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.

 

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.