Gay canon rejects bishop's post to avert schism in Church of England

Friends say he was forced to resign
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The Independent Online

The Archbishop of Canterbury has challenged the Church of England to resolve its conflict over gay clergy after a bishop-designate decided to turn down the job in the face of a campaign by traditionalists.

Canon Jeffrey John, the gay priest appointed Bishop of Reading, said yesterday he was turning down the post in an attempt to defuse the confrontation between traditionalists and liberals in the church.

His friends said today that he had been forced to resign. The Very Rev Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark, Canon John's diocese, said the decision was a "catastrophe" for the Church.

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "He promised me back in June that he would not withdraw voluntarily, but that he would withdraw out of obedience to the Archbishop of Canterbury or Bishop Richard Harries if he was asked so to do.

"After a very long meeting he wrote his own letter - he would not sign the letter with which he had been presented - of resignation.

"I think it is a catastrophe for the Church, mainly because there are many people who look at the Christian church and they see the extreme Evangelical churches and think that is certainly not for me, thank you very much.

"The people talk about empty churches. Empty churches may well be empty because of the image that we are presenting of narrowness and bigotry and prejudice.

"I believe that the original target of this campaign always was the Archbishop of Canterbury... the real success is that those who launched this campaign have now seriously undermined the authority of the Archbishop," Dean Slee said.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was desperate to avoid a split, said yesterday that it was time to "pause for thought'' because of the "open and painful confrontation". But Dr Williams warned both sides that the issue of gay priests could not be ducked forever and condemned the "shocking level of ignorance" shown towards gay people in unsavoury letters he had received.

Dr John said in a letter to the man who appointed him, the Right Rev Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, that he would seek the consent of the Crown to withdraw from the post because of the "damage my consecration might cause to the unity of the church". He was due to take over at Reading in October. The Right Rev Harries, a leading liberal, said that Dr John still had his support and that he was aware of the "immense" pressures on him from the media and those opposing his appointment.

The furore arose because Dr John said publicly that he was gay. He is in a long-term partnership with another man but one that has been celibate for many years.

The Church of England's position, set out in 1991, which many say is a fudge, is that it tolerates faithful gay relationships among its congregation but requires gay clergy to remain celibate.

Although the appointment was applauded by gay rights campaigners, it has attracted strong protests among the conservative and evangelical wings of the Church of England and the wider Anglican community.

Dr John's decision was welcomed by evangelical groups in Britain. Joel Edwards, director of the Evangelical Alliance, said: "Our initial thoughts are relief the decision has gone this way. We are grateful to Jeffrey John for his sensitivity on what would have been a colossally difficult appointment."

George Curry, the chairman of the Church Society - one of the leading evangelical groups - said: "The principle is that you believe the Church has a responsibility, that its leaders are faithful to the teaching of the Bible. If someone is not going to be faithful, you have to ask the question about whether they can be a leader."

However, the move was strongly condemned by gay rights activists who warned that the Church's stance would create long-term conflicts with many of its followers.

"The Church must immediately state that it supports all loving caring covenanting relationships, both between women and men, and between people of the same gender," said a spokesman for the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.