With the wedding season at its height, with the confetti lying thick in the churchyard and the canapes crusting in the sun, I find myself wondering if the poor dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John, feels like the bridesmaid who never quite catches the bouquet.
One of the most prominent and highly regarded churchmen of his generation, Dr John has been proposed as bishop for not one but two dioceses, first Reading (Division Two) and now Southwark (Premier League). Having been appointed to the former, he was obliged to step down after one of the Church of England’s characteristically unedifying adventures in HR; we hear now that opposition to his proposed appointment to the latter is so intense that Dale Winton has a better chance of being consecrated than the long-suffering dean.
If you have ever met Jeffrey John, you will be surprised that this singularly unturbulent priest should provoke such strong reactions in those who oppose him, but as everyone now knows Dr John is gay and for some in the church an openly gay bishop is unthinkable. In the old days, gay bishops went about their bachelor business discreetly and we are all now so bored with the issue that it is tempting sometimes to feel nostalgia for the era of handsome chaplains and gorgeous morses and taking the ordinands to Le Touquet.
However, there are worse things than being bored; being less than honest and less than charitable and less than just, not that it often is easy to get these to line up. Also, the world has changed; in 1983, the British Social Attitudes survey showed that 62% thought sexual relations between two adults of the same sex were “always or mostly” wrong. Last year, this was down to 36%, which suggests that having a go at the gays is becoming a fringe rather than mainstream pastime in Britain.
It also calls into question, in my view, the claim of conservative groups such as Anglican Mainstream to represent the centre. The church is so polarised about homosexuality that it is difficult to see what the centre might be of a Communion in which a Canadian bishop blesses the same-sex unions a Ugandan bishop thinks deserve the death penalty. Anglican Mainstream responds that Dr John’s relationship goes against not only the opinion of the majority of Anglicans, most of whom seem to live in Nigeria nowadays, but against the fixed tradition of the church.
Dr John’s supporters respond that he and his partner, also a clergyman, have been together for more than 30 years, a paragon of stability which many might think models rather than subverts the sorts of things Christians should get up to. Moreover, it was hard to see evidence of faith, hope and charity when the conservatives forced them to reveal that their relationship is celibate and therefore in accord with the standard the bishops request. Not good enough, say the conservatives, and threaten to walk away if Dr John is made bishop. Bishops and archbishops intervene. Not good enough, say the liberals and threaten to hold a jumble sale if Dr John is not.
If the dean of St Albans has got it tough, spare a thought for the archbishop of Canterbury. Rowan Williams, Anglicanism’s greatest asset in his efforts to hold the Communion together, is left looking like a liability. I cannot think of another archbishop who has so obviously shouldered his cross, but I wonder if, in the long run, that kind of sacrifice might be the only way to turn darkness into light. For this one is not going away and, when the present hoo-ha has died down, we are faced with the ineluctable necessity of hard theological and pastoral graft; first, to get some clarity about the moral status of homosexuality, and, second, to find ever more creative and imaginative ways of discerning the likeness of Christ in our ugly mugs.
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