Archbishop David Hope in despair over Anglican infighting

The Most Revd David Hope, soon to retire as Archbishop of York, spoke to Stephen Bates, the Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent, of his despair at the rancour in the Anglican communion over the gay issue which is dragging the church apart. He told the Guardian of the “cacophony of factions” which is distracting the church from its historic mission. He has made little secret of his frustration over the church’s political infighting.

He called for Christians to honour diversity and difference and to behave more charitably towards their opponents. “We have to keep batting for that. I must admit I have felt at times that there is no point in going on, I have felt ground down and helpless. There is a time to speak and a time to listen, and sometimes people need to shut up.”

The archbishop’s remarks followed comments by Phillip Jensen, the hard-line dean of Sydney, who told a conference of conservative evangelicals in Derbyshire recently that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was guilty of “total prostitution of the Christian ministry” and should resign because he holds tolerant private views of homosexuality while upholding the church’s official policy that active gays are not permissible in the ordained ministry.

Dr Hope said: “You almost despair when you hear people commenting in that way. The sense of the spirit is singularly lacking. That was an outrageous thing to say. I have the highest regard for the Archbishop of Canterbury. He has enormous qualities and huge spiritual depth. I have been privy to some of the things that have pressed down on him but he has great resilience.” Some conservative evangelicals reacted angrily when Dr Hope warned them at a conference a year ago that their rancorousness towards Dr Williams and over the gay issue was turning off other Christians. Although he was applauded at the time, evangelical pressure groups later concluded that inviting him to speak was a mistake.

Windsor report recommendations

The Windsor report recommends expressions of regret on both sides of the homosexuality argument and the eventual establishment of a framework of authority across the communion. Dr Hope said: “I don’t think in the short term they can be reconciled. Clearly the report contains elements that are very substantial and compelling but the question is, how do you translate that into practicalities? Are people desirous of seeking a way forward or are they just looking for further division?

“I would like to think people have looked down into the abyss and will now work with the grain of the report. Maybe we will have to live in impaired communion for the time being. I doubt whether it will be solved in my lifetime. “There is a cacophony of factions drowning out the Good News of Jesus Christ. We have got world problems of poverty, hunger, Aids, the war in Iraq, the environment – large questions – and here we are, almost preoccupied with the gay issue. We need to look beyond ourselves.”

Gay issue intrudes on Dr Hope’s life

The issue has hounded and intruded on Dr Hope almost throughout his ministry. Unmarried, a priest in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, in the 1970s he was called in to impose discipline on the exceedingly camp high church training college at St Stephen’s House in Oxford. On the other hand, Jeffrey John, the celibate gay theologian briefly appointed bishop of Reading last year, who was one of Dr Hope’s students at Oxford, has spoken of his support when he told him he was gay. Yesterday, Dr Hope said of John’s ordeal over the Reading post: “I felt very strongly for him.”

In 1995, when Dr Hope was Bishop of London, he reacted to a letter from Peter Tatchell, calling on him to out himself as gay, by publishing the letter and denouncing the activist’s attempted intimidation. It was a brave stand and prompted his concession that his sexuality was a grey area. He said yesterday: “I felt it was bullying. It was misplaced and misjudged. The sort of things he wrote to me were intimidatory. My remark just came out. It was one of those things, not premeditated.”

Divisive issue of women bishops

Potentially as divisive of the Church of England is the issue of whether women, who have now been ordained to the clergy for more than a decade, should be allowed to proceed to the episcopacy. A report to be published today of yet another church committee will outline a number of options for making women bishops and dealing with the ongoing opposition. Dr Hope continues to oppose women’s ordination as a breach with the universal church’s traditions. He believes the Church of England fudged the issue of the episcopacy when it made the decision to allow women to become priests in 1992.

“The question of whether women should be made bishops once they had been ordained is absolutely pivotal. It seems to me absolute nonsense for women to be ordained to the priesthood but not to the episcopacy because the two are inextricably linked. It seems to be an inevitability. It is an absolute nonsense to suggest [one of the report’s recommendations] that women could become suffragans but not diocesans. In principle there could be the possibility of a woman archbishop.”

To safeguard the position of priests like him who could not accept such a development, the archbishop talks of extending the church’s principle of alternative episcopal oversight – allowing parishes which cannot accept women clergy to have administration from like-minded bishops. He would not support a breakaway, nor consider leaving the church: “Not at the moment. That is not an option. It depends what the alternatives are. I don’t see any point in forming a breakaway church on one issue, whether it is over gays, or women.”

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