis of scripture and tradition – as opposed to those who simply ‘rubbish’ the conservative view and reject the witness of scripture and tradition out of hand. I have made the point repeatedly that it is only such serious engagement with scripture that can lead all of us deeper into God’s truth. I am sorry if the rhetoric of the talk detracted from that overriding aim.
I need to be clear, too, that I have every respect for those, of whichever gender or orientation, who out of personal conviction and in obedience to their understanding of scripture and tradition, have committed themselves to a life of celibacy, often at great personal cost.
Contrary to the impression given .. the issue of homosexuality has hardly entered into my teaching and speaking in Southwark or elsewhere for the past six years – and it occupied little of my time before that. I do not accept the press’s labelling of me as a ‘gay rights campaigner’, nor do I believe that those who know me and work with me would recognise this description of me.
How my personal view relates to the role of area bishop
I recognise that my personal view is not that of the majority of Christians, nor the official view of the Church of England. I also recognise that a bishop does not enjoy the same liberty of expression as an individual theologian. I have therefore
stated publicly that I will abide by the teaching and discipline of the Church in this area, which is the House of Bishops’ statement, Issues in Human Sexuality. However, since I have strongly criticised this document in print, and continue to be personally critical of it, I need to be clear what I believe ‘abiding by’ this document means, and why I believe I can say this without hypocrisy.
It is not unusual for a bishop to be in personal conflict with a public position which his office obliges him to uphold. To be in a position of loyal dissent calls for patience and can be uncomfortable, but it is not dishonourable. In fact it is essential for the development of the Church’s teaching. A good analogy is the situation of the bishops who argued in favour of women’s ordination for many years before 1992, but who waited for the Church officially to change its view before acting to ordain them. It would in my view have been wrong for those bishops to have forestalled the collective decision by acting unilaterally, because to do so undermines unity and order.
Similarly, I have argued in favour of the Church blessing same-sex partnerships, and will continue to argue for it when invited to do so in the councils of the Church. But I have never felt able to perform such a blessing, because to do so is not yet a rite of the Church. I agree with the recent statement of the primates of the Anglican Communion that the lack at this time of a theological consensus for same-sex unions precludes the use of rites of blessing. Priests, and still more bishops, can only perform the functions which the Church authorises them to perform. It follows that as Bishop of Reading I would not perform or authorise same-sex blessings, unless and until the Church authorises them. Furthermore, I agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s letter to primates, issued on his appointment, in which he states that this matter cannot be settled by a single diocese or even province without some wider agreement in the Communion as a whole.
‘Abiding by’ Issues in Human Sexuality means that I will not act as a maverick against the Church’s teaching and discipline as that document sets it out. Although area bishops in the Diocese of Oxford have traditionally exercised a high degree of autonomy, my theological understanding of the suffragan’s role would not in any case allow me to deviate from the policies of the diocesan. So, for example, in matters of selection for ordination, making clergy appointments, or in exercising clergy discipline, my policies, procedures and criteria will follow his. If a doubtful case arises, or one in which my own conscience and convictions threaten to colour my judgment, I will refer the case to him. I admit to taking comfort in the fact that, as a suffragan, the ultimate hard decisions would not be mine.
Even so, I do not underestimate the painful tensions and dilemmas that could arise. I will continue to hope, pray and argue for a change in the current discipline which makes such hard decisions necessary, and which, in my view, penalises honesty and openness. But I will not use the episcopal role as a ‘platform’ for publicly promoting my views about homosexual relationships. I am not driven by a ‘liberal agenda’, and this subject will be far from my main concern as a bishop. However, I will state my view in the councils of the Church, or when invited to contribute to the continuing debate of this subject that is called for both by Issues in Human Sexuality and by the 1998 Lambeth Conference.
My personal life
I am a homosexual. As I stated in my ‘Post-Lambeth Reflections’, I have been in the kind of covenant relationship I have described above since 1976, and will remain so. I regard this life partnership as a gift and vocation from God. The relationship does not, however, involve sexual expression. It falIs within the ‘gift of same-sex friendship…of companionship and sexual abstinence’ in which the nine diocesan bishops who have publicly spoken against my appointment have said that they rejoice.
Nor is it the case that sexual expression was recently abandoned for the sake of preferment. The relationship ceased to be sexual in the 1990s at the time when Issues in Human Sexuality was becoming the policy document by which clergy were being called to abide. I have had, and I still have, an overriding regard for the mind of the Church in its interpretation of scripture, whatever my personal interpretation. This means that I have always submitted the facts of this relationship both to my confessors and to my canonical superiors, and I have obeyed their direction.
My partner and I have never lived together (apart from one brief period while he was moving house) because our separate ministries have never made it possible to do so. However, we rely on each other for support and spend as much free time together as possible. I am therefore making this statement (despite my distaste for having to make such private matters public) for the avoidance of any doubt about what this closeness implies. “
Archbishop of Canterbury’s letter to the Bishops
The Archbishop of Canterbury sent a letter to the diocesan and suffragan bishops on 23rd June, which he read to a press conference held at Lambeth Palace. He wrote:
None of us will need any persuading that the recent appointment of Canon Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading has proved a controversial and challenging one. It has become a focus for a great deal of debate, in which differing views of the appointment and its significance have been widely aired, inside and outside the Church here, and indeed much further afield.
At this point in the debate – particularly since some of you have already voiced serious concerns – it is important that I try to clarify basic issues, in my capacity as Archbishop of Canterbury and Chairman of the House of Bishops.
First, about the appointment process. As you know, the appointment of a suffragan bishop is made by the Crown, on the advice of a diocesan as forwarded by the Archbishop of the province. And that is what has happened on this occasion. It is not for me to recount the diocesan process. But so far as my own involvement is concerned, you should know it is an appointment I have neither sought to promote nor to obstruct.
I was informed that Canon Jeffrey John was regarded as a highly gifted candidate, was acceptable to the diocese, that he had given explicit assurances on various matters, including his personal circumstances and his willingness to work loyally within the framework of doctrine and discipline as expressed
in Issues in Human Sexuality. With these assurances, since repeated very publicly, and in keeping with the principle that the integrity of the process within the diocese should be respected, I raised no objection to forwarding his name.
Despite what some have claimed, I do not believe this overall process weakens the commitment of the House of Bishops to what we have declared as our common mind. Nor do I believe that Canon John’s appointment either subverts current discipline or forecloses future discussion. It would certainly be deplorable if it were assumed that the existing approach has been abandoned by stealth, or that the forthcoming guide to the debate on sexuality that we have agreed to publish, was slanted towards a change in that policy. So, let us be clear: there can be no question of trying to pre-empt, undermine or short-circuit the reflection of the Church as a whole.
It is also important here, to stress to the wider Anglican Communion that we are not embarking on or colluding with any policy of unilateral local change, which I have more than once deplored elsewhere.
Two final and important points. The concerns of many in the diocese of Oxford are theologically serious, intelligible and by no means based on narrow party allegiance or on prejudice. They must be addressed and considered fully. Confidence in the ability of a new bishop to minister to those in his pastoral care is a centrally important matter, and it is clear that serious questions remain in the diocese. To consider these with prayerfulness and maturity needs time and a measure of calm. It is not for anyone outside the diocese to override or pre-empt what is obviously a painful and complex process, and I can only ask your prayers for the diocese as it struggles with this and tries to find a right discernment.
Finally, it would be a tragedy if these issues, in the Church of England and in the Communion, occupied so much energy that we lost our focus on the priorities of our mission, the priorities given us by Our Lord. What we say about sexuality (and not just on the same-sex question) is a necessary part of our faithfulness, but the concentration on this in recent weeks has had the effect of generating real incomprehension in much of our society, in a way that does nothing for our credibility. In the world where we are called to offer the Good News of Jesus, we need to reflect on this dimension of the situation – not to surrender to alien standards, but to keep our eyes on those central revealed truths without which other matters of behaviour and discipline will never make sense.
In a few weeks, I shall be making a pastoral visit to West Africa. Some of our local issues are there too, of course, but so are most of the greatest wounds of our age, afflicting millions – violent conflict, epidemic disease, instability and poverty. Faithful Christian witness shines through all this, and we are deeply thankful for it. It does us no harm to think about our own priorities against such a background, and perhaps to learn in some matters to give each other a little more time and space for thought as we try to find how we can walk in step as the Body of Christ – not falling over ourselves because of anxiety and suspicion.”
Support from the Dean of Southwark
The Dean of Southwark, the Very Rev Colin Slee, supporting his colleague’s appointment, accused the 9 bishops who issued the first letter, of homophobia. He said, “I am astonished that any bishop should feel fit to seek to coerce anyone by such public demonstration.” He said Dr John did not receive a copy of the letter before it was sent to newspapers., and accused the bishops of cowardice. “It compares most unfavourably with Jeffrey’s own openness, honesty and willingness to engage in conversations with anyone. I have long realised that there are bishops who are not theologians and for whom biblical scholarship is not an immediate skill. I seriously doubt that some of the signatories have ever bothered to read Jeffrey’s published work. I have also long realised that there are bishops who are deeply, psychologically homophobic. People are realising that Dr John is not the first and won’t be the last gay bishop. People out there are genuinely astonished by the bigotry of those who oppose him.”
Richard Harries returns to the defence
Bishop Richard Harries returned to the defence of Jeffrey John in an article in the Sunday Times on June 29th.
“For some, Jeffrey John … is a symbol of the direction they don’t want the Church of England to go. For others he is a symbol of the inclusive church they would like to see. When a person becomes a symbol, rational discussion is difficult. But it is important to look at the arguments against his appointment.
John is an openly gay man, committed to a sexually abstinent lifestyle. I do not see how a Christian could object to the appointment of such a man. He is also in a lifetime relationship of love and companionship. I see nothing in the Bible against this. The nine bishops who wrote an open letter criticising the appointment said: “If this relationship is one of companionship and sexual abstinence, then we rejoice.” It is. I look forward to those bishops commending John’s relationship.
John has argued for the church accepting faithful, lifelong, same-sex relationships. Those opposed to the appointment suggest the Bible is against this, but there is no wide consensus on interpretation of the Bible on this issue. John also believes the church must offer the gay community — prone to promiscuity — an alternative to a lifetime of celibacy.
Celibacy is a wonderful vocation, but it has to be chosen freely. A number of bishops, perhaps the majority, have sympathy with John’s arguments, but we have presented a united front to the world in opposing them, at least as far as clergy are concerned. John’s relationship had a sexual dimension at one time. Opponents call on him publicly to repent. He has brought his relationship to his confessor and canonical superiors. If there has been anything wrong, the least a charitable mind can do is assume it is confessed and forgiven. Which Christian is going to say that John is a greater sinner than they are?
The crucial decision made by the first Christians was that Gentiles could become Christians without being circumcised or obeying other aspects of Jewish law. Some, like Peter, found this very difficult. Then he had a dream in which he saw
that Gentiles could be accepted fully. Perhaps, like Peter, those opposed to this appointment will dream about people of the same sex loving one another through life, and Jesus saying: “This rejoices my heart; may it rejoice yours too.” Jesus said nothing against homosexuality. He did say something very fierce against divorce. The church, however, has made provision for divorced people to be married in church.
Gay and lesbian people find themselves with God-given affections for people of the same sex. If celibacy is not the chosen path, then, John has urged, the right course is a relationship of lifetime love. Divorced people who remarry and gay and lesbian people who enter into such relationships are in a similar position. God takes them and their love, as it is, and blesses it. Looked at rationally, the arguments against Jeffrey John’s appointment do not stand up.”
A Daily Telegraph survey the same weekend discovered that only one in five churchgoers felt that open homosexuality sat uneasily with Church doctrine.
Evangelical responses—the call to repent
Many reactions showed that the goal posts had moved yet again. Jeffrey would not be acceptable until he ‘repented’ of his relationship. Evangelicals in Oxford diocese were said to be “incandescent” about his views, and particularly furious at what they regarded as his “failure to repent” over the fact that his relationship with his partner was once physical.
The Rev Rod Thomas, of Reform, said: “I am glad Jeffrey John is being honest about his views. The most divisive issue in his appointment is the fact that he was in an actively gay relationship with his partner in the past and it is not at all clear that he has ever repented of that. One of the advantages of having the kind of dispute the Church is having in public is that it makes it very clear where people’s theology stops and their prejudice begins.” .
Another spokesman for Reform, the Rev Alistair Tresidder, said, ‘We’ve lost our way and sold our soul here in the West. The West has always tried to conform to society because it wants to be popular and to see their churches full. But we need to be brave enough to be counter-cultural if that’s what’s necessary.”
The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Rev Graham Dow said: “We believe that it is unacceptable to appoint someone with that history. It is certain that if he is consecrated a significant number of people in the Diocese of Oxford and beyond will be deeply dismayed.” On BBC2’s Newsnight, responding to a question, he said: “I do not think he should be appointed. Sexual intercourse was a lifelong bond between man and woman in marriage. Obviously the penis belongs to the vagina: that is something fundamental to the way God has made us.”
The Church of England Evangelical Council sent out a letter to all diocesan bishops expressing their concern at Dr John’s appointment and urging bishops to try to block his consecration. The Church Society issued a statement opposing Dr John’s appointment as a bishop, and attacking Evangelical reluctance to take a stand, which has “encouraged radical liberals to be more bold”.
Other senior figures on the evangelical wing of the church claimed that facts about the private life of Canon Jeffrey John were being kept hidden and called on the Bishop of Oxford to clarify the couple’s living arrangement.
The financial threats began to increase, with a claim that Church of England faced the loss of millions of pounds of revenue and potential financial ruin over the schism caused by the appointment. The evangelical wing of the Church was reported as claiming to represent more than half of the 10,000 C of E clergy and to contribute more than 40 per cent of the £400 million raised for the Church by parishes each year. Parishes opposed to the appointment might cap the amount they contribute to their diocesan and central church funds, agreeing to donate just enough funds to cover their own costs.
The Rev George Curry, the head of the Church Society, said: “The liberals have now forced us into a position where we have to act. I think people across the country have to make a gracious and principled stance against this appointment. They have to say that they are not going to financially support the work of those dioceses who do not stand up against this appointment.”
The Church of England Newspaper opened its extensive coverage on 12 June with the headline ‘10 days that shook the Anglican world’. “Bishops have warned that the Church of England is perilously close top splitting if the appointment of Canon Dr Jeffrey John in Oxford goes ahead. Primates and bishops are expressing grave concerns that schisms will widen.”
The Church of England Newspaper headlined ‘Archbishop withdraws from gay conference’, when Rowan Williams had issued a statement last December that he wouldn’t be attending in person.
Reaction in other parts of the communion
The Archbishop of the West Indies and the Primate of Nigeria led the first calls for Dr John to resign. The press analysed this as representative of a split of demographics and culture: the majority of Anglicans live in the Third World where attitudes, especially towards homosexuality, are traditionally conservative.
Archbishop Peter Akinola, the Primate of Nigeria, where the Anglican church has 17.5 million members, said that the appointment would spark a global schism in the church. “We claim we are Bible-loving Christians. We cannot be seen to be doing things clearly outside the boundaries allowable in the Bible. This is only the beginning. We would sever relationships with anybody, anywhere … anyone who strays over the boundaries, we are out with them. It’s as simple as that.” He claimed that homosexuality was so unnatural that it was not seen in the world of animals, and told the Lagos-based Guardian newspaper: ‘This is an attack on the Church of God – a Satanic attack on God’s church. I cannot think of how a man in his senses would be having a sexual relationship with another man. Even in the world of animals, dogs, cows, lions, we don’t hear of such things. When we sit down globally as a communion, I am going to sit in a meeting with a man who is marrying a fellow man. I mean it’s just not possible. I cannot see myself doing it.’ His comments were reported as representing an extraordinary interference in the affairs of a national church by a primate of another country
The Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen said in a statement drawn up with five bishops within the Sydney diocese that the decision to appoint Jeffrey John represented a “watershed” in the Anglican movement. The statement voiced
fears that the Anglican movement could become a “federation or network of churches related by history and ties of affection”. It continued: “For our part, we cannot welcome into our diocese those who have abandoned the teaching of Scripture in such a flagrant manner.” The diocese of Sydney widened its list of banned clergy to include celibate homosexuals and those who had pre-marital sex and failed to repent, but would still accept polygamists. The diocese justified the apparent contradiction by arguing the Bible’s outright condemnation of homosexuality compared with its oblique disapproval of a man taking several wives.
One of the signatories, Bishop of North Sydney Glenn Davies, stressed that the diocese’s opposition to Canon John was based on his lack of repentance for his years of homosexual activity, rather than his current celibacy. Asked whether polygamists were acceptable to the Sydney diocese, Dr Davies said while it was far from ideal, it was tolerable to have a minister with more than one wife. “The Bible doesn’t condemn polygamy like it does homosexuality”.
The Archbishop of Congo, the Most Rev Balufuga Dirokpa Fidéle said: “When we were in Brazil for the primates’ meeting, the archbishops from Africa, Asia and Latin America were almost entirely opposed to consecrating a homosexual bishop. We have said to the Archbishop of Canterbury that if he proceeds he will split the Church.”
The Dean of the Province of West Africa, the Right Rev Dr Tilewa Johnson, Bishop of The Gambia, said that the situation in England was “mind-boggling”. “One must be out of one’s mind to want to have sex with another man,” he said. “I know that . . . we in Africa are denigrated as conservative and backward and the West think we are all heathens here, but to us it is unnatural. Many of us have got our placards ready, we are ready to protest until someone takes notice. The Archbishop of Canterbury is going to come to Gambia in the next four weeks, and I would love to talk to him about it then.”
The Archbishop of Uganda, Livingstone Mpalanyi-Nkoyoyo, said that Dr Williams’s statement was a great disappointment. “It’s sad to hear that the Church of England can be thinking of appointing such a person.”
The Rt Revd Calvin Bess, Bishop of Trinidad and Tobago, expressed support for Jeffrey John. The Archbishop told the Sunday Express, the national newspaper, that as long as John kept in line with the teachings of the church, one could have no differences with him. He added that John was an academic and viewed life with a great deal of freedom. “He has made his personal beliefs very clear and everyone has to respect that,” he said. Rhona Ince, a lay member of the Anglican church, said: “My personal opinion is that a priest’s sexual preference is no consequence to me as long as he is doing the work of God and does not conduct himself in a unseemly or offensive manner.” She said it was is hypocritical to condemn same-sex relationships at this time. “This is nothing new. Churches have faced this issue for centuries. The Anglican church is resilient,” she declared.
And then Dr Jeffrey John withdrew his acceptance…