Independent, July 8, 2003
By Matthew Beard
The Archbishop of Canterbury should be given powers to vet the appointment of bishops to prevent homosexuals joining the church, an evangelical group emboldened by the resignation of a bishop-elect said yesterday.
The evangelical campaign group Reform said a repeat of the furore over Canon Jeffrey John, the gay priest appointed bishop of Reading, could be avoided by changing the selection process.
“We need to ask whether the Archbishop’s imprimatur of these things is just rubber-stamping or whether it should be more proactive”, said Rev Rod Thomas, a spokesman for the group.
Dr John said at the weekend he would not take the job after coming under pressure for more than two weeks when his homosexuality was made public. His appointment had been approved by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, on the recommendation of the Right Rev Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, a leading liberal in the Anglican church.
Mr Thomas said: “The Archbishop should have sufficient leeway to raise the question about possible future appointments. In the last case the argument was that this was just an appointment for the Oxford diocese, yet its effect is worldwide.”
The evangelical movement, which represents a small but voluble number of churchgoers, came to prominence in the early 1990s as opponents of the ordination of women. A handful of evangelical figures are represented on the church’s General Synod.
Proposals for tightening the selection process in the wake of Dr John’s resignation were also put forward by the Church Society, one of the leading evangelical groups.
“We should be asking questions which will elicit information necessary both from the sponsoring parish and from the candidate themselves,” said the Church Society chairman, George Curry.
Under the current system the Archbishop takes recommendations for diocesan appointments from the Crown Appointments Commission and will rely for the appointment of suffragan bishops on the recommendations from their diocese. A spokesman for Church House said: “The current system has worked well for a number of years. The debate in future is much bigger than concerns about the selection process.”
The Dean of Southwark described the withdrawal of Dr John from accepting the post yesterday as a “catastrophe” for the church.
The Very Rev Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark, Dr John’s diocese, said he must have felt he had no choice but to leave as his appointment threatened to split the Church. He said the affair has stained the church with prejudice, “seriously undermined” the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and only ended in the withdrawal after a meeting of church heads at Lambeth Palace.
“He promised me back in June that he would not withdraw voluntarily, but that he would withdraw out of obedience to the Archbishop of Canterbury or Bishop Richard Harries if he was asked so to do,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
The Dean said Dr John wrote his own resignation letter rather than sign the one with which he was presented.
He said: “I think it is a catastrophe for the church, mainly because there are many people who look at the Christian church and they see the extreme evangelical churches and think ‘that is certainly not for me, thank you very much’.
“The people talk about empty churches. Empty churches may well be empty because of the image that we are presenting of narrowness and bigotry and prejudice.
“This is not a bad message simply for gay people. This is a bad message for many heterosexual and open-minded and intelligent Christians who approach the Bible with thoughtfulness and will feel that that ability is not there for them.”
Traditionalists and liberals
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, said two weeks ago that he “neither sought to promote nor to obstruct” Dr John’s appointment. He sought to pacify his critics by promising at the same time that the church was not “embarking on or colluding with any policy of unilateral local change”. At the weekend he paid tribute to Dr John and the “dignity and forbearance” he had shown “often under the most intrusive and distasteful personal scrutiny”.
Dr John turned down the post to defuse the confrontation between traditionalists and liberals in the Anglican church. He is in a long-term partnership with another man but it has been celibate for many years. He has described the relationship as “a gift and vocation from God”.
A leading liberal in the Church of England, he sparked the furore by appointing Dr John as the Suffragan Bishop of Reading. Dr Harries has already said that he wants a more “gay and lesbian friendly” church and that the appointment of Dr John was a “matter of integrity”.
The leader of the 17.5 million Anglicans in Nigeria said he would cause a split between the Nigerian church and the Church of England if it consecrated its first gay bishop. Dr Akinola said the recent election in America of an openly gay priest was “a Satanic attack on God’s church”.
The MP for Reading East said Dr John had been ousted by a “homophobic sect” within the church. She added that “only one person on the streets of Reading has said he should not take up his appointment and that person was too embarrassed to give his name.”