The Church in Wales is the Anglican Church in Wales, and it is disestablished. It’s appointments procedure is therefore an entirely internal matter, at some arms’ length from the kingdom of politics. Notwithstanding this, a whole odium of politicians has written to the bishops currently charged with selecting the next Bishop of Llandaff, to replace the retired Most Rev’d Dr Barry Morgan, who was also Archbishop of Wales (in Wales, one of the diocesan bishops has traditionally also held the title ‘Archbishop of Wales’ in addition to his/her own see, but this is currently under review, with a proposal to ‘fix’ the Archiepiscopal see in Llandaff. The next bishop of Llandaff could therefore also be elected Archbishop of Wales). The choice falls to the small Bench of Bishops because the 47-strong electoral college charged with choosing Dr Morgan’s successor ended in stalemate, with no candidate gaining the requisite two-thirds of the vote.
The politicians are lobbying for the Very Rev’d Dr Jeffrey John to be appointed. He is currently Dean of St Albans, and is, by all accounts, a kind, gracious, gifted, learned and compassionate Church leader. He also happens to be gay and in a celibate civil partnership. “We had heard from many quarters of concerns and allegations relating to homophobic comments made during the election process for the appointment of a Bishop of Llandaff,” the politicians wrote. Rumour and gossip, it seems.
To be gay and celibate presents no problems for Anglicans. To be gay and in a celibate relationship presents a problem to a few. But to be gay and in a civil partnership, albeit celibate, raises a few hackles, especially if it happens to be a member of the clergy. The teaching is currently evolving, but Issues in Human Sexuality (1991) is still held to be authoritative by many, and it states (5.17):
We have, therefore, to say that in our considered judgement the clergy cannot claim the liberty to enter into sexually active homophile relationships. Because of the distinctive nature of their calling, status and consecration, to allow such a claim on their part would be seen as placing that way of life in all respects on a par with heterosexual marriage as a reflection of God’s purposes in creation. The Church cannot accept such a parity and remain faithful to the insights which God has given it through Scripture, tradition and reasoned reflection on experience.
Now, of course, such blatant homophobia is no longer tolerated. Where the Church of England (and the Church in Wales) articulate anything which questions “that way of life”, it has to be expunged. Indeed, the very phrase “that way of life” has become so offensive that Issues in Human Sexuality is itself is now seen by some as a work of bigotry, unjust discrimination and homophobic hate, hence the need for a new statement of “radical new Christian inclusion“.
The Church of England’s House of Bishops “does not regard entering into a civil partnership as intrinsically incompatible with holy orders, provided the person concerned is willing to give assurances to his or her bishop that the relationship is consistent with the standards for the clergy set out in Issues in Human Sexuality.” There is (or ought to be) nothing wrong with this. To be chaste is to live sacrificially in accordance with Scripture and Church tradition. The Church in Wales is rather more liberal: clergy may not only be in a civil partnership, but their love may be sexually expressed. So you might understand Jeffrey John’s irritation to learn that his sexuality and celibate civil partnership had been raised as objections to his appointment as the next Bishop of Lllandaff, when his private life and personal conduct ought to present no hurdle at all.
But we shouldn’t know this, should we? Such discussions are confidential, aren’t they?
Well, Dr John’s irritation was so provoked that he decided to make a confidential letter public: the President of the College of Bishops, the Bishop of Swansea and Brecon, the Rt Rev’d John Davies, wrote to Jeffrey John (privately, of course) to assure him that, although he had been rejected for Lllandaff, “neither homosexuality nor participation in a civil partnership were a bar to any candidate being either nominated or elected”. Dr John promptly wrote back to the Bishop (cc-ing the whole world) that this was “hypocritical and untrue”; ie, he accused the Rt Rev’d John Davies of lying. He also disclosed certain confidential conversations by the Electoral College:
In the course of discussion, a number of homophobic remarks were made and were left unchecked and unreprimanded by the chair. Much more importantly, the only arguments adduced against my appointment — in particular by two of the bishops — were directly related to my homosexuality and/or civil partnership — namely that my appointment would bring unwelcome and unsettling publicity to the diocese, and that it might create difficulties for the future Archbishop in relation to the Anglican Communion.
Now, some might call this gossip: we simply have no way of knowing if ‘homophobic’ remarks were made during the course of deliberations, or, indeed, whether any such comments were actually homophobic or (more likely) reasoned objections of the sort pertaining to “that way of life”, for one man’s scripture and tradition is another man’s homophobia (and woman’s, of course, before someone yells ‘sexism’ and ‘misogyny’ [and intersex/agender, before someone.. O, forget it]). We all ought to be appalled that the Bishops said they were “just too exhausted” to deal with the faff and fallout which the appointment of Jeffrey John would bring: poor dears, there are Christians being raped, tortured, burned alive, crucified and cleansed from most of the Middle East, and the Bishops of Wales are a bit too tired to deal with correspondence relating to the appointment of clergy. That really is quite pathetic.
So the Chapter of St Albans Cathedral have written to support their Dean (without his knowledge, obvs). And so the Chapter of Ely Cathedral has joined the chorus. And, of course, there’s the Welsh politicians…
What need the Crown Nominations Commission, or an electoral college, or any college of bishops to discern and pray about future episcopal appointments? Why not henceforth just select all bishops by lobbying and social-media hounding? Why not hand mitres to those whose supporters shout loudest (or, of course, deprive mitres to those who opponents cry longest)? Jeffrey John is being elevated to the status of a homosexual martyr, and his suffering is indeed thoroughly objectionable and profoundly unjust.
But consider, just for a moment, the possibility that the Bishops of Wales really, truly did not discount Jeffrey John either for his sexuality or his civil partnership. Consider that there were other matters, such as those relating to his character and integrity. For what aspiring bishop, whose very vocation involves the keeping of grave confidences, breaches confidentiality by publishing private correspondence and disclosing the contents of private phone conversations, thereby humiliating his brothers in Christ? And just because of a personal grievance or ambition? O, you might be persuaded that he is righteously exposing hypocrisy and deception at the heart of the Church, and so his harsh words and actions are justified. But bishops shouldn’t behave like that: ‘Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established..‘ (Mt 18:15f). Why leap to public shame and rebuke? Does that not evidence a certain character impediment to episcopal office?
Nor is this Jeffrey John’s first poor judgment. When he was apparently blocked from becoming Bishop of Southwark in 2010, he threatened to sue the Church of England for breaching the Equality Act 2010. He went so far as to (very publicly) instruct an employment lawyer. As William Oddie wrote in the Catholic Herald:
..he appears to me to have been a man of unbending theological principle. Now, however, he has for the first time made a major error precisely where he has thus far been so surefooted; he has fallen into the morass of secularism which in the end is inseparable from the Anglican mind: he has, in other words become – or so it seems – the kind of Anglican he would once have recoiled from with horror. He has decided to invoke an entirely secular conception of human rights against what still claims to be part of the one, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Presumably he still believes that it is, since unlike many of us who left it and became Catholics on precisely the ground that we no longer believed that it was, he is still a member of it. So against what still he believes to be a divine entity, he now, it seems, proposes to deploy the Equality Act 2010. It is a very sad falling away, and I am sorry to see it.
To make one major error of judgment may be regarded as an uncharacteristic irregularity; to make two begins to look like representative characteristic, and to blame one’s homosexuality becomes a convenient deflection from having to confront an inconvenient truth. How could any fellow bishop (or, indeed, anyone) ever again share anything confidential with Jeffrey John if there’s a possibility, borne of a personal sense of injustice, that he might disclose your confidence to the world? Where is his sense of collegiality, accountability and mutual submission? Where is the trust? O, you might applaud him if his crusade happens to pertain to a shared grievance, but he is not only ready to leap to the secular courts (contra 1Cor 6:1-8), he will clearly embarrass, humiliate and denigrate his brothers and sisters in Christ if he sees fit to do so, and it will be foursquare to the world, thereby harming and hindering the Church’s public witness. Consider the intemperate language: he not only accuses the Welsh Bishops of “homophobia”, but of making “threats” and engaging in “ludicrous” behaviour; he calls them “foolish” and says they “insult” members of the Llandaff diocese.
It’s not very edifying, is it?
A man once seen as possessing supreme humility, sound judgment and integrity has displayed a distinct capacity to extinguish them all in the pursuit of personal justice. He really should have left it to others to fight on his behalf, for therein would lie his kenotic humility and their righteous anger. To desire the office of a bishop is a good and noble thing (1Tim 3:1), but the qualifications include being temperate, above reproach, self-controlled and not quarrelsome. And then there’s: ‘..but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire‘ (Mt 5:22). You just don’t call your fellow church leaders ‘foolish’ in front of the world’s media, unless your motive is to cause irreparable damage to their integrity, credibility and Christian ministry.
This post will doubtless be read and portrayed by the usual suspects as ‘homophobia’ or ‘hate’, but it is neither, and the proof is in the public domain. If Jeffrey John really and truly is a prophet of God or a pastoral luminary and a gift to the Church, he needs no mitre to show mercy, generate compassion, or spread the good news of Jesus Christ to the world.