Belief, disbelief and beyond belief

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Bishop sacrifice

When it comes to sexuality, the Church of England remains uneasily in the closet.

When it was announced that the Church of England had established an advisory group on human sexuality, consisting of four bishops and a retired civil servant, there was some criticism of the fact that all its members were (ahem) male. But that was only to be expected, and not just because it happens to be a group of bishops, which remains, for the time being at least, an exclusively male club. In Anglican parlance, "human sexuality" is code for, "What do we do about the gays?"

Overt homophobia is increasingly a fringe element in British Christianity these days, represented best by the likes of Stephen Green. Last week, the founder of Christian Voice claimed to have persuaded God to punish Tesco for its support of a gay pride event ("Significantly, we prayed for a drop in their share price").

Meanwhile, the mainstream churches continue to move at varying speeds in the same general direction as the rest of society. Not that you'd realise it from the tone of much of the coverage.

In the case of the Church of England, there are currently two major sticking points, which may or may not be linked: the question of whether civil partnership ceremonies should be allowed to take place in church, and the question of whether openly gay men, even if celibate, should be allowed to become bishops. In both cases the present situation is one of studied hypocrisy.

The second issue has been bubbling away at least since 2003, when the then Canon Jeffrey John (who has a civil partner) failed to be appointed to the relatively lowly post of bishop of Reading, despite having been offered the job in quite clear terms.

There's no doubt that John was shabbily treated. As soon as the appointment was mooted, John became the target of a campaign of ugly homophobia -- even though he described himself as celibate and thus eligible.

Homosexual orientation, the current church doublethink has it, is not sinful in itself; it only becomes sinful if you do something about it. But such subtleties were lost on religious conservatives at home and abroad, who could only recoil in sheer horror at the idea of a "gay bishop".

As a celibate gay man, John would have been in the same position as countless bishops in the past. He would not even, well-informed observers suggested, have been the first gay bishop of Reading. The only material difference was that he had taken advantage of changes in the law to contract a civil partnership. He was, that it, open and honest about his orientation, unwilling to engage in the dissimulation and evasion that was traditional and, in previous eras of repression, mandatory.

As so often happens, the cracks were papered over and a face-saving formula devised. Jeffrey John was made Dean of St Albans, arguably a more high-profile and powerful job than bishop of Reading. But he couldn't call himself "Right Reverend" or wear the pointy hat.

For some unfathomable reason, a gay (but celibate) senior dean is acceptable but a gay (but celibate) junior bishop would be an outrage. That alone says much about the Trollopian mess the Church of England has got itself into.

Now, following a second disappointment in 2010 when he was briefly in the running for the bishopric of Southwark (which is a proper bishopric), it's been reported that Jeffrey John is considering taking legal action for discrimination. Informed observers suggest that he would probably lose.

Certainly the Church of England seems to be quite secure in its legal advice that it has enough of an opt-out from equalities legislation. But even if he doesn't stand much chance of forcing the Church of England to offer him a mitre, Jeffrey John does threaten to shine an unflattering light onto the secretive appointments system that, in the words of the late Dean of Southwark, Colin Slee, "stinks".

It would be hard to argue that anyone has a "right" to be a bishop. Indeed, the notion of going to court to demand episcopal preferment is so out of keeping with traditional norms of clerical behaviour that it might be held to be, in itself, a disqualification for the job.

A bishop doesn't run for election. A bishop is dragged reluctantly to his throne, like Mr Speaker only more convincingly, protesting that he is not worthy, but that since God wants him to do the job it would be worse than churlish to refuse. To be made a bishop is not even to be promoted: it is to submit oneself humbly to a more onerous form of service. That at least is the party line.

Ambition aside, there are other reasons why Jeffrey John is unlikely ever to become a bishop, even though everyone seems to agree that he is well qualified. He has become a divisive figure in a church that values unity, and a clear-cut figure in a church that values ambiguity and opacity.

Whether he intended it or not, he has become the standard-bearer for the cause of gay equality. His appointment, whether or not it split the church, would be seen as highly political and as a piece of deliberate provocation. His tenure would be dominated by rows and walk-outs: at least that's what those who blocked him undoubtedly feared.

At vital moments like this, the Church of England usually puts expediency ahead of principle.

The day will no doubt come when the appointment of an openly gay bishop is no more surprising that then appointment of an openly gay cabinet minister, itself once unthinkable. But when it comes, don't expect any public apologies to Jeffrey John. He committed a far worse sin than homosexuality, after all. He rocked the boat.