Lawful, but doleful
Posted: 13 Nov 2015 @ 00:03 – ‘CHURCH TIMES’
As this guidance makes clear, those who meet to appoint diocesan bishops — six diocesan representatives, six national ones, and the two archbishops — have the legal right to exclude from consideration anyone in a civil partnership or who has married after divorce (technically “impose a requirement”). It appears that CNCs are now declining to do this, opening the door to Dr John’s appointment to the episcopate. The guidance is interesting on this point, stating: “The key question for consideration is, therefore, whether the proposed requirement could be justified by reference to a theologically rooted convictions [sic] about the nature of marriage or same-sex exclusive relationships (even if sexually abstinent) — as opposed, for example, to simply reflecting social conservatism.” At the height of the Reading row, Dr John volunteered the information that his relationship with his partner, now civil partner, was a chaste one. We have yet to see theologically rooted objections to a sexually abstinent relationship.
All this is immaterial, however, because the new guidance repeats the view that it would not be illegal to discriminate against someone (i.e. Dr John) on the grounds of his past statements on sexuality if it were felt that these prevented his being a focus of unity, a fundamental element of episcopal ministry. The fragility of this argument when compared with the weight given to candidates’ views on other subjects is what has led to this succession of legal clarifications, especially in the light of Dr John’s threat of a legal challenge after the Southwark fiasco. The difficulty of making general rules from individual cases is that they must be applied indiscriminately. The recent appointment of the chairman of Reform, a conservative Evangelical campaigning group, to be Bishop of Maidstone might be questioned in the light of this guidance.
Sympathetic bishops may wish to test the guidance by expressing views similar to Dr John’s — robust but never inflammatory — and seeing what happens to unity in their diocese. We predict that, just as people cope easily with differing views on theology and politics, they would cope with this. An early opportunity for the Church to practise good disagreement, perhaps?
As this week’s ‘Church Times’ reveals, a decision was made earlier this year to continuie to allow the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC), which normally selects those who may be formally elected to a bishopric in the Church of England, to decide not to elect a future bishop – on the basis of what he/she has expressed as their opinion on issues of sexuality.
That the official decision was not made public earlier may have been to do with the fact that The Very Revd Jeffrey John, Dean of St. Alban’s cathedral – who was formerly elected Bishop of Reading but forced to renounce his appointment due to opposition from conservatives in the Church of England and in certain conservative overseas Provinces of the Anglican Communion, because of his status as an intrinsically gay person – was again up for nomination, and a ruling was sought by the CNC before he could be considered for new nomination.
In the linked article – ‘Public Statements….’ (above the bar-line), it will be realised that a question from a member of Synod, in February of this year, prompted a swift rebuttal from the ABC to the suggestion that anyone who had publicly expressed opposition to the Church’s teaching on sexuality might never be considered for nomination as a bishop.
However, as the statement now reveals “There are specific clauses in the Equality Act which allow religious organisations to discriminate when making appointments if it is necessary to avoid conflict with the beliefs of followers of the religion”.
What the ABC is now insisting is that; if statements made by a person commended as a candidate for the episcopate are found to be a threat to the ‘unity of the diocese’ – or of any of the other Province of the Communion – the the Church has the right to refuse the nomination. With the state of the Communion at this point in time – especially with the active opposition of the GAFCON Provinces to the propsect of any gay bishops in the Communion; that would seem to put the lid on any hope of Dean Jeffrey John becoming a bishop in the Church – despite his popularity as a teacher and preacher – because of his status as a celibate partner in a same-sex relationship.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand