On the flip-side, threats from conservatives to split the Anglican Church of England are dead?
A gay but celibate clergyman has been blocked from becoming a bishop for the second time, following a row over his inclusion on the shortlist for the choice to run the Anglican diocese of Southwark.
Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, was under consideration for the post and would have replaced the Right Rev Tom Butler, who retired earlier this year. In 2003 Dr John had been forced to stand down from his appointment as suffragan bishop of Reading.
When news of his second candidacy was leaked, the prospect of the first openly gay bishop in the Church of England immediately angered conservative evangelicals, who threatened to seek alternative leadership overseas and warned of a schism.
The disclosure also infuriated the Crown Nominations Commission, tasked with presenting two names to the prime minister and whose members swear an oath of confidentiality regarding the nomination and selection process. The decision of the commission followed two days of heated debate. One of its 14 members is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He was said to be furious at the breach of secrecy, and insisted he would not be pressured into backing a particular candidate or vetoing another.
The outcome will come as deep disappointment for John’s supporters, who will wonder why he was included on the shortlist only to be rejected.
It is the second time that John, a popular and respected cleric, has failed to become a bishop. In 2003 he was forced to stand down because of his sexuality after protests from traditionalists.
Colin Coward, from Changing Attitude, which campaigns for greater inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clergy, condemned the latest decision.
On his blog he wrote: “This is painfully disappointing news for Jeffrey who has once again lived through a week in which his identity and reputation have been pored over, analysed and attacked once again by conservative forces in the church in a way which I can only describe as poisonous.”
It may have been the “final opportunity” to nominate John to a diocese and it may have been the last opportunity for the archbishop to appoint an openly gay person as a bishop, said Coward.
“The Church of England still has closeted gay bishops, and an increasing number of open and partnered LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] priests.”
John is in a civil partnership but celibate. The news will be embarrassing and painful for the archbishop, a friend of John’s, who will once more be accused of failing to show authority and leadership during a testing time.
Reform, a conservative evangelical group, was one of the groups claiming the church could split if John were made bishop for the south London cathedral, one of the more liberal dioceses in England.
“To appoint him bishop would send two very clear signals. First, the diocese of Southwark wants to walk in a different direction to the Church of England’s doctrine; second, there is now little to stop the church proceeding in the same divisive direction as the Episcopal church in the US.”
The deliberations of the commission remain confidential, so it is unknown what Williams said about John, his suitability for the bishopric, his own views, and his views on the response of Anglican provinces round the world who oppose breaking a ban on consecration of gay clergy.
Williams will be in a better position to gauge the church’s response to John’s rejection tomorrow, when he comes face to face with clergy and laity in York on another contentious and as yet unresolved issue: ordination of women as bishops.
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