Anglicans obsess about gay bishops -- yet again

It’s time to move on from pettiness and prurience.

I used to know a couple of journalists who took such an obsessive and prurient interest in whether people they wrote about were homosexual or not that gay colleagues wondered if this supposedly straight pair were themselves harbouring secretive same-sex desires.

The same appears to apply to the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion, many of whose members give the impression that nothing matters more to them than what their priests get up to in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

I refer, of course, to the news that Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, has been blocked from becoming Bishop of Southwark after being shortlisted for the post -- because he is gay. This is the second time he has been deprived of the opportunity to wear a mitre, as he had to stand down after being appointed suffragan Bishop of Reading in 2003 on the same grounds.

What makes the current fuss all the more absurd is that John, though in a long-term partnership, is celibate -- which means he doesn't get up to anything in his bedroom anyway. As William Oddie, a former Anglican priest and ex-editor of the Catholic Herald, writes for that newspaper:

The point about Dr John is that he is "celibate": and by that he means that he and his long-term partner are chaste, that they abstain from any kind of sexual act. In other words, his behaviour is entirely consistent with Article 2359 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which teaches that "Homosexual persons are called to chastity" and that "By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom . . . they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection".

In other words, his behaviour is an example of chastity for other homosexuals to follow, not an encouragement to clerical promiscuity. Dr John is a man of integrity . . . if the Anglican Church is split from top to bottom over his appointment to Southwark (which I trust will now take place) it deserves to be, as a punishment for its gross theological incoherence.

If Dr John had been appointed to the see of Southwark, he would have followed in the footsteps of Mervyn Stockwood, another gay but celibate bishop whose colourful and campaigning style led him to enjoy a public popularity and renown few prelates could hope for today. We have even had a far more senior Church figure -- David Hope, the former archbishop of York -- admitting that his sexuality was "a grey area". Really, one can't help but feel that the C of E has far bigger problems on which to concentrate.

Or is it, as a column in the Times put it a few years ago, that: "Homophobia really does mean fear of the same. Look at those institutions in Britain most hostile to equality for gay men and women -- the Church of England and the Tory party. One thing unites them. Gay people are strikingly over-represented in their ranks."

But, the article goes on to argue,

if homosexuality were an elementary matter of free will, there would be every reason for both the Conservative Party and the Church to smile on its embrace. It is seldom observed, as it should be, that one of the principal reasons fiercely liberal New York turned Republican is that its nightclubbing, high-earning, aesthetically conscious gay citizens were those most agitated about violent street crime, wasted taxes and urban squalor in Manhattan. It is rarely noticed, as it should be, that homosexual clergy, unencumbered by family and animated by compassion, are those most likely to be found in those difficult urban areas of London or Liverpool where the Gospel most needs to be heard.

That goes for Southwark, too. Perhaps opponents of John's appointment might care to discuss that with the author of the article. Their paths are quite likely to cross at some point, after all, as faith schools come under his purview -- for the piece was written by none other than that hard man of the traditionalist right, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove.

If he can take that view, isn't it time Anglicans grew up?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser