Man Appointed First Openly Gay Anglican Bishop Declines Post

New York Times, July 6, 2003

OXFORD, England, July 6 — A clergyman whose selection as the Church of England’s first openly gay bishop stirred a deeply divisive reaction among Anglicans worldwide, announced today that he was withdrawing his name for the post.

Dr. Jeffrey John, 50, was appointed as bishop of Reading in the Oxford diocese last month, but today he said that he was disqualifying himself “in view of the damage my consecration might cause to the unity of the church.”

The Rev. Richard Harries, the bishop of Oxford, who selected Dr. John, said he recognized the “immense pressures” the appointee had been under, and he accepted the decision “with great sadness.”

The selection had caused turmoil in sectors of the church in Africa and Asia where more conservative norms prevail and at home among the increasing number of evangelical Anglicans who believe that the Bible is clear in its disapproval of homosexual activity.

The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury in only his first year in office, found himself with a crisis threatening a split in the 79 million-member Anglican Communion, the global association of churches that trace their heritage to the Church of England.

When he said last month that he had no objection to the appointment of Dr. John, Dr. Williams was accused of turning his back on Anglican churches in the developing world who have voiced particularly strong opinions against the ordination of gay priests. The head of the 17.5 million-member Nigerian church, the world’s largest Anglican congregation, had threatened to sever ties with any part of the church that elected a gay bishop.

“The estrangement of churches in developing countries from their cherished ties with Britain is in no one’s interest,” Dr. Williams said today.

Reading a statement on the lawn of Lambeth Palace, his official residence in London, Dr. Williams paid tribute to Dr. John’s “dignity and forbearance,” noting that he had been subjected to “the most intrusive and distasteful personal scrutiny.”

He noted that much of the correspondence coming to him had been “very unsavory indeed.”

“A number of the letters I read displayed a shocking level of ignorance and hatred towards homosexual people,” he said. “Christians who collude with this are simply not living out their calling.”

The uproar in the Oxford diocese followed similar outcries over the election last month of a gay Episcopalian priest as the bishop of New Hampshire in the United States and a decision in May by the Western Canadian diocese of New Westminster to sanction the blessing of gay relationships.

Dr. John, now canon theologian at Southwark Cathedral in London, had acknowledged being in a relationship for 27 years, but he avowed that he and his partner, also a cleric, had ceased having sex after church doctrine explicitly forbade it. His reference was to a 1991 policy paper “Issues in Human Sexuality,” that permitted members of the congregation to pursue faithful same-sex relationships but demanded celibacy from gay priests.

Philip Giddings, the lay preacher at Greyfriars Church in Reading who had emerged as a leader of the opposition to Dr. John’s appointment, tonight called Dr. John’s decision “courageous” and said it had come “in answer to many people’s prayers.”

In a telephone interview, he said that though he had been called “bigot, chief gay basher and homophobic,” the overwhelming number of messages had been ones of support and understanding.

He said that he and his followers had no objection to Dr. John as a person or as a homosexual. But the fact that he had once had a same-sex relationship and had not repented had made him unacceptable as a diocesan leader, Mr. Giddings said.

“The Bible teaches that the only acceptable place for sexual intercourse is heterosexual marriage,” he said. “There is no problem about a bishop being a sinner, we are all sinners. The issue is he didn’t see it as a sin and therefore he couldn’t repent.”

Because Dr. John’s name had been forwarded to the Crown for approval, the actual formal action now required is for Queen Elizabeth II to withdraw her assent. Dr. John had been due to be consecrated as Bishop of Reading in Westminster Abbey on Oct. 9.

It is widely accepted that there are numbers of gay priests in the Church of England, but Dr. John’s problem stemmed from his acknowledgment of the fact and his admission that he had once been sexually active.

Dr. Williams warned that today’s outcome did not mean the issue of homosexuality, the clergy and the church would disappear.

“Canon John’s withdrawal,” he said, “should not be taken to mean that the church can now stop being concerned about how it discerns the will of God in this area of ethics.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday July 7, 2003.
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