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8 July 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:17am

Anglicans obsess about gay bishops — yet again

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

By Sholto Byrnes

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:

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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”.

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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?