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." 

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)