Sermon points out that slavery was defended on the basis of scripture
In a move likely to provoke renewed aggravation from conservative evangelicals, Canon Jeffrey John, the dean of St Albans, yesterday broke his silence in a sermon in which he reminded the Church of England that Jesus excluded no “untouchables” such as homosexuals from his special care.
The dean, who is gay, attacked “prejudice, bigotry and oppression” within the church, and said Jesus himself was condemned to death by fundamentalist zealots who believed they were obeying scripture – remarks which mirror the argument of his opponents that they are defending biblical orthodoxy in opposing his ministry.
The words will sting because Dr John, canon theologian at Southwark cathedral, uses biblical arguments against the evangelicals. They have insisted that he should not be allowed to challenge the church’s policy and that his appointment defies biblical injunctions against homosexuals.
Dr John was appointed suffragan bishop of Reading a year ago but was subsequently forced to stand down following a worldwide campaign orchestrated by mainly evangelical pressure groups and bishops, when they discovered that he had a 27-year relationship with another clergyman, even though he had been celibate for many years. They demanded he should “repent” the friendship.
Canon John’s sermon will infuriate evangelical pressure groups, which have begun to mobilise again following the announcement of his appointment to St Albans a week ago.
One group, Anglican Mainstream, has called for a meeting with the prime minister to question whether the post, which is in the gift of Downing Street because of the Church of England’s established status, is part of an attempt to move the church in a more liberal direction.
Hitherto the canon has largely maintained a dignified silence over the attacks on him. He said last week that he had learned “the value of silence” but has clearly now decided to answer back his critics.The sermon, released on the website of the Inclusive Church network – another pressure group, set up last year to oppose the evangelicals’ campaign – argues that church attitudes to gays are akin to those put forward by Christians against the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, because that was equally unbiblical.
Dr John wrote: “The ability of the church to ignore the deeper implications of its own scriptures is horribly plain throughout history. Remember it took 18 centuries for Christians to realise that slavery is against the Gospel. Remember that those who supported slavery claimed to do so on biblical grounds … Remember too that Jesus was condemned to death for his own inclusive attitudes by fundamentalist zealots who believed that they were obeying scripture.
“In all these cases those who opposed change could quote the Bible in their defence. With hindsight the church sees that they were wrong; they were killing the spirit with the letter … In the same way the church will one day look back on the issues that divide us today and find it incredible that it once thought it right and ‘scriptural’ to treat women and other minorities as it does now.
“The struggle to make the church inclusive is not based on some secular, woolly ‘liberal agenda’ (the charge endlessly parroted against us) but on a scriptural imperative to do what Jesus did. It is the same struggle to oppose prejudice, bigotry and oppression and open the kingdom to everyone, especially the most marginalised.
“Inclusivity is not a soft option. It is harder to live in a truly diverse and welcoming community than it is to live in a community of the respectably like-minded, just as it is harder to be an intelligent student of scripture than it is to be a fundamentalist … All of us must be challenged and changed in every department of our life, by the Gospel and by one another, whether we are male or female, black or white, gay or straight, rich or poor.”
Canon John called on like-minded supporters to stand up for a church which was welcoming to others, “especially in present circumstances standing firmly against those who would turn it into a sanhedrin of the Pharisees” – the religious high court of the strict and sometimes hypocritical Jewish sect of biblical times. “By definition, a church which lives in the spirit of Jesus will be genuinely, not just theoretically or conditionally, open and welcoming to everyone. Building and defending that kind of church is the most truly biblical thing any Christian can do. We need to say so now, loud and clear.”
The remarks are likely to be taken up by clergy members of Inclusive Church, which is to hold a special Sunday of services in June to pray for a more open and less rancorous Church of England.
However, some evangelical clergy in St Albans diocese are to meet this week and are threatening to withhold financial contributions to the church – frequently threatened as a tactic by conservative evangelical churches, though less frequently implemented, as a form of protest against policies they dislike.
In a statement on Friday, Anglican Mainstream warned of its concern that, by appointing Dr John, the government was trying to influence debate within the church and society generally about human sexuality.