Should civilisation really crumble at the news that the suffragan bishop-elect of Reading is gay? Dr Jeffrey John is not the first gay bishop; he won't be the last, and he's certainly not the only one now. Yet there has been the most extraordinary ruckus over his appointment. We are told that the Church of England is bitterly divided; that the Anglican Communion will break up; and that this presents the Archbishop of Canterbury with a fateful crisis. It's a great story, except for one thing: almost every part of this hype is untrue, and the bits that are true are true by accident.
The crisis has passed already. When Dr John announced, as he has done, that he is a chaste homosexual who has lived in a loving and faithful relationship for nearly 30 years, and who intends, as a bishop, to follow the policies of the church even when arguing against them sometimes, that should have been the end of the story. The arguments against him were exhausted. He has done everything the church demands a gay priest should do. The only possible objection left is the real one: that he is an able, sympathetic and - now - very public homosexual. But since the official line of the church is that homosexual priests are welcome, providing they keep it in their cassocks, the bigots have been outmanoeuvred.
Even those bishops publicly campaigning against the appointment of Dr John won't say out loud that they think a homosexual inclination is immoral. Of course, it's what most of them believe. Some would even sympathise with the Nigerian bishop who tried to exorcise Richard Kirker of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement at the last Lambeth Conference, in 1998. But they can't say it. They are obliged to claim that they approve of chaste homosexual love and that they treasure the gay clergy in their care.
This shift in hypocrisy follows an astonishing shift of public opinion. In 1987, when the row over gay clergy really started, the Church of England was far more tolerant than the tabloid press. The background to the story then was a belief that bishops ought to set an example, and that being gay was in itself setting a bad example. Now, 15 years and 13 outed bishops later, the tabloid press has completely lost interest in the story. It's hard to tell whether it's more ridiculous to suppose that gays can't be moral exemplars, or that bishops ought to be.
The turnaround in conservative opinion has been just as overwhelming. In 1998, The Daily Telegraph was campaigning, alongside the then Archbishop of Canterbury, to preserve Section 28. It published letters of astonishing bigotry - one, for example, argued against gay servicemen on the grounds that, when they were shot, their infected blood might splash on their comrades' wounds. Now it has carried a leader on the Jeffrey John affair arguing that homosexuality is intrinsically no worse than masturbation, while yesterday's paper had a personal ad in which a 23-year-old black man was looking for a "muscular, masculine" white man.
The average age of the Telegraph's readers is 55. If they have changed their minds, it's clear that the Church of England must have done so too. Indeed, there's some hard evidence of this. The most dynamic and influential part of the evangelical movement within the Church of England is the Alpha course, which is widely regarded as taking a pretty hard line on sex - though it does permit and even encourage the remarriage of divorced people. Last month I found myself debating against Nicky Gumbel, the leader of the Alpha Movement, at the Oxford Union. Chatting beforehand to me and a gay friend, he said that he did not believe that the ordination of gays was an issue on which to split with Rowan Williams, the new Archbishop of Canterbury.
If he won't split - and he won't - who will? The answer, curiously, is only those who have already split, or who never belonged in the first place. The attempt by the previous archbishop to suppress gay clergy in England was not a matter of merely parochial concern. It was a centrepiece of the idea that the Archbishop of Canterbury is a world spiritual leader.
There are quite possibly 19 million Anglicans in Nigeria, and the one thing we know about them is their clergy are thorough-going homophobes. The public acceptance of homosexual clergy in England, or North America, is literally anathema to them. They and other Third World bishops will leave or split the Anglican Communion, but this is like splitting a living sponge. It had no real unity in the first place, and will go on living as if nothing very much had happened.
The Church of England itself has much more solid bonds. It may not have an agreed theology or even a common priesthood - about 10 per cent of the church will not recognise women as priests - but it has a common pension fund, which will keep it together at least until the money runs out. And it is a voluntary organisation, which must refresh itself every generation with new members, who will have grown up in a world where even Tory newspapers carry gay personal ads. They won't be able to understand what all the fuss over Dr John could possibly have been about.
The writer's latest book is 'In the Beginning Was the Worm' (Simon & Schuster)