Geoffrey Kirk on the Church of England’s failure to speak authoritatively on the subject of homosexuality


I suppose it is gratifying in a bizarre sort of way that – as many of us predicted a quarter of a century ago – the campaigns for women bishops and gay bishops are yoked together: the one, of course, requiring legislation; the other simply requiring good men to do nothing. What is surprising, however, is the vigour with which the gay agenda is now being prosecuted. So eager are the proponents of sexually active homosexual bishops that they campaign for them even from beyond the grave.

The late Dean of Southwark (Colin Slee) let it be known posthumously that he and other members of the Crown Nominations Committee had been frustrated in their attempt to get Jeffrey John appointed as Bishop of Southwark. Both Archbishops had been obstructive, Rowan had thrown a tantrum and it had all ended in tears. So much so that Slee’s daughter later confidently claimed that the frustrations of the Committee had materially contributed to her father’s death from cancer.

Make of that what you will: distraught relations are inclined to say things they do not mean and afterwards regret; and the absurd confidentiality of the CofE’s processes of appointment are an obvious incentive to leakage and spillage. But there is more to the incident than meets the eye.

Difficult as it is to imagine Rowan forsaking academic urbanity and thumping the table with such ferocity that it reduced the assembled company to tears (for tears, indeed, were alleged!), he nevertheless has good cause for anger and frustration. The Jeffrey John problem (which seemed to have been kicked into touch) had simply not gone away. And the timely words of Damian Thompson must have been still ringing in his ears: that, in the matter of the bishopric of Reading, he ‘lay down his friend for his life’.

But Jeffrey John is merely a symptom, and not the problem itself. The problem

is the chronic inability of the Church of England to speak with authority (or even clarity) on issues in general and homosexuality in particular. The rejection of John as Bishop of Reading was based on a doubtful and potentially dangerous proposition (which the Church’s lawyers, it seems, have subsequently endorsed and made their own). This was the claim that ‘it would be anomalous to appoint as a bishop one whose ministry would not be received by many in the diocese or the wider Church’.

The proposition was doubtful because it is abundantly clear that the principle is not one of general application: no one, for example, is inclined to apply it to women bishops. It was potentially dangerous because it was an invitation to further blackmail by powerful minorities. Ruth Gledhill was probably right, in her blog at the time, that it was the financial clout of vociferous evangelicals which swung the case against John. The threat of financial sanctions by wealthy evangelical congregations – unlike similar sabre-rattling by Forward in Faith – was taken seriously.

But all was not gloom for the Archbishop. He could at least take heart at his own emergence relatively unscathed from the debacle – and give thanks that the evangelicals, though principled, were inconsistent. One cannot imagine Calvin (had peradventure such a crisis troubled the Genevan Church of his day) listening with supine indulgence to assurances that John’s life-long relationship was ‘now celibate’ (which is Anglican-speak for ‘no more rumpy-pumpy’); and then allowing the appointment to the same see, by an Archbishop who

shared John’s theological opinions in the matter, of a bishop who, though married, also shared those same opinions.

Then, of course, as Dean Slee posthumously reminded us, there is the matter of Nick Holtam – another refusee for Southwark. Holtam’s episcopal disability was marriage to a divorced wife. Why, you will ask, in a church where even bible-bashing evos are inclined to discount Mark 10.5– 12 when it suits them, was Holtam’s marriage to a divorced Quaker a sensitive issue – and why was it of concern to Slee and his friends?

You are way ahead of me! Nick Holtam, like Rowan Williams, Jeffrey John and Stephen Cottrell, is a vocal supporter of gay bishops. The liberal slate proposed by Colin Slee read ‘If not Jeffrey then Nick’. To be thwarted in the second instance (and on a minor technicality which no reasonable person any longer takes seriously) was bound to raise the blood pressure.

All this post facto agitation is very revealing (though hardly flattering or helpful to Christopher Chessun, the man who got the job in the end). And it was so unnecessary. Consider the theological indifference and bureaucratic pragmatism of the Archbishop’s Appointments Secretary:

‘Because of his well-known views, Jeffrey was not on my original shortlist, but on looking further at his references and after additional consultation with other people, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, it seemed clearly right to bring him into the picture. The references I read offered assurances about his lifestyle and I was particularly impressed by the fact that he had gained the confidence of conservative evangelicals in the Diocese of Southwark.’

Clearly gay bishops are in the bag; they are hardly a subject of contention. It is simply a matter of horses for courses and biding one’s time. Sir Humphrey Appleby rules OK. ND