Don't feel too sorry for Canon Jeffrey John

People like Canon Jeffrey know what they are getting into. He has gambled his career, and he has lost

There is a general case to be made that the appointment of bishops by the Church of England is of no real interest to most of us. After all, we don't believe any of the rest of it, so if they decide to abide by obviously arbitrary and eccentric rules when they come to appoint their leaders, perhaps we should merely raise an eyebrow and ignore them. Perhaps their rules might state that bishops may not be women, or must have hairy chests, or may not be left-handed. Who cares? The whole thing is obviously nuts, so let them make up their own rules and we can carry on ignoring them.

One's attitude to homosexuals who get involved with the Church and aspire to become bishops can be summed up as: "If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas." It is hard to have sympathy for people like Jeffrey John, who has just withdrawn his candidacy as Bishop of Reading. They knew what they were getting into: an organisation that, for reasons of its own, forbids homosexuality among its clergy and is full of people who talk offensive nonsense on the subject. They may have been under the impression that they could change minds on the subject; if so, they are discovering that they were mistaken. They have gambled their careers, and lost. If Canon John is not fit to be a bishop, is he fit to be a vicar?

These questions are for the Church, and the rest of us may be forgiven for not taking an interest. However, there is a larger issue. Bishops of the established Church still have a position in the House of Lords. The rest of us can legitimately inquire whether the grounds on which the Church of England sends representatives to Parliament are decent and humane. This shabby case shows that they are not, and it is fair to ask whether a body so eccentric and bigoted is fit to contribute to public life in this significant way.

I'm not an expert on these things, but it seems to me that the Bible contains all sorts of injunctions and taboos, some of which are now followed by the Church of England and some of which are cheerfully ignored. The Bible says a lot of things about not wearing clothes that are made of mixed fibres, about the uncleanness of menstruating women, about shellfish, Moloch, slavery and stoning your daughter to death in certain circumstances. Such rules are not widely followed any longer, even in Reading.

However, among these are a number of statements about sexual relations between men. These, as far as I know, are not specifically directed towards aspiring members of the bishopric, but about everyone. These statements, unlike the shellfish ones, are taken seriously by many in the church. The rest of us may ask what it is about this taboo that makes it still valid, when Christians have taken it upon themselves to ignore so many others.

The answer, of course, is nothing to do with religion and a great deal to do with personal psychological anxieties. When one listens to representatives of right-wing pressure groups, or fundamentalist Christians, obsessing away about something that can hardly affect them directly, and that in any case they can do no more to change than the weather, you have to wonder salaciously about their motivation.

There is nothing more unpleasant in this case than listening to the rantings of some very unstable African bishops. The end result of this exercise, conducted in the spurious name of "unity", is to try to hold what is still quite an important part of public life to ransom, and have these things dictated by a pressure group of extreme views and unacceptable tactics.

And since the discussion turned on whether Canon John was still having sexual relations with his partner, may we now ask the same of other bishops and archbishops? Shall we pick on the Archbishop of York? I don't know if he is married, but if so, are we entitled to ask if he had sex recently with his wife, and what was involved? Would that satisfy those African bishops, no doubt none of whom has slept with anyone he was not married to? It is ridiculous, and it passes belief that anyone is choosing a leader for any organisation based on whether they have a boyfriend. The solution is fairly obvious, however.

First, the Bishop of Reading should be chosen on his professional standing. Second, if African bishops don't like it, the whole idea of church unity ought to be abandoned; it doesn't sound as though they have a lot to contribute to any kind of rational debate anyway. Third, can somebody please explain what on earth any of these people are still doing loitering round the parliamentary upper chamber, lewdly exhibiting their minuscule morality to anyone they can accost?

If the Church was disestablished, as it ought long ago to have been, none of us would care remotely about any of this. They could go back to sacrificing to Moloch, and we would never have to hear about any of them ever again.

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