The gay churchman and an unholy row

Reports that Jeffrey John could go to court over the Church of England's sidelining of gay clergy have reignited the most divisive issue it faces.

At the end of last summer, a team of solicitors acting for the Church of England drew up a five-page document detailing in which circumstances a cleric could be legally banned from becoming a bishop because he was homosexual. The briefing was one of a number of dry, legal notes issued by Church House that year. But among liberals it caused consternation.

The Church long ago decided there was essentially nothing to stop a gay man who lived a life of celibacy from becoming a bishop. Even within the orthodox wings there was acceptance it would be difficult to exclude someone who was living in an entirely celibate civil partnership - for most traditionalists the line in the sand was engaging in a physical, same-sex relationship.

But a grey area remained concerning clergy who at one time or another had a same-sex relationship but had since abandoned it in favour of celibacy. Could someone who had been physically homosexual ever become a bishop?

The Church's legal note provided a stark answer. Only those who had "repented" their physically homosexual past could be considered for a bishop. You could be a gay bishop, but only if you vocally shunned your sexual past, a condition which is not imposed on heterosexual applicants.

Within conservative wings the caveat quickly became gleefully nicknamed "The Jeffrey John clause" - after the openly gay Dean of St Albans who was humiliatingly made to relinquish his appointment to the Bishop of Reading in 2003 following traditionalist outrage over his promotion. Dr John lives in a celibate relationship but has always said refused to apologise for his past.

In effect, the decision meant those who remained in the closet could climb the ecclesiastical pole, but those who were honest about their sexuality were disbarred. To the liberals it was a slap in the face - another clear indication that senior leaders within the Church of England had no desire to rock the boat or confront an issue that has deeply divided the Anglican Communion for much of the past 15 years.

But now the liberal wing may force the Church's hand. Over the weekend it was reported that the Right Reverend John had finally had enough of being passed over for promotion and had instructed a specialist employment law firm to look into beginning proceedings against the Church of England.

Under current equality laws religious organisations are are given dispensation to discriminate against those who do not comply with their teachings, allowing clerics like Dr John to be passed over, and mosques to only have male imams, for example. Were the Church's current stance on homosexuality to be tested in court the Church would almost certainly win, for if it didn't the very existence of many faiths would be under threat. But by forcing the issue those at the top would be forced to confront some embarrassing - and extremely divisive - issues.

Some of those who know him expressed surprise that he would take such a step. "Jeffrey's always wanted to do things within the church," said one. "He's not the litigious type."

Others questioned where the leak came from. "It's so obviously deeply counter-productive to Jeffrey," said another colleague. "It makes him look like he's saying promote or I'll sue. It's a rather good way of smearing him."

Whether the Dean would go to the courts or not is a moot point. But there is little doubt he and fellow liberals have become frustrated at a form of discrimination that would be entirely illegal outside a church, mosque or synagogue.

Two years ago the Dean was short-listed but lost out on becoming Bishop of Southwark, an ultra-liberal London diocese with many homosexual clergy members and laity. A leaked memo later claimed that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, blocked his appointment. Written by Colin Slee, the late Dean of Southwark Cathedral, the memo also pointedly lamented a well-known but generally hushed up fact - that the Church had plenty of closeted gay bishops who "have been less that candid about there domestic arrangements and ... have been appointed to senior positions".

The Independent also understands Dr John was not even long-listed for the currently vacant post of Bishop of Edinburgh, meaning no church leader was willing to put him forward for another key diocese with liberal leanings.

Ironically, neither liberals nor traditionalists are happy with the current status quo and both want to see some final resolution to the issue of homosexuality. But the Church of England's senior leaders - not least the Archbishop of Canterbury - are loath to wade into a theological quagmire at such a fragile time for church unity.

For 2012 will be a crunch year for the Church of England. Over the next six months the Church's parliament - known as synod - will finally decide on whether to appoint women bishops and what provision should be made for those theologically opposed to the idea.

Rowan Williams - backed by the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu - is expected to make a final plea to allow for a system that gives traditionalists permission to refuse to be administered to by women bishops. A failure to reach a compromise could see traditionalists walk away from the church all together.

At a time when such rancour and disagreement already abounds, there are few senior leaders willing to throw another spanner in the works.

But some liberals believe now is precisely the time for them to force the issue. "We are determined to campaign for full equality right now," says Colin Coward, director of Changing Attitude, the most prolific, pro-gay lobby within the Church. "There is no sense of urgency among Church leaders. But the Church is sick, it needs to be fixed right away."