THE Dean of St Albans, the Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John (above), who is in a civil partnership, has accused the Church of England of becoming the “last refuge of prejudice” for its opposition to gay marriage.
Dr John, who nearly a decade ago was forced to withdraw from his nomination as Bishop of Reading, said in a frank interview in The Times, on Tuesday, that the Church’s opposition to the Government’s plan to redefine marriage was “patently unprincipled”. And he blamed the rise in militant secularism in the UK on the Church’s “mishandling” of the gay issue.
In the interview, he said: “The fact that 50 years on [after the decriminalisation of homosexuality] the Church is seen as enemy number one of gay people is a disaster, both for our own morale and for our mission to the country. We have become the last refuge of prejudice.”
He said that it was not “ethically or spiritually clear” why the Church saw same-sex relationships as inferior to marriage between a man and a woman, and that same-sex marriage was “spiritually indistinguishable” from a marriage between two people who were unable to have children.
“In the Church of England we readily bless the second, and even third marriages of couples who never darken our doors, yet we reject hundreds of our own faithful clergy and lay people who long to bring their love and commitment before God and ask his blessing.
“While we dare to preach justice and equality in Christ’s name to the world, we seek exemptions to equality laws when it comes to our own employment and disciplinary practices. While we threaten to demote or debar American and Canadian Anglicans for appointing openly gay bishops and blessing gay unions, we are trying to appease homophobic Anglican churches in Africa which support extreme social and legal measures against homosexuals.
“Not only gay people are repelled by all this. Many more people of goodwill who instinctively expect the Church to uphold justice and truth are scandalised when it so obviously does not. If secularism has gained ground in Britain in recent years, along with the demand that the Church of England must be disestablished and surrender its voice in national life, then it is our mishandling of the gay issue more than anything else that has brought it about.”
Dr John was asked to step down as Bishop of Reading in 2003, after the Archbishop of Canterbury came under intense pressure from conservatives opposed to his appointment. Dr John was at the time in a celibate gay relationship. The couple have registered a civil partnership. Dr John’s partner is also a priest.
Dr John was also said to have been blocked by both Archbishops at the Crown Nominations Commission meeting to decide the next Bishop of Southwark, in 2010. It was reported earlier this year that he was considering challenging in the courts the House of Bishops’ moratorium on openly gay bishops (News, 20 January).
Dr John has spoken little on the issue in the past decade. In this week’s interview, however, he attacked the newly formed Coalition for Marriage, which has the support of a number of Anglican bishops, and a former Archbishop, Lord Carey. He said that their arguments against the redefinition of marriage were “illogical and insulting”.
“It is illogical to argue that same-sex marriage somehow undermines heterosexual marriage. On the contrary, it confirms the value of marriage and extends its blessings to many more people. From a purely secular viewpoint, it is clearly good for the whole of the society when people commit to each other and care for one another without being reliant on the state, and this will become more important as we all live longer.”
“Admitting same-sex couples to marriage would extend the sacrament, not undermine it, he said. “Like the Church’s decision to admit women to the sacrament of ordination, it is a lot less revolutionary than it seems at first sight. The ordination of women has not fundamentally changed the priesthood, but has extended and enriched it.
“The same would be true of extending the sacrament of marriage to people of the same sex. It is not the physical gender of the people involved that matters, but the quality of their commitment, and their response to the call of God.”