Getting it Straight

Geoffrey Kirk tries to summarize some recent events in the Church of England

Now let me see if I have got this straight.

The Dean of St Alban’s has not, for some considerable time, had sexual relations with his male partner. We know that because the Bishop of Oxford told us so. It was the first – and one must hope the last – frank exposé of the bedroom activities of an episcopal candidate in the history of the Church of England: more like a novel by Susan Howatch than the life of our own dear Church.

Dr John’s current abstinence, however, does not amount to what old-fashioned Christians used to call ‘amendment of life’. He continues to advocate what he no longer practises. ‘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,’ he told the press. But then the Bishop of Oxford shares the same opinion.

As a result of both national and international pressure, Dr John’s friend the Archbishop of Canterbury persuaded him to step down when his appointment as Bishop of Reading was made public. Dr Williams’ statement at the time was very careful in its wording. It pointedly referred, not to an impediment in Dr John’s personal life or theological opinions (opinions which, as a matter of fact the ABC shares), but instead to an alleged sentimental and ecclesiological objection:

‘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.’

Such is the complexity of the mess into which the CofE has got itself that Rowan, whilst deftly avoiding the censure of his homosexual friends, had articulated one of the very strongest arguments against the ordination of women as bishops – and so offended his feminist friends. But no matter. The wording had skilfully opened the way for Jeffrey John’s appointment to a senior but non-episcopal post; and the appointment to the See of Reading of a married candidate who shared Dr John’s and Dr Williams’ theological opinions about homosexuality.

Bishop Richard Harries (naturally) was profuse in his regrets that John was not to be his suffragan. The Diocese of Oxford website obligingly published the letters exchanged between them. The press was full of rumours that John had wished to rescind his resignation at the eleventh hour. The religious affairs correspondent of The Guardian later wrote a book in which he claimed that John had attempted to contact Rowan Williams when it emerged that former Archbishop George Carey had knowingly ordained two celibate gay bishops. But he was said to have been ‘blocked’ by senior press advisers at Lambeth Palace. ‘He [Jonathan Jennings] promised to relay John’s message to the Archbishop before the withdrawal was announced. He never did, and a few hours later, the resignation was announced.’ This is the very stuff of which conspiracy theories are made.

By now it was clear that divisions in the Church of England on this and related matters were very deep. Two groupings (fully armed with websites and all the modern paraphernalia of the single issue pressure group) sprang up virtually overnight.

Anglican Mainstream (the traditionalist Evangelical grouping) was confident that it had scored a notable success in preventing Dr John’s appointment to Reading. They had flexed their numbers and, more importantly, their wallets. They were ready for another fight. Inclusive Church (the liberal revisionist group), was also confident. Most of the main players (from Downing Street to Lambeth Palace) were sympathetic to its cause. It simply had to bide its time and gain numbers on the web.

Neither pressure group had long to wait.

The twin events prepared for in William’s carefully crafted statement came quickly upon each other. A married man (with children to prove it) was announced as the next Bishop of Reading. Like Harries himself, of course, he shared Dr John’s theology of faithful, monogamous same sex relationships.

Evangelicals in the Diocese of Oxford, apparently oblivious of the game-plan, welcomed the announcement fulsomely. Immediately upon this welcome it was announced that Jeffrey John was to be Dean of St Alban’s – a post which might be construed as equivalent in dignity and influence to a suffragan see, but was nevertheless decidedly non-episcopal.

Mainstream continued, of course, to bluster. But it had been politically and tactically outflanked. Both posts were now occupied by pro-homosexual revisionists, under the protection and patronage of pro-homosexual diocesan bishops. Mainstream in the Diocese of St Alban’s threatened further financial sanctions. Some parishes declared that they would refuse the ministrations of Christopher Herbert, the bishop of the diocese. But these piecemeal gestures merely indicated that the game had been lost.

Anglican Mainstream is a well-intentioned group of serious-minded Evangelicals. But it is a group which seems to have no tactical ability, strategical sense or basic ecclesiology. It claims fidelity to scripture as its salient principle – and yet many of its members have already departed from scripture in the matter of the remarriage of divorced persons and the ordination of women. In the first instance they are ignoring one of the most categorical dominical injunctions, and in the second they are setting aside Pauline texts arguably more comprehensive and definitive than those against homosexuality.

Mainstream has a lot of questions of answer. Why not, if a man’s sexual acts are more ecclesially significant than his expressed opinions, accept Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading in the first place? Why refuse to receive the ministry of Christopher Herbert and not also refuse Richard Harries, Stephen Cotterell and Rowan Williams? Why was it more serious to appoint Dr John as Dean of St Alban’s than to appoint him as Canon Theologian of Southwark? And why was it more objectionable for him to be Dean of St Alban’s than for his self-appointed defender and advocate, Colin Slee, to be Dean of Southwark?

The English revisionists are, for the moment, very polite about all this. They have no need to be aggressive when they are winning so easily and so comprehensively. But American revisionists have begun, with great effect, to cast the same in the Evangelicals’ teeth. ‘You have already swallowed two things which scripture forbids and the tradition has comprehensively condemned,’ they point out. ‘Why are you gritting your teeth now at what is merely a consequential amendment?’

It is an accusation, of course, which implicitly suggests that, by making opposition to homosexual practice the cynosure of orthodoxy, Evangelical traditionalists are motivated more by homophobia than faithfulness to the Bible And, alas, it is an accusation which the incoherent behaviour of Anglican Mainstream and similar groups, makes it very difficult to refute.

 

Geoffrey Kirk is National Secretary of Forward in Faith UK

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