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
Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.

All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.