Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Let's trim our sails and ride out this storm

News is coming in from a variety of sources that the Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John, is a nominee for the Electoral College of the Diocese of Bangor in the Church of Wales. Ruth Gledhill is now back from holiday so her column is a good source for the sources and reactive comments - Jeffrey John being gay, and previously offered and then not offered the bishopric of Reading.

This is worth a comment from Down Under because we are as interested in the New Hampshires, New Westminsters, and now, possibly, Bangors, as anyone in the Anglican world. The signs are manifesting of another 'perfect Anglican storm' brewing (just as the rain outside my windows, as I write, are of a storm which is depositing twice as much rain in South Westland, NZ as has been falling on the levees of New Orleans!!).

But I think we should trim our sails and ride out this storm!

In the dust up over Jeffrey John nearly becoming the Bishop of Reading (actually a suffragan post within the Diocese of Oxford) it emerged (and you can read it in Ruth Gledhill's column) that Jeffrey John has a permanent relationship with a man but the relationship is not expressed sexually. In short, Jeffrey John has a companion and not a lover; he is celibate, and lives by the guidelines of the Church of England on human sexuality (which, in sum, sets a higher standard for clergy than for laity).

In other words, Jeffrey John's life appears to conform well to conservative theological thinking when conservatives say that we think "homosex" contravenes the abiding law of God, but we understand and support (non-sexualised) friendship, companionship, and close human relationships between men and between women, noting, after all, that such relationships are found on numerous occasions in the Bible (Ruth and Naomi, Jonathan and David, Jesus and the Beloved Disciple, to say nothing of Paul always travelling on many occasions with close male companions in the gospel task).

So, there are grounds for trimming our sails and riding out the (seemingly inevitable) storm which is arising around this possibility for Bangor (bearing in mind, of course, that we are talking about an election and not an appointment, so it may become a damp squib)!

Yet, in the same breathe, it can also be observed that not all conservatives are happy. Ruth Gledhill writes,

"But in a joint statement, Canon Chris Sugden and Philip Giddings, of Anglican Mainstream, the conservative lobby set up in response to Dr John’s appointment to Reading, said: “If he is being nominated to a Welsh episcopate, the obstacles remain the same as to his previous candidacies for senior appointments.” "

I cannot find the whole of this joint statement but I presume they are talking about the fact that as a teacher in the church, Jeffrey John has taught a liberal approach to gay and lesbian sexuality, and has never retracted that teaching. But if this objection is so, on the larger canvas of 'what people believe who get to become Anglican bishops' this is not reason itself to ramp up the storm of controversy! Not that that will hold the media back from doing their bit.

Will we be patient, fair, and gracious?

Peter Ould carefully, and wisely makes these comments:

"It’s vitally important that Conservatives, if they oppose this promotion (if it indeed happens), get their response absolutely water-tight. There is a huge danger that incorrect use of language or argument will damage the orthodox position. In particular we need to be aware of what the general public will perceive from the language we use.

Let me give you a good example. Any reference to Jeffrey John being "the gay Dean" or a potential new "gay Bishop" reinforces in the public’s mind that the issue is Dr John’s sexuality. The truth of the matter is that his sexual orientation shouldn’t in any way disbar him from the highest office. It is sexual practice that is the key, not sexual orientation.

Any objection on the case of him being in a Civil Partnership also needs to be clearly thought through. Is a celibate Civil Partnership what the Lambeth Conference proposed moratorium on consecrating those in a same-sex union intended to cover? If so, does that make the Church of England’s stance on the permissibility of celibate Civil Partnerships untenable in the light of the Lambeth moratoria?

Any objection to him being consecrated on the basis of his teaching also needs to be carefully weighed. Is it fair to single out Dr John’s "Permanent, Stable, Faithful" when Rowan Williams’ "The Body’s Grace" might amount to the same stance? What about "heterosexual" bishops who teach the same thing as Dr John on same-sex unions?"

Nevertheless Peter Ould in the same posting makes the point worth pondering that there is an objection to Jeffrey John being made a bishop. What do you think?

Incidentally, it is the same objection, whatever appointment an unrepentant sinner holds in the life of the church.

Postscript: Jeffrey John, in part, is famous for writing a book 'Permanent, Faithful, Stable': Christian Same-Sex Partnerships. As books go on making Scripture compatible with same-sex partnerships its difficult to praise this one. This review by John Richardson points out why. (I have read the book - it sits on my desk as I write. But John has written a handy review, so I refer you to it, rather than do my own).


Peter O said...

I want to suggest to you that just because Jeffrey and Grant aren't sexually active, that doesn't mean that they aren't lovers. If not, then the language of the Civil Partnership ceremony makes no sense.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Peter
Thanks for that comment. It makes me think of some questions and the answers do not come quickly!
- Is being a 'non-sexual' lover of someone a good/bad right/wrong thing?
- Is conservative evangelical concern focused on what Scripture expressly forbids (sexual expression of same sex love) ... or on same sex love?
- When does loving someone such as a close friend make me a 'lover'?
(I am not asking you, should you come back to this comment to answer the questions, but they are the questions which come to my mind!

Unknown said...

Hi Peter

It is worth bearing in mind that Jeffrey John's 'almost appointment' to Reading led directly to the founding of Anglican Mainstream, and thus, indirectly, to events like GAFCON. In the light of that, his appointment to Bangor might be a good thing!

More seriously, the problem with him being a bishop anywhere is that he believes and teaches (eg via his book, which itself directly influenced the Archbishop of Canterbury), that same-sex sex and the blessing of same-sex relationships are compatible with Scripture. Moreover, by his own admission he 'embodies' that teaching in his own life to the maximum extent allowed by the convergence of his own beliefs and the current discipline of the Church.

To use an analogy, his appointment as a bishop would wheel into the Anglican church in Great Britain a Trojan Horse with "This contains Greeks" painted in large letters down the side.

As to Rowan Williams, both his stance on human sexuality and his teaching generally were roundly opposed by Conservative Evangelicals in England when his appointment was announced. In particular, Dr Gary Williams at Oak Hill theological college produced a booklet examining and critiquing Dr Williams' beliefs.

Furthermore, Dr Williams was originally not invited to address the 2003 National Evangelical Anglican Congress, and when the organizers were pressured to back down on this, several of them chose not to attend that part of the proceedings.

Yet, significantly, these criticisms and actions were loudly condemned on all sides in the Church and themselves led directly to the founding of Fulcrum, the Open Evangelical, 'anti-Conservative' pressure group.

Indeed, this has been the history of protest in England - evangelicals have objected to other episcopal appointments and pronouncements on doctrinal grounds (see the former bishop of Durham) and have been regularly pilloried themselves, even by their 'own kind'.

The one big mistake made over the Reading appointment, however, was that no objection was made to Jeffrey John's replacement - a man who apparently held the same views on homosexuality, but who happened to be straight and married. My Forward in Faith friends were tearing their hair out in despair over this.

Peter O said...

Peter (which is such a cool name....),

I think these are exactly the questions we need to be asking. Do I have the answers? Give me a decade and get back to me on it.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi John
I had forgotten about the catalysing effect of the almost appointment of JJ to Reading!
Yes, there could be, almost certainly will be a Trojan horse effect to an appointment to Bangor. My point about riding out the storm might not apply in Britain - some may well think it should not apply here in Aotearoa New Zealand!
A question I have - you do not have to answer it! - is, where is all the 'protesting' going?
In part it is successful in making people think twice and thrice before making certain kinds of decisions (we see something of that here, where a moratoria re ordinations of gay and lesbian persons applies ... sort of). But it also presents a divided church to the world, it raises the distinct possibility of a divided church becoming a fractionated one, and, despite the confidence of some of the potential fractions to grow themselves, it makes me wonder whether it is part of the death throes of the western church in the face of the secular liberal juggernaut!
Nevertheless I have read your most recent UV post on eschatology, and eschatology always gives hope that God knows what he is doing, even if we do not!

Anonymous said...

'...we see something of that here, where a moratoria re ordinations of gay and lesbian persons applies ... sort of' - er, you have the occasional Trojan cleric in some dioceses down under, don't you, with a few (almost) 'under the radar' ordinations?
The Anglican church may well appear 'divided' to 'the world' (on which you know 1 John has a lot ot say!) but that can only be a reflection of its deep underlying theological divisions about the most basic of issues: the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, his uniqueness, salvation itself. Sexuality and its relationship to morality and faith thus appear more nearly a presenting symptom than an issue in itself. I remember reading about a large 'Forward in Faith' survey of clergy in England which showed just how heterodox many of the English clergy were. This is where the work is needed, kratiste Theodoule! Error is systemic, but truth is organic.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Anonymous
Yes, we are dealing with division at the level of presuppositions manifesting itself at the level of lifestyle (to paraphrase your comment).
But are all the theological faultlines on the 'liberal' side? I think there are a few on the 'conservative' side we do not see that well ... speck-and-log time???

Anonymous said...

"But are all the theological faultlines on the 'liberal' side? I think there are a few on the 'conservative' side we do not see that well ... speck-and-log time???"

In a way, that's what I was getting at. I remember hearing an American conservative church leader saying, 'The problem with the conservative church is, we shoot our wounded.' I don't know if that's true, maybe it is. A good test of a church is how it loves and heals its hurt and erring. How we handle divorce abnd remarriage is another case in point.
Further on specks and logs', I know there's also a disturbing lack of discernment once we start moving into the charismatic borderlands, where heretical crazies like Paul Cain of the 'Kansas City Prophets' get lionized for a season, or more recently a Todd Bentley crashes and burns. And I know in my own church I'd be considered 'unspiritual' or 'a quencher of the Spirit' by some if I expressed my doubts about the latest star in the charismatic firmament. Like many others, I long for an existential reality of God's presence in my life, and every day I have to remind myself I'm a sinner on a pilgrimage. That's why I boringly insist on Rom 12.1, the renewal of the mind, as a top priority in the renewal of the church. Anything else is conformity to 'the world'.