In a move that deserves close watching, an openly gay man has been approved for inclusion on the shortlist of candidates to be selected as the next Anglican Bishop of Southwark (South London), in a move which would make him the first openly gay bishop here in the UK. Back in 2003 he was selected as bishop of Reading – but in an embarrassing about-face by Archbishop Rowan Williams, was forced to withdraw in the face of the public outcry, and instead accepted appointment as dean of St Alban’s cathedral.
Archbishop Williams’ craven intervention has been widely seen as the nadir among many low points in his handling of the rift in the Anglican communion over LGBT inclusion. No doubt, he was hoping to placate the anger of the evangelical wing, especially in the African churches, and fend off the growing divisions. Instead, the conservatives have simply used it as a pretext for more muscle flexing and intransigence, on gay bishops and women bishops. The division can no longer be fended off – it is there already. The only question now, is the precise shape it will take.
Meanwhile, Dean Johns has gained many admirers in the execution of his duties at St Alban’s, and is well liked in the liberal leaning diocese, which includes in its area some notable concentrations of gay population:
Crucially, it is understood that many of the Commission believe that he is the best candidate. Articulate, pastorally sensitive as well as being an intellectual heavyweight, he is considered to have done an excellent job as dean of St Albans.
He knows the diocese well from his time as canon at Southwark cathedral, and would be a popular choice with its overwhelmingly liberal parishes.
The appointment of “Bishop Johns” would certainly be controversial, but less so than it was six years ago.Since then the consecrations of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire, Mary Glasspool in LA, and Eva Brunne in Sweden have somewhat taken the sting out of the idea of lesbian or gay bishops. The obvious popularity and success of Gene Robinson in particular, has probably won over many of the early opponents.
The Daily Telegraph says that approving this appointment would “anger” the conservative wing of the church. Failing to approve his selection would anger even more the moderates and liberals in the church. Over the long history of the struggle for lesbian and gay inclusion in the Anglican/Episcopalian communion, both liberals and conservatives have been asked to make compromises. The liberals have done so, the conservatives have not. Yet when, after extensive provocation, the liberals have refused to continue bending over backwards, they have been penalised and the conservatives have not.
If appointed, Johns will become the first openly gay man selected as a bishop in the Church of England – but he will not be the first gay bishop of Southwark. Mervyn Stockwood, Bishop from 1959 to 1980, was gay (but celibate). Within the Church of England he was liberal in his view of the morality of homosexual behaviour. He spoke in favour of homosexual law reform, included gay couples among the guests at his dinner and on at least one occasion blessed a gay relationship. However, he was not open until he was outed by Outrage!shortly before his death in 1995.
There will be openly gay bishops in the UK: if not now, then soon. It would be fitting though, if the first bishop should be Jeffrey Johns, and the diocese Southwark.
From the Daily Telegraph:
Gay cleric in line to become bishop in Church of England
A confidential meeting, chaired by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has approved Dr Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, to be on the shortlist to be the next Bishop of Southwark.
Dr John is a hugely divisive figure in the church after he was forced to stand down from becoming the Bishop of Reading in 2003 after it emerged he was in a homosexual, but celibate, relationship.
Promoting him to one of the most senior offices in the Church would trigger a civil war between liberals and conservatives and exacerbate existing divisions within the Anglican Communion.
Members of the Crown Nominations Commission, the body responsible for selecting bishops, will vote this week on whether Dr John’s name should now be put forward to the Prime Minister for final approval.
David Cameron has been made aware that Dr John is on the shortlist for the post and is understood to be supportive of such an appointment.
Once the preferred candidate is rubber-stamped by Mr Cameron it is passed to the Queen for final approval.
In 2003, evangelical parishes warned they would withhold payments to central Church coffers if Dr John was consecrated as Bishop of Reading, before Dr Williams ultimately forced him to resign.
It is known that the Queen was “deeply concerned” by the rift.
Dr Williams and Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, who also sits on the commission, will face fierce criticism from the conservative wing of the Church if they allow Dr John to become a bishop.
Regarded as an outstanding preacher and a champion of a more liberal reading of the Bible, he is considered to have enhanced his reputation at St Albans cathedral, which has seen its congregation grow under his leadership.
David Cameron is also expected to be favourable to the appointment as it would reflect the Conservative Party’s drive to shake off its “nasty party” image.
In an interview last year with Attitude, a gay magazine, the prime minister criticised the Church of England over failing to be more accepting in its attitudes to homosexuality.
“But I think the Church has to do some of the things that the Conservative Party has been through – sorting this issue out and recognising that full equality is a bottom line full essential.”
- LGBT Anglican Coalition writes to the Archbishop of Canterbury (thinkinganglicans.org.uk)
- Anglican leader says has ‘no problem’ with gay bishops (newsinfo.inquirer.net)
- Do gay bishops and primates exist? (thinkinganglicans.org.uk)
- Gay Bishops: How Many? (queering-the-church.blogspot.com)