Archbishop faces criticism after second rejection of Jeffrey John

By staff writers
July 9, 2010

The Rev Dr Jeffrey John, the partnered but celibate Dean of St Albans, has been blocked from becoming a Church of England bishop for the second time, after his candidature for the Diocese of Southwark was rejected.

The move comes seven years after the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, a personal friend, changed his mind and rejected Dr John, a respected theologian and educator, following anger and threats from hardline factions within the Church who objected to his same-sex civil partnership - even though he declared it to be non sexual.

This time, the Dean was recommended for the Southwark shortlist by a two-day meeting in Stepney, London, of the Crown Appointments Commission, which comprises the two archbishops, six members of the General Synod and six elected representatives from the diocese.

A number of conservative evangelicals made it clear that they had no objection to Dr John’s appointment this time round, but the hardliners object to the appointment of anyone who has been in a homosexual relationship or who holds a different view to them on human sexuality.

It is believed that the Rev Nick Holtham, Rector of the prestigious St Martin's-in-the-Fields Church in central London, has also been rejected for the Southwark post, formerly held by the Rt Rev Tom Butler, because he disagrees with the idea that scripture and tradition are opposed to faithful same-sex relationships.

The change of decision seems to have been occasioned by a leak from the Commission to the media - one which enabled anti-gay activists within the Church to mobilise to block Dr John.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is said to be "furious" about the leak, as members of the Commission had been asked to hold to absolute secrecy regarding their deliberations.

But Dr Williams is himself coming under pressure by critics who say that he capitulates to pressure every time hardline groups raise a fuss, and has effectively abandoned the policy of the Church to extremists.

The secretive and arcane process of appointing Church of England bishops, determined by its status under the Crown, is also coming under the spotlight - together with the continuation of Establishment, which critics from all sides of the debate suggest is becoming an anachronism in a plural age.

The appointments process involves an advert in the church press, a Crown commission, secret ballots, and assent by both the prime minister and the Queen.

The Church of England is the only state church within the worldwide Anglican communion, which claims 77 million members, but is believed to be considerably smaller in terms of practising members.

An editorial in The Guardian newspaper this morning condemned the decision to exclude the Dean from the shortlist for Southwark, where he previously served as a priest and as canon missioner.

It declared: "Jeffrey John, the dean of St Albans and a man of the highest intellectual and moral standing, was rejected as a candidate for the diocese of Southwark because of his sexuality. No other private or state institution would have been allowed to do this. No institution, either, would be allowed to bar women from applying for the job, allowing them to be ordained but not promoted."

The Rev Colin Coward of Changing Attitude, which seeks to affirm the ministry, baptism and role of lesbian and gay people within the church, commented: "This is painfully disappointing news for Jeffrey, who has lived through a week in which his identity and reputation have been pored over, analysed and attacked once again by conservative forces in the church in a way which I can only describe as poisonous. Those who claim the moral and ethical high ground in the church behave in ways which are scandalous and un-Christian."

The Rev Giles Goddard, chair of Inclusive Church, said: "This is a disaster for the church – another example of shooting itself in the foot. It would be much better to have a more open system."

Chris Bryant, a Labour MP and former Anglican cleric, who is also gay, said: "I have long supported the election of bishops. If the clergy and people of a diocese want a gay bishop they should be able to vote for one, in which case Jeffrey John would have been archbishop of Canterbury by now. There are not many men who combine his spiritual depth and insight. The way things are conducted now does not do the church any favours."

The conservative lobby groups Anglican Mainstream, Reform and Christian Concern For Our Nation were among those welcoming the rejection of Dr John.

But critics say that they do not reflect a majority within the Church of England, and the Dean has also received strong support from evangelicals, many of whom are distressed by the latest developments.

Writing in the Guardian, the paper's former religious affairs correspondent Stephen Bates, who monitored the earlier disputes within global Anglicanism over women bishops and gay clergy, says that an unnamed 'senior cleric' within the Church of England believes that "the time of reckoning has come" for the embattled Archbishop of Canterbury.

The cleric added: "The events of seven years ago have bitten him hard in the very week women bishops comes to the crunch. He should realise there are greater considerations, like truth, justice, openness, fidelity to the rules and all those things the church proclaims. Many are dismayed by his constant capitulation to the fringe noisemakers."

The developments around the Southwark appointment come at a bad time, with the C of E General Synod meeting in York intended to try to find a way forward for the Church.

Read Ekklesia's book on the disputes within Anglicanism and beyond: 'Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change', edited by Simon Barrow, with a preface by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu (Shoving Leopard, 2008) -


Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.