The Bishop of Ebbsfleet’s Pastoral Letter for June 2003
I HAD hoped that my Ascension Day press statement, published on the Ebbsfleet website, would be all I needed to say about the nomination of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading.
In that statement I set out traditional teaching before saying that, once a bishop is nominated, all that can be asked of him is contained in the Declaration of Assent and in the Ordinal itself. I pointed out that ‘there is an essential difference between the freedom of an academic theologian to dissent from the tradition received and the responsibility of a bishop to guard the historic faith’ and that ‘Dr John understands this difference’. I concluded by inviting everyone to pray ‘for Jeffrey John that, with his many gifts, he may be a sound teacher of the faith and a faithful and godly pastor of Christ’s flock.’
As the story ran on in the media, it became clear that there was another aspect, one that I had underestimated. In an Ordination the people are asked whether it is their wish that the candidate should be ordained, whether they are willing to uphold the candidate’s ministry. This is not a new idea: the ancient cry was ‘Axios! It became obvious that, however much the world liked the appointment of a self-confessed gay man, there were many in the Church who thought otherwise. Would enough bishops turn up to consecrate Jeffrey? Would the congregation cry with one voice ‘ax/cm’!’?
There is much in this sorry tale to disturb us. For one thing, poor Jeffrey John has been driven to make public promises of chastity which, though no doubt sincerely meant, were made under some duress. How different from marriage vows or the vows made by monks, nuns and other religious! For another thing, he and his close friends have been subjected to the worst of pressure, including some outrageous attacks from the general public.
My own conclusion is that this was an ill-advised and ill-timed appointment. Was it based, perhaps, on the same kind of ‘going for broke’ tactics – and the same kind of liberal bible interpretation– that we saw over the ordination of women? If so, it needs to be said again that two thousand years of tradition cannot be changed by a couple of church reports and a show of hands. Nor can tradition be changed by the weight of public opinion, especially if public opinion means the small band of not-so-happy hedonists who run most of the media.
Having said all that, the Church is committed to listen attentively to gay people and the Archbishop has called now ) -r a time of reflection. Perhaps we should start by admitting the obvious: those with homosexual
orientation have been – and continue to be – a cherished part of the Church and of the ordained ministry. None of us is defined by our sexuality, and celibacy – the decision to remain unmarried – is a charism. Indeed one of the casualties of all this has been the attack on friendship, as if deep friendships are inevitably expressed sexually. Even when there is an element of sexual attraction, most are surely not. After all, Jesus and most of the apostles were unmarried and most bishops, priests and deacons throughout the ages have been unmarried. Another casualty has been a sense of the Church’s openness and hospitality. The Church is there for everyone and not just for heterosexuals. As Jesus said in not dissimilar circumstances – and surely says again to us – ‘Let him who is without sin be the first to throw a stone’ (John 8.7).
May God grant peace and tranquility to his Church.
+ Andrew Ebbsfleet