Bishop rounds on critics of gay clergy

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The Independent Online

The Bishop of Oxford yesterday accused critics of gay clergy in the Church of England of fuelling homophobic violence and called on the Church to decide once and for all if it is "pro-gay or anti-gay".

The Right Rev Richard Harries was defending his appointment of Dr Jeffrey John as the Bishop of Reading after revelations last week he had been in a same-sex relationship for decades which led to calls for his resignation.

Speaking to the Oxford Diocesan Synod meeting in High Wycombe, the bishop launched a staunch defence of Dr John, saying he was "committed to a personal lifestyle of sexual abstinence".

"We have to ask why there is this campaign against him and from where is it coming," he said. "Some of his previous utterances have been hunted down and passed to the press. People are prying into his private life ... Do other appointments receive this treatment? Why is it always the gay issue? I believe these cruel events should make us ask whether we as a church are pro-gay or anti-gay."

The bishop then outlined research that showed a third of gay men and a quarter of gay women had experienced homophobic violence.

"What is happening now can only reinforce homophobic elements in our society and in the church," he said.

Dr John's appointment, announced last month, had already caused controversy because he had been a leading advocate of gay rights in the church and had contributed to a book of prayer for gay people that includes prayers for sex changes and same-sex marriages. In accepting the post of Bishop of Reading, Dr John had agreed to uphold the church's official policy that gay clergy should stay celibate.

The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Rev Graham Dow, said there was "deep concern" among bishops over Dr John's appointment. The Primate of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, called on the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, to reverse the appointment.

But sympathy for Dr John among gay campaigners in the church was mixed. The Rev Richard Kirker, general secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, said Dr John should continue to speak out against homophobia.

"He is not being consistent," Mr Kirker said. "We support people who tell the truth and are prepared to challenge the Church's teaching. Anybody who is prepared to further their career by agreeing with it after disagreeing with it raises questions of whether they are a person of principle or a person of pragmatism."

But he added: "I do have some sympathy. [He] has been badly treated by the church in the past. He has been offered other appointments in the church that have been vetoed by those who find his same-sex relationship unacceptable. What an awful demand for him, to end his relationship or not have another job."

* For the first time in the US, Episcopalians, a division of the Anglican Church, have elected an openly gay man as a bishop. Rev V Gene Robinson, 56, was chosen over three other candidates as Bishop of New Hampshire.

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