Gerry O’Brien on sin, spin, and not caving in

On the day that news of Jeffrey John’s appointment broke, I was speaking to a clergyman from a northern diocese. I was expressing concern, but he declared himself enthusiastic for the appointment. All very well, I suppose, but I was concerned how he seemed to be unaware of the wider ramifications of the issue. The Bishop of Oxford’s ill-judged proposal to appoint Dr John as Bishop of Reading came very close to causing a major rift within the Anglican Communion, as we all know. Indeed, had it not been for the judicious intervention of the Archbishop of Canterbury, one shudders to think of the damage that might have been done.

I don’t think it is being melodramatic to say that Anglicanism is on a knife-edge. There are a whole range of issues which might, if handled imprudently, be a catalyst for schism. Women bishops, biblical authority, lay celebration and homosexual priests, to name just four, might each be capable of fuelling deep discord. Most Anglicans would probably feel quite strongly about at least one of these issues but will in the main be prepared to be moderate in their advocacy, for the sake of unity.

Sadly though, some are all too ready to abandon the language of persuasion, discussion and negotiation, and opt instead for the language of confrontation, coercion and demands. At the last Synod, for example, we had several speeches from the floor in which the homosexual lifestyle was flaunted, notwithstanding the clear position that the House of Bishops has taken on the issue. There was a kind of ‘Discipline me, if you dare’ flavour to these contributions, and despite the conservative tone of the report being debated and the orthodox flavour of the motion, a version of the Bishop of Oxford’s speech was circulated to the press which differed in significant particulars from the speech he delivered to the Synod, and he then allowed the press to quote his opinion that it was now inevitable that the Church would change its stance on the issue.

A prompt denial from Church House was largely ignored by the media but one fears that the ‘open statement of the truth’ which Paul speaks about in 2 Corinthians 4.2 doesn’t make as much impact as we might wish in the world of spin in which we live.

Now Dr John’s appointment as Dean of St Albans has been announced, it is difficult to see how the issues raised by this appointment will be any different from those that were raised by his appointment as Bishop of Reading. Is worldwide Anglicanism outraged by inappropriate appointments to suffragan sees but sanguine about inappropriate appointments to Cathedrals? How will ordinary Christian believers relate to the Bishop of St Albans who appears to be blissfully unmoved by the recent furore in the neighbouring Diocese of Oxford?

The objections to the appointment of Dr John, who is by all accounts a very nice chap, need to be spelt out in view of the routine misrepresentation of the views of those who oppose his promotion. In a letter to The Times a vicar from the Diocese of Southwell wrote ‘Dr John is someone blessed with personal candour, intellectual rigour and that most rare and noble of gifts – a decent sense of humour. The Church of England should cherish him.’

Such a delightful commendation may be absolutely authentic, but it really is not relevant to the issue of his appointment as a Dean. Few would hold Dr John’s orientation against him. After all, we all have sexual proclivities – and we all have to exercise restraint if we are to live the godly lives we aspire to. Few would question his current lifestyle, which is by all accounts in line with the House of Bishops’ guidelines.

What does bother many of us is that he has consistently argued against biblical teaching, which is the current teaching of the Church, and continues to openly advocate the blessing of relationships of which, as far as one can tell, the Almighty does not approve. His recent booklet Permanent, faithful, stable bears eloquent testimony to his current position. As the Church of England Newspaper reminded us recently, none of the major political parties currently shares the orthodox Christian position on same-sex relationships, and indeed society takes a very permissive view of personal relationships, but that does not alter God’s views on the subject. Christians have the unenviable task of declaring Jesus’ teaching, even when contemporary society thinks it knows better.

However, the liberal establishment is far from content with its contentious anticipation of the Eames Commission report. It is far from content with its calculated snub to the orthodox Christians in the Diocese of Oxford and around the world who objected to Dr John’s previously proposed preferment. The Times recently carried a most surprisingly intemperate piece by Mary Ann Sieghart. One assumes that she had been briefed by some liberal luminary for the views expressed are hardly of the genre that one would expect from a seasoned secular journalist.

In an intemperate outburst she lambasts Sydney as playing host to ‘the most narrow-minded, puritanical and zealous brand of Anglicanism, a new puritanism that is trying to establish itself over here.’ She concedes that the Diocese of Sydney has women deacons, but lambasts them for not having women priests. She claims, disapprovingly, that ‘it is impossible for divorced, gay or even single clergy to be appointed to posts in the diocese.’

She rubbishes Moore College, saying that it ‘used to be run by Archbishop Jensen, and then by his brother Philip, and trains its ordinands in a literal, scriptural theology that brooks no dissent.’ She quotes the current Primate of Australia, Dr Peter Carnley, approvingly, saying he has criticized the Sydney theology as ‘uncompromisingly cruel’ and ‘medieval’. The brief then rants on that ‘Moore College has exported its New Testament lecturer, David Peterson, to become principal of Oak Hill Theological College in London, which is now producing fundamentalist clergy clones for conservative Evangelical churches here.’

The mudslinging continues with a description of Evangelicals as ‘hard line fundamentalists using all the tools of entryism familiar to students of the Labour Party in the 1980s.’

It’s all very well to compare Evangelicals with Militant Tendency and fundamentalist Islam, but whoever wrote Ms Sieghart’s briefing for this article must be suffering from acute paranoia or worse. Many of us have cause to be grateful for the ministry of Old Oaks in parishes up and down the country. The liberal mafia have succeeded in excluding virtually all of them from senior positions in the Church of England, so what on earth are they so frightened about?

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.