Alice (not the one who went Through the Looking-glass, but the rather more specialist female who was ‘at it again’ in the Noel Coward song) ‘thought, when considering the birds and the bees, that things might have been organized better’. No-one considering the ‘Affaire Jeffrey John’ could deny that, in so many ways, Alice had a point.
How did the Church of England allow the bedroom activities (or, as it turned out, lack of them) of two middle-aged men to become the subject of statements to the Oxford Diocesan Synod and prurient comment in The Daily Telegraph?
How did the Bishop of Oxford (whose carefully honed public image is that of the worldly sophisticate) so disastrously misjudge the reaction to John’s appointment of Dr Phillip Giddings, a senior lay man in his own diocese and a member of the Archbishops’ Council?
How did the Archbishop of Canterbury, even for a moment, suppose that he could remain aloof from the implications of the appointment as a bishop of one of his closest associates in Affirming Catholicism – one who had campaigned unrestrainedly for Rowan’s own nomination as Bishop of Southwark, and who had himself been a candidate to replace the Archbishop at Monmouth?
How did any of these luminaries (and those who advised them) fail to spot (New Westminster, New Hampshire, the 1998 Lambeth Conference and the Brazil meeting of the Primates being what they were) that such an appointment was a communion-wide hot potato?
How did the self-perpetuating Liberarchy which has managed the Church of England for the last four decades fail to notice that the shift of responsibility for clerical stipends from the centre to the parishes has effected a de facto shift in real power, and enabled a relatively small group of dissentients, on any issue, to hold the hierarchy to ransom?
And how did the House of Bishops so indoctrinate itself with its own notion of ‘collegiality’ that it failed to notice the deep and damaging divisions within it?
Small wonder that the words ‘bugger’ and ‘muddle’ sprang spontaneously to the minds of the ladies and gentlemen of the press. With the York Synod looming, few people can have anticipated a hip operation with more enthusiasm than the Bishop of Oxford.
No-one can deny that these events have been, in their own bizarre way, a turning-point. A number of things are clearer in the aftermath of this debacle.
The most important of these is the shift in the balance of power. For the most part liberals run the dioceses, but traditionalists pay for them. As parishes are increasingly required to pay (and pension) their own clergy from their own direct giving, tensions are inevitable. A hierarchy which now single-handedly consumes the greater part of the Church’s historic resources, leaving little or nothing to augment the parishes, can no longer expect acquiescence in policies and actions which a significant number cannot approve.
Secondly, it is now clear that events in England are perceived to have a greater impact on the life of the Anglican Communion than those elsewhere. Just as Rome held out the hope that the Mother Church of the Communion would not ordain women to the priesthood, so primates of other provinces entertain the hope that she will not go the way of Canada and the USA on same sex relationships. Restraint in the Church of England is the necessary price of world-wide unity. It will have to be paid or the show is up.
Thirdly, there can now be no question that the system of appointments of bishops, both suffragan and diocesan, is in need of urgent reform. Accountability must be the name of the game. The episcopate exists to serve the whole people of God. The creation of local episcopal clubs of the like-minded does not obviously help this ministry.
Finally, something significant and perhaps ominous emerges from Dr William’s official statement on Dr John’s appointment. ‘There is’, said the Archbishop, ‘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.’
In so saying, he no doubt realized the implications for another matter of potential strife and disagreement: the ordination of women as bishops. The forced resignation of Dr John was (for every one except Dr John) a relatively painless way out of what had become a total impasse. No such ruse is available to the Archbishop in the up-coming dispute, where both sides are likely to be at least as resourceful and tenacious.
In the aftermath of all this, everyone must feel a tremendous sympathy for Dr John, whose suffering has been great and who has acted graciously throughout. He is a gentle man and a gentleman. It must have been trying during the long days before the final decision, to have to suffer the burden of self-appointed spokespersons less intelligent than oneself.
Mercifully, it is all over now – until, of course, the next time. In all the doubts and questions, one thing is certain. The on-going power struggle that is the Church of England will claim other and different victims.
No parish priest will have missed the wave of anxiety that has swept over the faithful, as the big hitters slug it out in the media. Even as the row quietens down, there is still an intense need to make sense of the current furore, and this month’s edition has several such attempts to pierce the mystery, from Africa and closer to home.
It is important not simply to trade opinions, but to understand the context and the purpose, which is why we are glad to publish Bishop Andrew Burnham’s pastoral letter. Nor must we forget that without the good news, there would be no bad news: there would be nothing to get upset about, if nothing mattered. Bishop Paul Richardson’s article reminds us, and at such times we do well to be reminded, that the Church, and even our small part of it, is good news. It is not merely a vessel for the Gospel, it is part of that Gospel.