Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2003

Former Anglican priest Dan O’Hara recounts the saga of the openly gay bishop and would-be bishop: USA 1 : UK 0.

Faith, Hope, Plum Tart and Bobo

by Dan O’Hara

Both the Church of England and its American sister, the Episcopal Church, have been in turmoil this summer over the possibility of having their first openly gay bishops.

In England, the announcement in June that the Rev. Jeffrey John, 50, a canon of Southwark Cathedral, had been appointed Suffragan Bishop of Reading in the Oxford diocese was met by howls of disapproval from evangelicals and mainstream traditionalists because he had openly stated that he was gay, that he disapproved of the double standards advocated by the 1991 official policy statement, Issues in Human Sexuality (which condones homosexual relationships for the laity but not for the clergy), and that he is still in a 27-year-long gay relationship, albeit one that is no longer sexually active.

For several weeks the matter made daily headlines in the quality press: Gay bishop vows “we will stay together” (The Times, 19 June); Diocese riven by revolt over gay bishop (Daily Telegraph, 21 June). For two weeks, Canon John and his chief sponsor, Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, fought off threats at home and abroad about what would happen if his consecration went ahead as planned in October. Nine bishops signed an open letter regretting the appointment: eight others rallied to support it. The Queen was said to be “deeply concerned” over the rift opening up in the Church, of which she is titular head (Sunday Telegraph, 29 June), and Archbishop Rowan Williams, an old friend of Jeffrey John, who initially approved his elevation to the episcopate, began to wobble.

On Saturday 5 July, Canon John was summoned to Lambeth Palace at 8 a.m., and it is quite clear from what followed that the archbishop put pressure on him to stand down. It took all morning before the matter was resolved, with Jeffrey John issuing a brief statement to the effect that he was withdrawing from the post. This did not settle matters at all, for the Dean of Southwark, the Very Rev. Colin Slee, issued an angry statement deploring the pressure put on Canon John, and implicating the archbishop in blatant bullying. Liberal fury as gay bishop stands down was the Daily Telegraph’s lead headline on 7 July. Church sacrifices gay bishop led The Times on the same day. Calls from the archbishop for unity and calm echoed over the following week, and media interest began to wane.

But almost immediately the focus moved to the USA, where Canon Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest who had left his wife and two children to live with a man some thirteen years ago, and who does not seek to disguise the fact that they remain in a loving and physically expressed relationship, was elected Bishop of New Hampshire. The American church, unlike the C of E, is democratic, and there the clergy and people of a diocese elect their own bishop, subject only to the ratification of the church’s general convention.

In August there was intense lobbying by conservatives at the meeting of the convention to block Canon Robinson’s appointment. But the clergy and laity supported him by a majority of 2 to 1, and it was assumed that the bishops would follow suit. At the eleventh hour, serious allegations were made against Robinson, and it looked as though his consecration might not go ahead. But the allegations were quickly investigated and disposed of, and the bishops by a significant majority agreed the appointment should stand.

What lessons might we draw from these events? It has long been known that about a quarter of Anglican clergy are gay, and although relatively few live openly with same-sex partners, and some are presumably completely celibate, with monotonous regularity errant priests (many of them married) have been caught cottaging and acquired a criminal record for “gross indecency”, among them the outgoing Bishop of Durham, Michael Turnbull.

Having studied at both an English seminary (Cuddesdon) and one in America (the former Philadelphia Divinity School), I know from experience that a significant proportion of clergy in both countries are gay. Looking at the Cuddesdon College official photograph taken early in 1967, I recognise twelve faces out of sixty that I know were gay or bisexual, and this is doubtless an underestimate. But at other high-church colleges, like Chichester and St Stephen’s House, Oxford (where Jeffrey John and a fellow student, now the Rev. Grant Holmes, began their relationship in 1976), gays were nearly always in the majority.

The well-known wordsmith A. N. Wilson (b. 1950), who has written mildly critical studies of such noted Christian luminaries as Belloc (1984), Tolstoy (1988), C. S. Lewis (1990), Jesus (1992) and St Paul (1997), as well as an extended obituary of the deity (God’s Funeral, 1999), now has a highly equivocal relationship with the Church. In his twenties, however, he felt called to the priesthood, and spent a year at St Stephen’s House (known as “Staggers”) before leaving for academe. He is now a married man with a large family. In the Daily Telegraph on 17 and 18 June, he revealed that, during the years when both he and subsequently Jeffrey John and his partner were there, the college principal was known as “Ena the Cruel”. By a strange coincidence, this same “Ena” is now better known as the Archbishop of York, Dr David Hope.

It was Hope, claims Jeffrey John, who, on hearing of his new-found love, actively encouraged it. David Hope has never actually come out as gay, though he did once famously describe his own sexuality as “a grey area”. Among A. N. Wilson’s affectionately remembered contemporaries at “Staggers” were those known as “Tawdry Audrey”, “Bobo”, “Maude”, “Pearl” and “Plum Tart”. He has nothing but admiration for the self-sacrifice and dedication they have shown in their ministries, but his approval is not shared by the baying hordes of conservative evangelicals and rigid traditionalists who successfully brought Canon John’s hopes of preferment tumbling to the ground. One feels, however, that the story is not quite over yet.

While I have sympathy for all those working for wholehearted acceptance of loving and committed same-sex relationships, whether or not they are physically expressed, I cannot help wondering why those who take an enlightened view of such matters keep trying to square their approach with the Bible. It is, of course, to the Bible that traditionalists in the Church turn for their values – how could it be otherwise? – and it is very unedifying to watch revisionists of the gay Christian lobby trying to pretend that the scriptures do not mean what they seem to mean.

St Paul, for example, declares, quite unequivocally that those who indulge in homosexual activity “deserve to die” (Romans 1: 32). But, instead of saying “Who gives a toss what that bigoted old fanatic thought about anything?”, gay Christians, who are foolishly determined to remain within the fold, have to resort to weasel words, suggesting that perhaps he was talking about temple prostitution. Codswallop! He meant what he said. But he was wrong. What would we think of a modern social democrat who sought to reconcile his views with those of Adolf Hitler? We would say he was perverse even to try.

Religious fundamentalism is surely the ultimate perversity; and it deserves to be roundly rejected, not truckled to.

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Created : Sunday, 2003-11-23 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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