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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 24 June, 2003, 12:38 GMT 13:38 UK
Bishop of Oxford
Bishop of Oxford
The leader of the Anglican Church finally spoke out about the controversy over the appointment of Dr Jeffrey John, who's in a gay relationship, as the Bishop of Reading.

He sought to calm down a row which has pitted bishop against bishop and threatened the future of the church.

But yet another bishop, Wallace Benn, the Bishop of Lewes, has called for Jeffrey John to stand aside.

Kirsty Wark spoke to the Bishop of Oxford, who nominated Dr Jeffrey John in the first place.

KIRSTY WARK:
What has this case come to represent?

THE RIGHT REVEREND RICHARD HARRIES:
(Bishop of Oxford)

Jeffrey John has become a symbol. For some people, a symbol of where they don't want the Church of England to go, and for others a symbol of where they do want the Church of England to go. That is, to be much more accepting and affirming of gay and lesbian people in the life of the Church.

KIRSTY WARK:
Did you recognise and realise that, by nominating him, you would create, in a sense, this debate, and indeed the extent of the controversy?

RICHARD HARRIES:
I nominated Jeffrey John because I thought he was the best person for that particular job. I was looking for a priest from the Catholic tradition, with a good track record of Church growth and a commitment to Church growth. Jeffrey John has a particular commitment to trying to grow struggling traditional Catholic and liberal Catholic parishes. That is where we need the impetus at the moment. Of course, I realised that there would be some controversy, but it became to me a matter of integrity that he should be appointed, even though I know that his views are unacceptable to some.

KIRSTY WARK:
But the Archbishop made it clear today that, as far as Church law or issues or tracts are concerned, there is nothing that has happened that is against, as it were, the tenets of the Anglican Church. But nine bishops who have written, and indeed tonight Wallace Benn has joined them, have stood out against this. If they decide they can no longer stay in the Church, what then?

RICHARD HARRIES:
Jeffrey John is committed to a chaste, sexually abstinent lifestyle. If an openly gay person committed to that chaste, sexually abstinent lifestyle, can't be welcomed into the House of Bishops, frankly there is no hope for gay and lesbian people in Church life. I have been enormously encouraged, wherever I go, people come up to me, in the street, in the swimming pool, in churches, in schools, they come up quietly to me and say, "Bishop, I want you to know that we are right behind you. Don't give up." There is huge support in the country for this appointment.

KIRSTY WARK:
But large parts of the Church, these nine bishops plus another one tonight, if they decide they cannot stay in the Church if Jeffrey John is confirmed in position, what do you say to them?

RICHARD HARRIES:
I think what has happened is that, since 1987, the House of Bishops has united around our particular document called 'Issues in Human Sexuality' and we have presented a united front to the world. What these nine bishops have done by opposing this appointment, and Wallace Benn tonight, it has revealed the serious divisions of opinion within the House of Bishops. It is clear that probably a majority of the House of Bishops are sympathetic to the views of Jeffrey John, and this will now be much more clear and out in the open and we will frankly have a more honest debate about the subject.

KIRSTY WARK:
But if you have bishops who are so obviously vocally and determinedly opposed, you are going to have this unity, not only challenged, but presumably parted for good?

RICHARD HARRIES:
I don't think that they will leave the Church, in the sense that I don't think they are going to resign and cease to be Anglicans. There is division, there is tension, and obviously as Bishop of Oxford, I am particularly concerned about the very real concerns in the episcopal area of Reading in this diocese. I have identified 11 parishes in the Reading episcopal area where there are serious concerns, and I intend to address those. I hope Jeffrey John himself, in the summer, will have the opportunity to talk to parishioners. There is tension and division. My hope is that, within two years, he will have won the respect and trust both of the House of Bishops and of the Reading episcopal area.

KIRSTY WARK:
But within those two years as well, we have heard from Nigeria, several bishops there say they wouldn't wish to stay within the worldwide Anglican community, as it's currently constituted, if this goes ahead. One Nigerian bishop tonight has called on you to change your position on this?

RICHARD HARRIES:
I think it's difficult to know what they mean by saying that. In eight years' time, or whatever it is, the Archbishop of Canterbury will issue an invitation for another Lambeth conference. Does this mean to say that they are not going to accept his invitation to attend that Lambeth conference? That's what it would mean. The Anglican community is held together in a number of loose kinds of ways. It's not clear what they mean by sundering relationships.

KIRSTY WARK:
Can we just talk very briefly abut the Archbishop's statement today. As well as being a statement of a theologian, it seemed to be a statement of a politician as well. It was incredibly even-handed. Wouldn't it have been better if he had taken a much firmer stance, given a clearer lead, much as you were saying that the Church has to change and become more liberal, and said look, "We want people of Jeffrey John's calibre and we want more like him in the Church". Would that now have been a better position to take.

RICHARD HARRIES:
I think he was quite right in stressing that the nomination of a suffragan bishop is the responsibility of the diocese and bishop and I accept full responsibility for it. I personally want to see a much more gay and lesbian-friendly church. In fact that is the personal position of the Archbishop, as we know. But as Archbishop, he has to respect due process, and the due process is that it is the responsibility of the diocesan bishop, and he was right to acknowledge that.

KIRSTY WARK:
If other bishops speak out against Jeffrey John's appointment, do you think Jeffrey John can withstand this?

RICHARD HARRIES:
I am certain he can. Already, a very significant number of bishops in addition to myself have offered their full support for the appointment. I think there will be unswerving support for his consecration to go ahead in October.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

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