Site of sacrifice and martyrdom, St Albans is to test the church faithful again with a gay dean

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The Independent Online

Some 1,750 years ago, on a hill in what would become Hertfordshire, a God-fearing man called Alban avowed his Christian faith to an audience divided over whether he was a heretic or a saint. To dispel doubts, the executioner's eyes fell out as he was beheaded.

Some 1,750 years ago, on a hill in what would become Hertfordshire, a God-fearing man called Alban avowed his Christian faith to an audience divided over whether he was a heretic or a saint. To dispel doubts, the executioner's eyes fell out as he was beheaded.

Shortly after 5pm today, another devout man, Dr Jeffrey John, will stand on the same spot where St Alban was martyred and declare his faith to a community similarly split over whether its latest spiritual leader represents the true faith, or the unacceptable face of liberal Christianity.

The debate centres on the issue that has split the Church of England. Dr John, 51, a mild-mannered theologian with a double first from Oxford who will be installed as the new dean of St Albans Abbey at a special ceremony in front of 2,000 people, is gay.

As one man in cycling gear resting in the lush gardens of the cathedral put it to The Independent: "The Bible is clear: that sort of thing is wrong if you're Christian. It is preposterous to appoint a man whose life is against scripture. If he's a homosexual, then he has no place in the church. Easy as that. And I'm an atheist."

Fortunately, levels of tolerance in this well-heeled commuter town have risen since AD250, when its early Christian saint was beheaded on the site of the present abbey by the Romans for hiding a priest and refusing to recant his new faith.

But in the Georgian homes and neat tea rooms of St Albans and its surrounding diocese of two million souls, passions are running high. Dr John's opponents believe that in this corner of the Home Counties they are fighting a battle for the soul of Anglicanism and its 70 million global followers.

One leading campaigner said: "Don't be fooled by the beauty of the old buildings and the Romanesque church. What is happening here is extremely important. It is a struggle to ensure that scripture held dear by millions is upheld." It is a fight which is getting messy. Today's ceremony will take place in a cathedral cordoned by police, thanks to the unwanted attentions of the National Front, which has said it will march on the abbey and distribute leaflets protesting at the "infiltration" of the Church. Hertfordshire Police said it would have enough officers to ensure the "dignity and religious nature of the ceremony" were maintained.

But away from the opportunism of extremists, the debate over Dr John's appointment has caused a split which many fear will be repeated in the global Anglican church if the Lambeth Commission, the body set up to study the issue of homosexuality, fails to produce a doctrinal solution this year.

At least two parishes in the diocese of St Albans, which stretches from north London to Luton, have decided to withhold their "quota", the annual sum paid to central funds, in protest. There is talk among some dissenting clergy of seeking a different bishop to govern their parish, and others have accused of the bishop of St Albans, the Rt Rev Christopher Herbert, of causing a "breakdown in trust" by supporting Dr John in his new position.

Among those who will not be attending today's service is the Rev Charles Dobbie, whose parish of Holy Trinity Lyonsdown in New Barnet, north London, became the first to withhold its quota of £33,600. The surplus of its fund, used to pay the parish clergy and other costs, is being donated to a controversial Christian charity that seeks to "cure" homosexuals. Mr Dobbie said: "When you occupy a position, as we do, of mainstream orthodoxy, we cannot pay a quota which will be used to promote immorality, the fracturing of consensus over scripture and the deliberate fermenting of schism."

More than 70 clergy and laity from St Albans' Diocesan Evangelical Fellowship, representing 37 parishes, met last month to discuss an "action plan". An undisclosed number of parishes are also understood to be on the brink of withholding their quotas after agreeing that "the grace and glory of Christ is being undermined by the issues underlying this appointment".

The campaigners against the role of Dr John, who was canon theologian at Southwark Cathedral in south London, claim to have had messages of support from clergy and worshippers across the globe, including a Jewish rabbi. But their opponents prefer to point out that, beyond the Church of England and its doctrinal civil war, sexual orientation is considered irrelevant to the ability or suitability of someone to do a job.

For those backing Dr John, his appointment as dean, which gives him responsibility for day-to-day running of the cathedral from preaching to its music, is a significant victory after a galling defeat. The priest was forced to stand down after he was invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, to become Suffragan Bishop of Reading last year.

Under the complex status quo in the Anglican communion, the prevailing view of evangelicals is that homosexuals should be celibate and repent for past sexual relations. Dr John, who has been with his partner, also an Anglican priest, for 28 years, has long been celibate but rejects talk of repentance. He has attacked "prejudice, bigotry and oppression" within the Church.