Williams tries to calm row over gay bishop

The Guardian (England), June 24, 2003
Stephen Bates, religious affairs correspondent

The Archbishop of Canterbury broke cover yesterday to make his first public statement on the appointment of the Church of England’s first openly gay bishop, making clear he would not intervene.

He added a plea for tolerance and reflection among his fellow bishops and the evangelicals who have threatened to divide the worldwide Anglican communion.

After a weekend of being pursued around Wales by television crews, Dr Rowan Williams issued the text of a letter he is sending to all 116 English bishops, and briefly read it to journalists in the garden at Lambeth Palace.

The letter appeals for calm but, significantly as far as the evangelicals are concerned, does not say that the consecration of Canon Jeffrey John as suffragan bishop of Reading will not go ahead this autumn. “It is not for me to recount the diocesan process,” Dr Williams said.

His comments were warmly welcomed by some senior clergy last night. The Right Rev John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, said: “I am grateful for the archbishop’s statement, which should encourage all others to focus upon the real priorities of mission in the world and in our own dioceses.”

Some parishes, though, have appealed for Dr Williams to block the appointment, made by the Bishop of Oxford and approved by the Queen, while evangelical leaders in Africa and Sydney have threatened to split the 70 million-strong worldwide communion if the consecration takes place.

They are unlikely to be mollified by the archbishop’s words – some of his supporters even believe his leadership is the real target of the row.

With the bishops still digesting the archbishop’s letter, emailed to them yesterday with a postal copy hitting their doormats this morning, the evangelical pressure group Reform issued a guarded warning that words would not be enough.

Its spokesman, the Rev Rod Thomas, said: “We have a great deal of sympathy with the appeal for calm and serious reflection, but it is difficult to be reassured because at the moment the appointment still stands. It is only if action is taken and Jeffrey John stands down that we can be satisfied.”

Nine diocesan bishops last week issued an open letter critical of the appointment, followed by eight others supporting it. Last night a spokesman for the Right Rev James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, one of the signatories of the letter, said the bishop would “reflect on the [Dr Williams’] statement and it will be a couple of days before he makes a comment”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s letter warns: “It would be a tragedy if these issues in the Church of England and in the communion occupied so much energy that we lost our focus on the priorities of our mission, the priorities given us by our Lord.

“What we say about sexuality (and not just on the same-sex question) is a necessary part of our faithfulness, but the concentration on this in recent weeks has had the effect of generating real incomprehension in much of our society in a way that does nothing for our credibility… we need to reflect on this dimension of the situation, not to surrender to alien standards, but to keep our eyes on those central revealed truths without which other matters of behaviour will never make sense.”

Saying that the appointment was not one he either sought to promote or obstruct, Dr Williams added that, having been informed that the canon was a highly gifted candidate, acceptable to the diocese and had given explicit assurances about his personal circumstances, he raised no objection to his name being put forward.

The archbishop claimed that the appointment did not weaken the church’s policy that, while sexual partnerships between lay gays may be acceptable, gay clergy must remain celibate. His letter dismissed claims by opponents that Canon John’s promotion subverts current disciplines or forecloses future discussion.

The letter said: “It would certainly be deplorable if it were assumed that the existing approach has been abandoned by stealth… let us be clear: there can be no question of trying to pre-empt, undermine or short circuit the reflection of the church as a whole… we are not embarking on any policy of unilateral local change.”

While conceding that the concerns of opponents within the diocese of Oxford were “theologically serious, intelligible and by no means based on narrow party allegiance or on prejudice”, it added that the diocese should be left to work out the problem for itself.

“It is clear that serious questions remain in the diocese. To consider these with prayerfulness and maturity needs time and a measure of calm. It is not for anyone outside the diocese to override or pre-empt what is obviously a painful and complex process.”

The letter concluded with a plea: “It does us no harm to think about our own priorities… and perhaps to learn in some matters to give each other a little more time and space for thought – not falling over ourselves because of anxiety and suspicion.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday June 25, 2003.
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