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.

 

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How English identity politics will shape the 2017 general election

"English" voters are more likely to vote Conservative and Ukip. But the Tories are playing identity politics in Scotland and Wales too. 

Recent polls have challenged some widely shared assumptions about the direction of UK elections. For some time each part of the UK has seemed to be evolving quite distinctly. Different political cultures in each nation were contested by different political parties and with different parties emerging victorious in each.

This view is now being challenged. Early general election surveys that show the Tories leading in Wales and taking up to a third of the vote in Scotland. At first sight, this looks a lot more like 1997 (though less enjoyable for Labour): an increasingly hegemonic mainland party only challenged sporadically and in certain places.

Is this, then, a return to "politics as normal"? Perhaps the Tories are becoming, once again, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Maybe identity politics is getting back into its box post Brexit, the decline of Ukip, and weak support for a second independence referendum. We won’t really know until the election is over. However, I doubt that we’ve seen the back of identity politics. It may actually bite more sharply than ever before.

Although there’s talk about "identity politics" as a new phenomenon, most votes have always been cast on a sense of "who do I identify with?" or "who will stand up for someone like us?" Many voters take little notice of the ideology and policy beloved of activists, often voting against their "objective interests" to support a party they trust. The new "identity politics" simply reflects the breakdown of long-established political identities, which were in turn based on social class and collective experiences. In their place, come new identities based around people, nations and place. Brexit was never really about the technocratic calculation of profit and loss, but about what sort of country we are becoming, and what we want to be. 

Most social democratic parties in Europe are struggling with this change. Labour is no different. At the start of the general election, it faces a perfect storm of changing identities. Its relationship with working-class voters continues to decline. This is not because the working class has disappeared, but because old industries, with their large workplaces, shared communities and strong unions are no longer there to generate a labour identity. 

Labour is badly adrift in England. The English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English). The Brexit vote was most strongly endorsed by the voters who felt most intensely English. In the previous year’s general election, it was fear of Scottish National Party influence on a Labour minority government that almost certainly gave the Tories the English seats needed for an overall majority. In that same election, Labour’s support amongst "English only" voters was half its support amongst "British only" voters. The more "English" the voters, the more likely they were to vote Ukip or Conservative. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Ukip voters now go Tory. Those who think that Ukip somehow groomed Labour voters to become Tories are missing the crucial role that identity may be playing.

So strong are these issues that, until recently, it looked as though the next election - whenever it was called - would be an English election - fought almost entirely in English battlegrounds, on English issues, and by a Tory party that was, increasingly, an English National Conservative Party in all but name. Two powerful identity issues are confounding that assumption.

Brexit has brought a distinctly British issue into play. It is enabling the Tories to consolidate support as the Brexit party in England, and at the same time reach many Leave voters in Wales, and maybe Scotland too. This serendipitous consequence of David Cameron’s referendum doesn’t mean the Tories are yet fully transformed. The Conservative Party in England is indeed increasingly focused on England. Its members believe devolution has harmed England and are remarkably sanguine about a break up of the union. But the new ability to appeal to Leave voters outside England is a further problem for Labour. The Brexit issue also cuts both ways. Without a clear appeal cutting through to Leave and Remain voters, Labour will be under pressure from both sides.

North of the border, the Tories seemed to have found - by accident or design - the way to articulate a familial relationship between the party in Scotland and the party in England. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to combine conservatism, unionism and distance from English politics more successfully than Scottish Labour, which must ride the two horses of "near home rule" and committed unionism. Scottish Labour has a perfectly good call for a reformed union, but it is undermined by the failure of Labour in England to mobilise enough popular support to make the prospect credible.

Identity politics is not, of course, the be all and end all of politics. Plenty of voters do cast their ballots on the traditional tests of leadership, economic competence, and policy. Labour’s campaign will have to make big inroads here too. But, paradoxically, Labour’s best chance of a strong result lies in taking identity politics head on, and not trying to shift the conversation onto bread and butter policy, as the leaked "talking points" seem to suggest. Plenty of voters will worry what Theresa May would do with the untrammelled power she seeks. Challenging her right or ability to speak for the nation, as Keir Starmer has done, is Labour’s best bet.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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