Triumph of Hope over adversity

Paul Vallely on the next Archbishop of York, who was recently targeted for `outing'
  • @pvall
It looks like a fairly high-risk strategy on the face of it. "Gay group's target is named Archbishop of York", proclaimed the headlines yesterday over the news that the Bishop of London, David Hope, is to be translated to the Church of England's second most important post. To those outside the church it seems a curious appointment, smacking either of other-worldliness of an order which is surprising even for modern-day Anglicanism or else of an unaccustomed firmness in the face of the recent harassment by the sanctimonious homosexual activist Peter Tatchell of those clerics he accuses of being closet gays.

The question of homosexuality seems likely to continue to consume a disproportionate amount of the Church of England's time in the year ahead. Its internal document Issues of Human Sexuality is to be presented by the bishops to its governing body, the General Synod, at the end of the year, and many suspect that the elections to the synod in October will be dominated by the homosexuality issue which is at the heart of the report. In addition, Mr Tatchell's groupOutRage! has announced that it will continue its policy of embarrassing individual senior clerics with public proclamations of their alleged homosexuality whenever it sees the opportunity for publicity. The results may be far more unnerving than Mr Tatchell's attempt to blackmail the steely Dr Hope, and even he was sufficiently abashed to make the public concession that his sexuality was ambiguous beneath his commitment to priestly celibacy.

Dr Hope, it is generally agreed, came well out of the encounter. His dignified determination engendered considerable public sympathy. There were even those who were saying yesterday that this was a significant factor in the decision to promote him to a job which could eventually lead him to Canterbury.

The chronology of events reveals something else. The present archbishop, Dr John Habgood, announced his retirement last year at the end of September. In the same month the process for selecting a new archbishop began. The Vacancy in See committee of the archdiocese of York met to draw up a "statement of needs", outlining what they hoped for from the new incumbent, and to elect four of its number to the Crown Appointments Commission. The commission, the highly secretive mechanism for the selection of bishops, consists of these four plus the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and six permanent members elected by the General Synod.

Its members received the "statement of needs" along with another confidential report on the archdiocese drawn up by Hector Maclean, the archbishops' appointments secretary, and John Holroyd, the prime minister's nominee on the commission. On the basis of these, the members submitted their nominationsfor the post.

Early in February the two secretaries sent the CVs of all the nominated candidates by post to the commission members. A few days later the commission held a secret meeting at a small retreat house in Canterbury province. The 14 members began over lunch with a general discussion of the needs of the archdiocese and of the church in general. One of the key factors is understood to have been the need to signal to the conservative wing of the church that its faction was not to be excluded from the Anglican mainstream because of its unsuccessful rearguard action against the ordination of women.

The discussion continued all afternoon and it was only after supper that they began to look at the submitted names - more than a dozen of them. The two secretaries had prepared a two-page reference for each candidate which was handed out to each member before being read aloud. A shortlist of five candidates was drawn up.

Next morning, after an early Eucharist and breakfast, they began voting, eliminating candidates one by one until only one was left. A second name was then chosen by the same process.The documents were gathered in for shredding and the two names were passed to the Prime Minister.

Many of those on the commission knew David Hope, a former Bishop of Wakefield, well. One had even played football with him as a schoolboy. (Dr Hope was a chorister at Wakefield). His character, they perceived, was that of a priest with strong pastoral abilities, a deep spirituality - he is known to pray a lot - but with a canny managerial ability in which a granite core was moderated by a common touch and a dry sense of humour.

As an opponent of women priests - but one who had countenanced their ordination in the deeply divided London diocese while declining to play a part in the ceremony himself - he was thought to be the man to signal an intent to heal the divisions and splits. He was also a catholic - he went to Rome to study for his doctorate in liturgy using the Vatican library - and was well placed to signal Anglicanism's intention to avoid the kind of schism that Christianity holds to be a scandal in its witness to the secular world. His sexuality is not thought to have been a significant subject for deliberation.

The process then should have been straightforward. By tradition the prime minister takes the name from the top of the list (though Mrs Thatcher was said to have been more interventionist). The favoured candidate is approached and if he agrees - subject to a medical examination, which was introduced in the Seventies after a number of appointees went down with serious illnesses soon after taking office - his name is passed for approval to the Queen.

This time, however, events intervened. On 30 December Dr Hope had met Peter Tatchell to discuss the threat by OutRage! to "out" him. The bishop hoped the matter was closed, but towards the end of February Mr Tatchell rang him to demand a written reply. Dr Hope wrote to him and summoned a press conference for 13 March. "I'm not having people messing around with my life," he told his London staff privately, and determined, as one of them put it, to "get his retaliation in first".

The Crown Appointments Commission was not reconsulted. One week later Dr Hope was spotted one evening leaving Downing Street, turning up his collar as he passed through the gates. Three weeks after that his appointment to the archbishopric of York was announced. Conspiracy theorists, of which the church has plenty, were yesterday speculating about whether some kind of deal was struck to confront the outing activists and to gauge the public response before making the final appointment.

Dr Hope has insisted that the two decisions were not linked. Whatever the case, it is clear that those who underestimate the mettle of the new Primate of England will do so at their own peril. It may not be such a high-risk appointment as it appears.