The office of a bishop is weighty in the Church. Charged with acting as a focus of unity and with upholding doctrine, the post is supposed to be prayerfully accepted rather than actively sought, which is why reports that the Dean of St Albans may sue the Church of England for discrimination over its refusal to make him a bishop will have shocked the Anglican hierarchy to its core.
If Jeffrey John is feeling impatient, that is understandable. He has, it is understood, been put forward several times for promotion only to be rejected for the same reason: he is openly gay and living with a male partner. When Dr John was nominated for the diocese of Reading in 2003, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, persuaded him to withdraw. The archbishop faced an eruption of homophobic fury from the Church's Evangelical wing and from several African provinces of the Anglican Communion, which threatened to break away if an openly gay man received an English diocese. Back then, Dr John was told that the time was not right for a gay bishop, the suggestion being that it might be right soon. But after being put forward for several other bishoprics, including Southwark, a post for which many local churchgoers thought he was ideal, he appears to have lost heart.
If the matter ends in court, it will be unprecedented. The Church will no doubt claim it has a right to deny high office to openly gay men, as its first points of reference are the Bible and 2,000 years of Christian teaching, not modern, Western notions on sexuality. It is an old argument: eternal verities of heaven versus changing standards on earth.
One problem for the CofE in this regard, however, is that unlike the Catholic Church, it is "the church by law established" and thus locked into a much more intimate relationship with the state than other faith groups. If Anglicans really do seek de facto exemption from the law on issues such as sexual equality, it would help their case if they cut their remaining ties with the state. At the moment they seem to want to access the privilege of establishment – the main one being the privilege of being heard on national issues – without accepting the responsibilities.