The recent announcement of the appointment of a new Bishop of Reading caused a stir in the national press. Dr Jeffrey John, 50, Canon Theologian of Southwark Cathedral, is one of the Church of England's most prominent advocates of homosexual rights. He has called for the ordination of practising homosexuals and the blessing of homosexual ‘marriages’. He has also contributed to a prayer book for homosexuals which includes prayers for sex changes and ‘fantasy and a fetish’. He has, apparently, declined to comment on his own sexuality or private life. This is, perhaps, a pity as it might enable the Church to have the honest and inevitable debate which it has been edging around, somewhat nervously, for far too long.
Several things need to be said about Dr John's appointment.
First of all, he has been chosen as a suffragan by Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford. Harries is the head of the House of Bishops’ working party on sexuality. Harries has never been shy of appointing practising homosexuals to key staff positions but this is such a high profile supportive appointment that he must have been aware of the message it would give about official policy.
Second, it seems unlikely that Harries would have gone ahead without consulting the Archbishop of Canterbury. If Dr Williams was consulted and approved, he must have known that it would, at a stroke, demolish the bridges he has been painstakingly constructing to suspicious and critical Evangelicals.
Third, while Dr John's appointment is controversial, it is far from unique. Over a number of years several men, who have been appointed to suffragancies, are both well known to homosexual lobbyists and the authorities who appointed them for their lifestyle. Of late, also, there have been some curious promotions to deanships. This has all been done with the usual Anglican discretion – easy to effect with a nonentity, impossible to implement in the case of a high-profile figure like Dr John.
As this magazine has frequently pointed out, in this respect the Carey years (and the Runcie years before them) were a polite charade. While threatening the American liberal establishment (ECUSA) if they pursued homosexual rights in the priesthood, the Church of England simply got on with ordaining and consecrated practising homosexuals and their supporters but never admitting it.
As Dr John, a former Dean of Magdalene, Oxford, so pithily puts it, ‘More than half of them (the bishops) have been ordaining and positively supporting gay clergy for years.’ This is the reality.
Those who know Dr John would attest that he is an erudite, urbane and charming man who is capable with the pen of. He may well, therefore, stand out in the otherwise grey world of suffragans.
But there is more to the appointment than all of the above. Dr Jeffrey John is the leading light, thinker, writer and communicator of Affirming Catholicism, the Archbishop of Canterbury's personal creation to liberalize, and some would say undermine, Catholic teaching in the Church of England. (Its self-reported belief quotient in the comprehensive and authoritative ‘Mind of Anglicans’ survey 2002 was embarrassingly low and its ethical positions scarcely sub-Christian) It is an organization with a minute lay membership but an extraordinary record of getting its clerical members key jobs at every level of the Church of England. Before the organization became coy about its episcopal membership, it was boasting 24 bishops.
Dr John, in making this at least 25, is therefore part of a political theological movement with its power base increasingly co-terminous with the establishment. It is effectively ‘the Court Party of the Cof E’.
Dr. John's appointment therefore is to be welcomed in two senses.
1) It must now facilitate the decisive debate within the Church of England on the issue of homosexual practice and relationships. On this, at least, proponents and opponents are agreed – the current governing policy is slippery, dishonest and unchristian.
2) It should provoke a full-scale inquiry into how a small unrepresentative organization has managed to hijack the Church of England through an unreformed, corrupt and corrupting appointments system.
There is an ecumenical joke which makes up in perception what it lacks in humour.
Q: How do you stop an Anglo-Catholic becoming a Roman Catholic?
A: You make him attend an RC Mass!
So dire has much Roman Catholic worship become in the long wake of Vatican II that most Catholic Anglicans return grateful for what they’ve got at their parish church, if not for the doctrinal and ethical chaos that represents them at national level. With rare and noble exceptions it is probably true to say that, if you want to experience the Roman rite celebrated with reverence and dignity, your best bet is an Anglican church near you.
Vatican II never intended to unleash the awfulness that passes for worship in many of its parishes today. Indeed it was most particular about how a modern rite should be served. In England, North America and Holland, where the Tablet-style Catholics have largely called the tune, the instructions are almost wholly ignored. The result is, all too often, what passed for cultural relevance c1965, namely, badly trained scruffy servers in barren ‘G- plan’ sanctuaries, a reductionist translation of the scriptures, pop psychology sermons, nursery rhyme singing and an attitude to the sacrament that would disgrace a Protestant who believed in the real absence. The studied ignorance of the numinous and the transcendent has largely undermined the sense of the immanent. In all these places, unsurprisingly, attendance has been plummeting.
Now, in his 84th year, the Pope has had enough. Not only is the Holy Father expected, later this year, to loosen the bishops’ grip on the old rite and make it more available, but he is determined to ensure that the modern rite is restored to the Council’s original intention and rescued from the squad of ‘do-it-yourself’ liturgists who have spent 40 years reducing the great mystery of God's love in Christ to a shambling casualty.
Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect for the Congregation of Divine Worship and Discipline, has promised a disciplinary document before Christmas.
‘We want’, he said, ‘to respond to the spiritual hunger and sorrow so many of the faithful have expressed to us because of liturgical celebrations that seemed irreverent and unworthy of the true adoration of God. You might sum up our document with words that echo the final words of the Mass: "The do-it-yourself mass is ended. Go in peace."’
As the soulless, politically correct, cobble-it-together yourself mess that is Common Worship begins to take hold of the Church of England, it may no longer be safe to send that pining would- be papalist down the road for his annual aversion therapy.
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