“WELCOME to a scandal.” These were the first words in a Church Times leader comment in July 2003, when Dr Jeffrey John was forced to relinquish the prospect of becoming Bishop of Reading, after pressure from conservatives in the Oxford diocese and the wider Anglican Communion over his homosexuality. It is hard to credit that these words should resurface once more, 14 years later, in relation to Dr John and another diocese. Dr John’s exposure of the inner working of the Church in Wales electoral college is unlikely to win him many friends among the Welsh bench of bishops, but is a public scandal really any worse than one that is kept under a cloak of confidentiality? No rules were broken in the meeting to appoint a new Bishop of Llandaff, but it is a sign that something is seriously wrong when the 12 electors from the diocese, of all ages and persuasions, were denied their unanimous choice. It is hard to disagree with Dr John’s assessment of this as “extraordinary, unprecedented, and foolish”.
Partly, the system is at fault. When Lord Harries conducted an external review of the Church in Wales in 2012, he remarked unfavourably on the size of the electoral college of 47 members. In England, the vacant diocese has half the seats at a table made up of 12 people plus the two archbishops. In Wales, it is one quarter, which makes even less sense in the case of Llandaff, which included Cardiff and contains almost half the population of Wales. The Harries group expressed its lack of confidence in the present system by suggesting that episcopal appointments become the responsibility of the Standing Committee after a formal process of nomination, although, oddly, it did not suggest increasing the diocesan voice.
But there comes a point when the individuals running the system must take responsibility for its failings, especially when remarks about the difficulty that such an appointment might cause a future Archbishop appear to have been made by potential candidates for the post. Several mentions have been made, too, of the BBC headquarters in Llandaff, and the diocesan profile talks of a need “to be able to negotiate an effective working relationship with an Archbishop and other Bishops . . . coming and going to the capital city”. Is there a fear in the potential archiepiscopal candidates that Dr John might overshadow them? We trust not, and the past 14 years have shown that he has no ambitions in this direction.
Can the situation be rescued with any scrap of dignity? Only if the bench acknowledges the huge injustice perpetrated against a candidate who fulfils all the criteria for the post, and who convinced the diocesan representatives who interviewed him at length that he would bring wisdom, kindness, theological sensitivity, sound teaching, and good humour to the post. Among the “current challenges” listed on the diocesan profile is: “to increase the representation and inclusion of LGBTI, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Anglicans as an essential element of growth at all levels within the Church”. If Dr John is not reconsidered, this is a challenge that the Church in Wales has clearly failed.