Page last updated at 16:00 GMT, Sunday, 6 July 2003 17:00 UK

No winners in gay bishop row

By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online

Canon Jeffrey John, chosen by the Church of England as a bishop, has decided to refuse the post.

He is understandably bruised by the bitter row over his acknowledged homosexuality, though he now lives a celibate life.

For him, the row is over, with the rest of his life to be salvaged.

Dr George Carey
Lord Carey upheld a traditionalist line on homosexuality
For the Church at large, though, the conflict can only intensify.

It is hard to see how Canon John's refusal of the post of Bishop of Reading can do anything to arrest the Church's plunge into a civil war of vitriolic name-calling and increasing irrelevance.

It teaches that lay members can be practising lesbians or gays if they must, but clergy cannot.

Despite that, some bishops have for years ordained homosexual priests knowingly, realising the church's work would be damaged otherwise.

Many outstanding parish priests are homosexual, loved by their parishioners for who they are, irrespective of what they get up to in bed.

Some bishops have ordained gay and lesbian clergy in ignorance, because they took care not to ask leading questions which they clearly considered irrelevant.


The last Archbishop of Canterbury, George (now Lord) Carey, was reported as saying he had appointed two gay bishops.

In fact, he says, he had never "knowingly ordained a practising homosexual", and had always insisted that all new bishops should commit themselves "to fulfilling the pastoral obligations of Issues In Human Sexuality" (the church's key document on the subject).

Lord Carey also says he did not ordain anyone whose lifestyle was other than celibacy or heterosexual marriage. But he says he might possibly have consecrated two bishops who were gay without his being aware of it.

So when the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Richard Harries, said he wanted Jeffrey John as his assistant at Reading, there was no great gulf threatened between the church's traditional way of doing things and the new reality looming in gay bishop Jeffrey.

The only really new factor was Lord Carey's successor as archbishop, Rowan Williams.

Personally sympathetic to lesbian and gay Christians and clergy, Dr Williams has promised nevertheless to uphold the Church's teaching and not to try to change its corporate mind to match his own convictions.

Canon Jeffrey John
Canon Jeffrey John says he is now celibate
Canon John apart, he looks like being one of the biggest casualties of this dispute, which is erupting barely six months after he took office.

Jeffrey John's appointment was opposed by many Anglicans, some claiming it was wrong to proceed until the Church had had more time to reflect, others insisting that gay and lesbian Christians could never hold priestly office.

If Dr Williams, Dr Harries and their supporters believe homosexuality is no bar to ordination, they will have to confront their opponents head-on.

But Jeffrey John's decision has robbed them of the chance, while it leaves the other camp convinced it has won - that it has made a gay bishop's appointment impossible.

The Church coped for years with its dilemma by pretending priestly homosexuality did not exist. But that dilemma is now both acute and very public.

As things stand, the Church of England is one of very few British organisations that can get away with saying lesbian and gay people have chosen to be less than they could be.

Most of my agnostic and atheist friends (and a lot of my Christian friends, too) are unsure whether to laugh or cry over it.

Synod meeting

There are sincere church people who believe homosexuality is wrong, so wrong that it must be an acid test for the clergy.

What is hard to see is how they and the Williams-Harries-John camp can any longer share one church. So the Church of England may be unable any longer to avoid a split.

Its general synod starts a meeting on 11 July, unsure even whether it will find time to discuss gay bishops.

It may all seem like the genteel rattling of the teacups on a vicarage lawn, too parochial to matter much.

But if the Church splits, the 70-million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion can hardly hold together.

In countries like Malaysia, Pakistan and Nigeria, a religious affairs correspondent's patch may soon prove a busy one.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific