“Incompatible With Scripture”: Jeffrey John on Sexuality & Sanity

The news that Jeffrey John is  a leading candidate to be the next Anglican bishop has caused some panic to break out on the conservative religious blogosphere: the inappropriately and misleadingly named “Anglican Mainstream” has called for an urgent day of prayer to forestall this impending calamity. Virtue Online has dredged up and posted an address he gave back in 1998 on the theme of homosexuality in the Anglican clergy. I am grateful to David Virtue. No doubt he thinks he has posted it as some kind of “warning”:  I read it as prescient.  In the dozen years since he gave this address, years before he was first named and then asked to withdraw as bishop of Reading, the Anglican church has moved a long way, here and world-wide. But instead of simply reading the address as dated, I see it as a mirror for the present state of play in the Catholic church: exactly the same allegations of clerical and episcopal hypocrisy apply to the Church of Rome. More interesting, is that when I put this alongside the small, hopeful signs I see of an imminent shift in emphasis by Catholic bishops, I wonder if we in the Catholic church will also be able to look back twelve years hence, and to note some useful changes.

But that is speculation. Far more useful at this stage is just to read and enjoy John’s wisdom – and humour. I loved his story of the run-around he was given years before when first applying for ordination. The church authorities had established from medical records that Johns was possible gay, and had referred him for psychiatric evaluation:

So l had to go and be checked by the ACCM psychiatrist. This was the first time I realized that in seeking ordination I was entering a danger zone. I was furious that it had happened. but I duly trotted down to London from Oxford one Saturday morning and arrived at a remarkably dingy practice in Battersea. It was the sort of place one might imagine a back street abortionist to operate in, a tiny surgery with peeling wallpaper lit by one fly-blown naked lightbulb. This apparently was the Church of England’s psychiatric HQ. But the truly remarkable thing was the ACCM psychiatrist, whom at first I took to be a patient, since he was dressed in a leather jacket with studs and chains, leather boots, tight jeans, very long dark hair, and a cerise chiffon scarf. When he introduced himself as the ACM psychiatrist, I began to wonder if this was some sort of entrapment procedure – perhaps I was supposed to respond to the uniform and try to get off with him, whereupon an ACCM official would leap out from behind a curtain and say ‘Aha. Got you red-handed’

That did not happen. We had a cup of tea instead, and a cosy chat about family and feelings. Nothing at all about sexuality, nor the entry on my medical record, which was the reason I was there. After tea he said, since he realized I was more than a little angry about what had happened, that he would write his report on me right away so that l could see it myself and post it to ACCM on my way home. So he did. He wrote, ‘Dear ACCM Secretary, I have examined Mr John and conclude that he is a good deal saner than those who sent him to me. Yours sincerely,…’. I posted it in the box outside.

He also describes the hypocrisy by which homosexuality within the Church and the clergy was tacitly accepted and tolerated – as long as nothing was said or revealed publicly. This hypocrisy is similarly rife in the Catholic church today, concerning all issues of sexual ethics, not just homosexuality. It is well known that most married couples practice contraception, frequently with the support and even encouragement of their priests. Pastoral guidance on masturbation, relationships after divorce, and homosexuality frequently differs  dramatically from the formal rules laid down as Vatican doctrine,  as long as this advice is kept suitably discreet and private. Priests themselves do not comply with Vatican rules: it is widely recognized that an unknown but sizeable proportion of priests do not keep scrupulously to their vows of celibacy, and are to some degree sexually active, with partners male or female – or in solo activity.

What most angered him though, was the vote taken at one Lambeth conference that homosexuality was “incompatible with Scripture”.  This is his stirring response:

Above all, remember how Jesus worked with his own tradition. ln Judaism Jesus was beset with two forms of congealed traditionalism: the Sadducaic tradition, the religion of the Herodians, the establishment men, who wanted religion to be the unchanging glue in the social structure; and the tradition of the Pharisees, the Evangelicals and enthusiasts of the day, who were much nearer to Jesus in spirit and doctrine, but who turned into even more murderous enemies when he wanted to challenge and change them, But in dealing with them both, it is important to see that Jesus argues for challenge and change always within the tradition, and always on the basis of scripture. He will not short-circuit scripture or tradition, even to the point of exasperation. When he tries to get them to see that they have turned the sabbath into an idol instead of a gift, he does not say, ‘Look: the sabbath law is rubbish; just give it up’. Nor does he say, ‘Look: I’m the Son of God so I’m telling you you can do what you like’. No; Jesus argues from within the tradition. He makes a point of showing that the tradition itself had strands of humanity and generosity that were being forgotten. He reminds them that the purpose of the law is for the good of humanity, not the other way round. He points out that God’s love for anyone who is suffering here and now had always overridden any petty concern with sabbath conventions.

If Jesus was a revolutionary at all, he was never a disconnected revolutionary. He constantly faced the accusation that his teaching was ‘incompatible with scripture’; he was put to death for being ‘incompatible with scripture’; but as long as lived he never denied scripture, but kept on trying to explain, exhaustively and patiently, why their understanding was false. He pointed out how conveniently selective his enemies were in their biblical literalism, obeying one rule about Corban but ignoring another about caring for their own parents. If they accused him of not keeping the rules of washing and fasting, he pointed out that scripture was more genuinely concerned with cleanliness of heart and soul, not pots and pans. lf they objected that his consorting with Gentiles was ‘incompatible with scripture’ he reminded them that their own exclusive attitude contradicted the openness of Elijah and Elisha to Naaman and the widow, or the message of Jonah to the Ninevites, or the promise of lsaiah and Jeremiah and Zechariah that the light would come to the nations. lf they accused him of overturning the Law, he showed them that he came to fulfil the law, not to abolish it. He works within the tradition, and despite all his rudeness to the Sadducees and Pharisees. he respects the tradition, he comes as one under the law, to complete and not to destroy.

This has something of crucial importance to say to us as Anglican Catholics today. Many of us are tired and impatient, because it seems so hard now to love the Church and work with it. Often it is hard not to hate it, to the point of slamming the door and walking out, in the well-tried Anglican way. So of course it is tempting to short-circuit argument. Of course some will say silly unthought-out things like ‘Well l don’t care about scripture’ or ‘tradition has nothing to say at the end of the twentieth century’. But once you say that, you have given up the pass. Once you stop negotiating with tradition and scripture, once you give up the struggle to pray with them and think through them, you are as much cut off from the lifeblood of Christian growth as any fundamentalist, and you are about as much use. Because it is not true that scripture has nothing to tell us. lt has everything to tell us. And it is not true that tradition has nothing to say at the end of the twentieth century. Now, of all times, finding our true bearings in the tradition is more important than ever. But yes – compared to the easy simplicities of fundamentalism and the easy simplicities of atheism it is hard, painful work.

There is much, much more, but I cannot simply an entire post verbatim. Much as it irks me to recommend Virtue Online, that is where you will have to go to read the full post – but do so.

When I first posted the news that Jeffrey Johns was a favoured candidate for Southwark, my reader TheraP responded in a comment

“Let Us Pray”.

After reading this thoughtful, wise address, I repeat and redouble my response to her:

“Alleluia, Amen, Allelulia, Amen.”

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