Hostility disappears as gay canon is appointed Dean of St Albans

Dr Jeffrey John, formerly in line to become Bishop of Reading, is given a senior posting
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The Independent Online

The people of St Albans yesterday welcomed the appointment of the gay canon Dr Jeffrey John as the new Dean of their cathedral, in marked contrast with the hostility he has faced in recent months.

Dr John, who was forced to withdraw his candidacy as Bishop of Reading amid an international furore, is now to be compensated with one of the most senior posts in the Church of England, it has emerged. The Prime Minister's office, responsible for the decision, is expected to make an announcement this week.

The move will leave Dr John as the chief administrator of a major cathedral and still, potentially, on track for a high-profile posting such as Dean of St Paul's or Winchester. Although symbolically important, the Reading bishopric that proved so controversial was a comparatively minor posting.

The current Bishop of St Albans, the Right Rev Christopher Herbert, was a recent candidate to become Archbishop of Canterbury, when Dr Rowan Williams was given the post. Former Archbishop Dr Robert Runcie was a predecessor at St Albans.

It is now unlikely, though, that Dr John will become a bishop in future as his posting as dean - effectively an administrator - puts him on a separate route to promotion.

Yesterday, residents and visitors in the ancient market town were backing Dr John. In the market around the corner from the cathedral, the central tower of which was built from Roman bricks scavenged in the ninth century, a 54-year-old truck driver, Chris Jones, said: "It doesn't bother me at all. They can allow gays wherever they like. What he does with his private life is up to him. I'm Church of England and occasionally go to church and the church should get itself into the 21st century."

This was the prevailing view. Michael Domogala, 19, from St Albans said: "When I think of the Church of England I see it as straight and conservative in its views. Not coming from that point of view I have difficulty identifying with it."

Outside the cathedral itself, Sara Woollard, 30, a civil servant from Essex, said: "I'm very pleased he's been appointed. It was very disappointing he wasn't allowed to be Bishop of Reading. This is an important role and they're making a statement. I'm an atheist but I believe it is right people should be recognised. Homosexuality has been in the church for centuries; it just hasn't been recognised."

Andrew Hall, 28, said: "As a gay man I say move with the times. I don't go to church. Why should I go somewhere where I'm not welcome?"

The only dissenting voice came from Brian Shillum, a retired electrical engineer and a member of the Hertfordshire Diocese Council, who said: "What I think is wrong is that he has to set an example to somebody else and be respected. Even if a small proportion of the congregation is bothered by it then he shouldn't be in that position. His is a position of authority but if his actions are not approved of, then his authority is undermined. It depends what you think about gay people. They say it's natural. I don't."

The news has yet to be made official, and neither the Church nor Downing Street was willing to comment yesterday. But it has been welcomed by the liberal wing - although many remain angry at the treatment of Dr John.

A canon theologian at Southwark Cathedral, he is a much respected figure in the Church. But he is also the most prominent gay clergyman in this country, and the plan to make him Bishop of Reading caused hard-line conservatives to threaten schism.

Dr John, who was subjected to hate mail, was effectively forced to withdraw his candidacy last July after a traumatic meeting with Dr Williams.

One prominent member of the St Albans diocese praised the appointment, but denied claims that there had been any "liberal lobby" on Dr John's behalf. "He is there entirely on merit," she said.

Anglican Mainstream UK, the group which led the opposition to his appointment as bishop, gave a muted response. "The appointment of deans is the prerogative of the Prime Minister," said Dr Philip Giddings, the group's convenor. "We will remember Canon John in our prayers."

But privately, evangelicals have criticised the timing of the appointment. The Lambeth Commission set up by the Archbishop of Canterbury to resolve the crisis over gay clergy is due to report at the end of this year.