Saturday, 3 July 2010

Be very careful before you object to Dr John

A couple of different sources have e-mailed me this evening the story from the Daily Telegraph that Dr Jeffrey John is the short-listed favourite to become the next Bishop of Southwark.
My guess is that whilst a lot of people would greet this news with rejoicing, others will respond angrily and will be prompted to threaten all sorts of reprisals.
I cannot speak for those who would support the appointment, but I want to urge those who might oppose it to think very carefully before they object, for the situation is nothing like as straightforward as might be assumed.
First, we ought not to condemn Dr John because he is, in the words of the Telegraph article, ‘openly homosexual’. I have said many times, including on this blog, that we ought to have far more ‘openly homosexual’ people in the Church. Indeed, one of the clergy I most admire is ‘openly homosexual’ — at least, he has openly told me his is ‘gay’ — and I would have no problems whatsoever attending his church or working with him in any capacity.
We would not be in half the mess we are in today if the Church, during the years in which homosexuality was almost universally regarded as perverse, had acted as a haven for real sinners, rather than a rather choosy hostel for the outwardly saintly. We ought to remember the words of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11:
Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Secondly, it would be difficult to condemn Dr John’s appointment on the grounds that he is in a relationship with someone of the same sex. The Church of England accepts the existence of civil partnered clergy, and although some (including myself) may think this is a mistake, the House of Bishops has made it clear that this acceptance is based on the provision of assurances that such relationships are sexually celibate. Moreover, Dr John has (as I recall) declared that this is the case for his own relationship.
There are therefore no current grounds within the Church of England’s teaching and practice regarding Dr John’s domestic arrangements for condemning his appointment as a bishop.
In fact, the only grounds I can see for objecting to Dr John’s appointment in principle lies in his teaching about human sexuality.
Some years ago, Dr John famously wrote a short book called Permanent, Faithful, Stable in which he advocated the acceptance of homosexual relationships, including non-celibate relationships, which showed those three features. I have reviewed this elsewhere, and detailed the difficulties I have with his approach, and I believe it would be entirely proper to object to Dr John’s appointment on the grounds of the position he adopts in this book.
However, if that is the basis on which an objection is to be made, it must be realized that the same would apply — as I have pointed out already — to a number of other existing Anglican bishops.
In other words, if Dr John’s appointment is seen as a potential casus belli, it needs to be appreciated that we are potentially at that point in more than one other diocese. Personally, I do not think this has been understood, and I am not at all sure that the implications have been considered as they ought to have by those who might think this is an ‘open and shut’ case.
Before any fierce objection is voiced to the mooting of Dr John, therefore, it needs to be asked, “Why him? Why now?” And if the objections are, nevertheless, made and actions do in fact follow, then for consistency’s sake this should not just apply to Dr John’s appointment, which may, in any case, never happen.
John P Richardson
3 July 2010
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  1. But he was actively homosexual before and does not consider that wrong. Is this not significant?

  2. Whilst I agree in principle with all you have said, John, there is sure to be much rejoicing in the revisionist camp over this nomination, and they will consider the battle to have been won. Whether or not Dr John is appointed it can only now be a matter of time, having apparently been agreed to by both Archbishops, before an open homosexual (whether practicing or not) is appointed.

    This is insane, coming as it does practically on the eve of the General Synod debate over women bishops. It makes one wonder what ‘they’ will think of next to drive people out of the Church of England.

    I used to think of the advent of women bishops as a stepping stone to the advent of openly gay bishops, but it seems the stepping stone is no longer necessary because it will happen anyway.


  3. I agree with you.

    I often think the previous fuss about Dr John was largely down to homophobia among evangelicals. Why object to him if we didn't object to Robert Runcie (for example)?

    Oh, and of course I think that only theologically orthodox people should be appointed as bishops, but as you say, it's picking the right fight...

  4. I guess the Church of England will just engage in more fudging of the underlying issue.
    No surprise!

  5. It seems the Crown Appointments Commission have backed themselves into a corner with the two leading candidates being a priest in a celibate civil partnership with another priest and a priest married to a divorced woman. What larks!

  6. Rule 1 = don't believe the hype (especially when it is from the Telegraph)
    That said, what you have written made sense and I hope it is heeded.

  7. John, I agree that we should not be too quick to condemn Jeffery John's appointment, but only because this can result in unclear messages being sent. You are of course right that the church should be a haven for sinners, but it should be a haven where we can encourage each other to struggle against sin, not a haven from critical judgement of our sin. There is therefore a world of difference between someone who admits same-sex attraction (and perhaps even identifies as 'gay') but resists the temptations and rejects the lifestyle associated with it, and someone who embraces that lifestyle (in fact, regardless of whether they are attracted to the same sex or not). Please note that I am speaking of long-term membership of the church, and everyone should of course be made welcome as a visitor, but it certainly applies to those who are in leadership.

    Secondly, the fact that the CofE has allowed 'celibate' civil partnerships in clergy is neither here nor there. We have no doctrine of church infallibility, and in any case the church has not said that all such arrangements are necessarily godly. Celibacy is a necessary,but not sufficient condition. And bishops should rightly have a higher standard applied to them, since they will be placed in leadership over those who cannot easily escape it (in the way that parishioners who disagree with a clergy member's theology could move to a different church, for example).

    Jeffery John (whether he likes it or not) has become a figurehead for the pro-gay lobby in the church. As such, his appointment will be taken as a sign that the church is moving towards acceptance of homosexual practice. We should therefore be very careful before appearing to accept it.

  8. Hello John and all,

    it's ages since I've commented on your blog John, but just wanted to say I think this is a good piece. I think you should be commended for encouraging people to pause, avoid knee-jerk comment and thus perhaps putting a brake on any would-be lynch or moves to gang up against Dr John. If that sounds patronising it's not meant to!

    Mal, above, refers to the underlying issue - which it seems to me is a question of truth: is it true that being gay, same-sex desire if you prefer, is a pathology, and is it true that the Bible condemns all same-sex sex? My hope is that if there's any truth in the 'Telegraph' story and Dr John is appointed, the underlying issue won't be fudged but will be able to be debated more charitably than it is has been so far (...not difficult, it could be said).

    in friendship, Blair

  9. Oops - should have added my location (beautiful Croydon)...


  10. First, he classifies biblically as an unrepentant sinner (not just a sinner tout simple like all of us are) - because he sees nothing wrong with his former sexual conduct.

    Second, he affirms the civil partnership principle which is known to ape/parody marriage in some cases. Only a handful of years in, many are calling it 'gay marriage' and there are plenty of legal moves afoot to make it just that.

    Third, he teaches contrary to Christianity on this topic.

    His approach to some other Christian doctrines is evidenceless: I know they are true but don;t knowe how or why. This is dishonest, since if you don't knwo how or why you therefore cannot *know* that a given thing is true.

    Anyone who knows anything of St Stephen's House in the 1970s should be very cautious. No-one can deny that one's formative years are formative and affect what we see as normative, however bizarre one's formative years actually are when viewed comparatively.

    His position runs up against the logical barrier that it was not twoness that created the institution of marriage, but one-man-one-womanness, this being unequivocally shown by nature to be the unique relationship. Merely being two in number can by no stretch of the imagination be the point. Best wishes, Dr Christopher Shell

  11. The difference with the past situation (reference is made to Abp Runcie, his era) is that then it was not openly proclaimed that what has always, always been regarded as sinful is now anounced as "OK!" There is a kind of thinking which holds that absolutely anything is ok, as long as we are "open" and "honest" about it, and the only thing that could be wrong with any behaviour is the fact of keeping it quiet. And remember, that if now what was always considered sinful in one area (homosexuality) is permissible, then it is illogical to call any kind of sexual behaviour sinful. No bishop or archbishop will ever be able to condemn adultery or bigamy as sinful, once they accept openly gay clergy. A get-out based on the "permanent, faithful, stable" excuse should fool no one; it's exclusivity that really matters (which such as Changing Attitude reject). Would a "permnent, faithful, stable" paedophile or polyandry menage be non-sinful and acceptable? P, F, & S do not make Christian marriage, or a variety of union as presrcibed by God. But the modern C of E doesn't give a damn ...

  12. If we are to translate the term "arsenokoites" (as written by Paul) as "homosexual", then surely, by refusing the renounce and condemn as sinful his past activities, Jeffery John has been neither washed, sanctified nor justified. The position you're taking, Fr John, is that the term "arsenokoites" means "a sexually active homosexual". But where's the etymological justification for that translation? You leave yourself open to the accusation that you're making the translation fit your beliefs, indeed, that you yourself are a revisionist.

    It's all too easy to smash The Rulebook (as some believe The Bible to be) down on the table, open up its pages and point an angry finger at a passage and proclaim, "See! See! The Bible agrees with me and you're wrong!" The real challenges are firstly to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church and secondly, to give ourselves the space to be wrong, because in any argument, there's always at least one person who is wrong.

    (Just for the avoidance of doubt, I'd like to add that as a member of the Affirming Catholicism movement, I would be delighted to see Jeffery John appointed as Bishop of Southwark. If things keep going like this, who knows? We could end up with an AffCath Archbishop in the not-too-distant future!)

  13. Rev Laurence Roberts5 July 2010 at 15:26

    Well, yes, the responses to Rev Richard's piece here, is so sensitive, thoughtful and godly, that loads and loads of gay people will want to flock into such an attractive Christ-like church !

  14. Look across the water. This is simply TEC ten or twenty years ago. Pressure groups--expressions of outrage--institutionalist bishops--manoeuvering--&c. &c. You may use a slightly different route, but you'll end up where TEC is today. BTW, the ordination of women bishops will accelerate the prcoess, simply because women clergy are much more likely to hold liberal views.

  15. Douglas Lewis said ... "... the ordination of women bishops will accelerate the prcoess, simply because women clergy are much more likely to hold liberal views."

    I would suggest that readers beware of such sweeping generalizations. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary in a rather long list of women clergy in church leadership positions.

    I would also caution against the use of the same type of deductive inference with respect to The Episcopal Church as a whole. Though currently popular, such generalized views of The Episcopal Church as a whole do not stand up well when tested in instances of actual verification.

    From his words, "Look across the water," I assume Mr. Douglas is somewhere quite far to the east of New York City. We have no actual knowledge that he has even been in the USA, much less had any first hand experience of The Episcopal Church as it is in reality apart from the Internet. I for one, would really like to know by what process Mr. Douglas can verify his claims.

    I am, by the way, a life-long Episcopalian with some additional and first hand experience of the Church of England.

  16. This is a very thought provoking post (and it's the first time I've visited your blog). you made your argument rather well and it is very logical.

    My "quibble" is with your translation of Corinthians. The word "homosexual" does not appear in the Greek. it is a translators word choice and the word in question is ambiguous at best.

    Again, a very good post.

  17. Bob from Pittsburgh says,

    I see a lot of the phrase "Christian Teaching." Just a thought, "shouldn't Christianity be lived, not taught?" Is there room for the Spirit to teach in action?

  18. Hi John Thomas,
    You say that Changing Attitude rejects exclusivity, but that is not true, there is no such "rejection", rather permanent, faithful and exclusive relationships are upheld as an ideal for all, whether gay, bisexual or straight - although it is true that people, including many, many heterosexual people fall short of this ideal.

    I think your reference comes from the Andrew Henderson "Sexual Ethics" document. This was produced for the Clergy Consultation group, not for Changing Attitude, although CA did publish it on their website as a contribution to a much wider debate on sexual ethics. It was not some statement of policy! The very brief reference in a long document is part of a nuanced section where Henderson writes of the destructive nature of casual sex, but acknowledges that there can be brief loving encounters that can be a "source of grace." (Sorry, I am relying on memory here, but will try to find and post the whole document.)

    Henderson does not explain what he means by "brief" - and Colin Coward has said he is not happy with the word "brief", nor am I, but the document should be looked at as a whole and it is most unjust to draw from it the conclusion that Changing Attitude "reject exclusivity", the reverse is very much the case.

  19. As a gay man who has rejected a call to the Priesthood largely because of the hurt and pain of the so-called "gay debate" within the Anglican Communion, I despair!How many of you know what it is really like to grow up as a gay person? No, it is NOT a choice. I and others like me have prayed and prayed to be changed, we have endured snide comments, bullying, prejudice, and at worst emotional and physical abuse.Who in their right mind would choose such as this? How many of you who are "normal" heterosexuals can imagine not being that way? You have grown up and developed into your sexuality and it is the God-given "you", just as my sexuality is the God-given me? I rejoice that my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ FULLY understands me.I gain great comfort from the sure knowledge that He loves me just as I am,and has from the moment I was conceived. I wish to follow Him - and His great love and compassion for me, despite my innate sinfulness, is steadfast! He had a particular contempt for the self-righteous Pharisees of 2,000 years ago, why should He think any differently about the Pharisees of 2010.Please, try and at least understand a little of what it is like to be a gay Christian in a church which would set ever-higher hurdles before you, so high that you will never achieve full acceptance.

  20. Anonymous, there was a priest in a parish not far from me who gave an anti-gay sermon one Sunday. His words caused great consternation amongst his congregation, with some supportive of him and others vehemently against. He was taken out of the parish and put somewhere else, where he would cause less upset. I don't know the man personally, but I could imagine him feeling somewhat persecuted for his genuinely-held beliefs.

    We all need to take a moment to try to understand each other's beliefs. Fr John believes that the "malakoi" and "arsenokoitai" that Paul mentions are what we would now call "homosexuals". If he genuinely believes that (and I don't doubt that he does), I can understand why he, as a priest, feels a need to defend what he considers to be Biblical Truth. Personally, I think Paul is talking about male prostitutes and the men that use them, not gay men in loving relationships. I feel that fits well with with Jesus' teachings against fornication. But short of building a time machine and going back to ask Paul, face to face, what exactly he meant in his letter to the Church in Corinth, I can't say that with total certainty. (And, dare I say it, I wish Fr John would make a similar admission.)

    There is a great challenge here, to maintain communion with those who hold views different from our own. Sadly, it's a challenge which some people prefer to stand back from, instead trying to eradicate from the Church those whose views they find difficult to accept. We have a duty to encourage such people, to say to them that we can be part of the same Christian family and that the great challenge of unity is one that we can achieve, if we all decide to do so.

  21. John

    I am an independent who enjoys and benefits from your blog. However, when I read the following my head shakes instinctively in disbelief:

    'The Church of England accepts the existence of civil partnered clergy, and although some (including myself) may think this is a mistake, the House of Bishops has made it clear that this acceptance is based on the provision of assurances that such relationships are sexually celibate. '

    I find the language 'a mistake' woefully inadequate for such a policy. I understand a little the politics that must be played out and appreciate that for this the 'wisdom of serpents' is needed. Yet the very need for advice such as you give on this blog makes my independent mind gasp.

    When is enough, enough?

  22. From one on the other side of the fence, I would like to thank you John for a fair and thoughtful post.

    I guess many will be pleased to see an openly gay man ordained as Bishop, and that would include me. But I feel no rejoicing, for two reasons.

    One, I am in the diocese of St Albans. Reading's loss was our gain, and we have been very fortunate to have such an able and caring Dean. Though I dont know him personally, I would be sorry to see him go.

    But more importantly, I feel for Jeffrey John as a person. He went through hell last time, and I admire him greatly for his forgiving and Christian response to all the hatred and hurtfulness. I fear that 'love for the sinner' will quickly fly of the window for many who don't want to see him appointed, and the press of course thoroughly enjoy stirring up hatred between Christians by misreporting.

    Whatever your views, please remember that at the centre of the dispute is a warm and caring person who is sincere in his faith. You have every right to disagree with him, and with him being put forward as a Bishop, but it does the church no good at all to descend to nastiness of the kind seen last time.

    Amanda, Bedford

  23. Would a "permnent, faithful, stable" paedophile or polyandry menage be non-sinful and acceptable?

    No, it would be an oxymoron. That the same is true for a relationship at least substantially analogous to Christian marriage in all respects but that of genitalia is hardly a self-evident proposition.

  24. Dear John,

    To move this slightly away from topic... Could it possible that Jeffrey John is a smokescreen candidate to get us conservatives outraged and therefore more ready to accept the re-married candidate, Nick Holtham?

    Just a thought...

    Derek Smith

  25. Whether we like it or not - the vast majority of Anglicans, and especially the vast majority of Anglican Primates - regard John as neither Anglican nor Christian.

    For him to be appointed to any see now or in the foreseeable future would immediately lead to the final dissolution of the Anglican Communion worldwide, and the immediate destruction of at least three CoE dioceses (Southwark, Chelmsford, Oxford). with FCA/GAFCON providing full oversight, and Christian parishes daring the ABC & ABY to sue.

    Whatever the legal niceties of the situation, the ecclesiastical / geopolitical damage that would be done by such an appointment cannot be overstated.
    James Noble, Wellington

  26. Just seen the latest "news" that Dr John is not to be appointed. This stinks of an artificially created crisis. The first report that he was to be appointed and now the news that he isn't come from one person: Jonathan Wynne-Jones on the Telegraph, who supposedly has a source on the crown appointments commission. Derek's suggestion may have some merit in it.

    Stephen Walton, Marbury

  27. Hi Suem. You clearly know more about Changing Attitude's position(s) than me. But wasn't there something where they totally rejected/opposed the idea of a two-sex/two-person menage as the norm (there's a phrase for that ... I've forgotten it though)? (I used to see Colin Coward regularly, at meetings we attended in the '80s ... nice man ...)