Gay rights vs. church rites

I’d like to call your attention to some great religion reporting in the British press this week concerning Dr. Jeffrey John, the Dean of St. Albans Cathedral. Attention to detail and context, lightness of touch, lucid prose and a high degree of intellectual and moral sophistication mark these stories.

However, there are also a few stinkers out there — the Guardian manages to mangle the facts and make unwarranted assumptions. But overall the reporting has been very good so far.

Let me focus on two of the best I have seen: the Independent and the Daily Mail.

Jonathan Petre of the Daily Mail broke the story of the week with his report that a senior cleric of the Church of England is threatening to sue the church on the grounds of employment discrimination for denying him preference because he is gay.

For those who have followed the Anglican wars of the past twenty-five years, Jeffrey John ranks with Gene Robinson and Jack Spong as being among the most newsworthy, admired or infamous (depending upon your perspective) liberal Anglican clerics. John figures prominently in Stephen Bates of the Guardian’s 2004 book A Church at War: Anglicans and Homosexuality, which I heartily recommend to those who wish to delve deeper into this issue.

Petre (pronounced Peter) and the Sunday Times broke the story — but as the Times is behind a paywall it will not come into consideration in this post. The next day the Guardian and Telegraph followed with stories of their own, along with the Huffington Post and other outlets. The Independent ran its story on the second day as did the BBC

Some thoughtful opinion pieces have appeared as well, notably in the Guardian by Andrew Brown, George Pitcher in the Daily Mail and from popular bloggers including Peter Ould and Cranmer.  Because this was handed to the majors for a Sunday splash the church press in England, The Church of England Newspaper and the Church Times, won’t have reports out until Friday.

I want to hold out the Daily Mail story as an example of a great breaking news report, and the Independent for providing superior analysis and detail. The Daily Mail opens with:

A controversial gay dean has threatened to take the Church of  England to court after he was blocked from becoming a bishop.

The Very Rev Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans, has instructed an eminent employment lawyer to complain to Church officials after being rejected for the role of Bishop of Southwark.

Sources say the dean, one of the most contentious figures in the Church, believes he could sue officials under the Equality Act 2010, which bans discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. Such a case could create a damaging new rift within the CoE.

Dr John was at the centre of a storm in 2003 when forced to step down as Bishop of Reading by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams after it became known that he was in a gay, though celibate, relationship. The furore fuelled a bitter civil war within the Anglican Church that has dominated Dr Williams’s decade in office.

The story offers details of John’s career, noting he had allegedly been blocked by Archbishop Rowan Williams from becoming Bishop of Southwark in 2010, and reports he has engaged a high powered employment law attorney to represent him — an attorney who won a high profile case against the Church of England when it refused to hire a gay man as a youth minister.

This is a great example of a finely written first day story. In the small space allowed him by the Mail, Jonathan Petre gives the pertinent facts and history that allow the casual reader to understand why this is a major issue for the Church of England. We know this story will have legs. Petre’s style is tight and his reporting neutral. While we can expect the Daily Mail to take a conservative position on this matter, Petre’s story does not push the party line but allows the facts to tell the story.

He also avoids speculation. It would have been very easy to have written this story with a spiteful tone — implying John was being presumptuous and was a fool for not knowing how this would look to others. But Petre does not go down that road, because, (I suspect) he knows that this is not the case and that it is more likely that the very press-shy John has chosen to make this an issue for the cause of equal treatment for gay and lesbian clergy. In any event Petre knows when to stop the story. He does a great job.

Of the second day stories, Jerome Taylor’s story in the Independent‘s is far and away the best I have seen. It also ran an leader and published a somewhat silly op-ed piece. But the Taylor article is the one worth reading. Here is an example of his analysis:

The Church long ago decided there was essentially nothing to stop a gay man who lived a life of celibacy from becoming a bishop. Even within the orthodox wings there was acceptance it would be difficult to exclude someone who was living in an entirely celibate civil partnership – for most traditionalists the line in the sand was engaging in a physical, same-sex relationship.

But a grey area remained concerning clergy who at one time or another had a same-sex relationship but had since abandoned it in favour of celibacy. Could someone who had been physically homosexual ever become a bishop?

The Church’s legal note provided a stark answer. Only those who had “repented” their physically homosexual past could be considered for a bishop. You could be a gay bishop, but only if you vocally shunned your sexual past, a condition which is not imposed on heterosexual applicants.

Within conservative wings the caveat quickly became gleefully nicknamed “The Jeffrey John clause” – after the openly gay Dean of St Albans who was humiliatingly made to relinquish his appointment to the Bishop of Reading in 2003 following traditionalist outrage over his promotion. Dr John lives in a celibate relationship but has always said refused to apologise for his past.

In effect, the decision meant those who remained in the closet could climb the ecclesiastical pole, but those who were honest about their sexuality were disbarred. To the liberals it was a slap in the face – another clear indication that senior leaders within the Church of England had no desire to rock the boat or confront an issue that has deeply divided the Anglican Communion for much of the past 15 years.

This is a thoughtful and succinct summary. I admire his prose, his detail and insight. I also admire Taylor’s moral sense. Though I do not share his sentiments, I applaud his pursuit of truth and his attack on cant (something the Church of England does very well).

To get a sense of how strong a story this is, compare it to the second day story in the Guardian. That story manages to mangle the history — making John a candidate for Bishop of Bedford when he was nominated to be Bishop of Reading — and also makes unwarranted assumptions. Here is but one example:

Conservatives have reacted with dismay to news of John’s apparent hiring of Alison Downie, an employment and discrimination law specialist, to fight his case over the Southwark post, which eventually went to Christopher Chessun.

How does the Guardian know this? With whom has it spoken? There is no shortage of conservative Church of England clergy who could give flesh to this assertion. I am also uncomfortable with the assumption the Guardian makes that John is driven by personal bitterness in challenging the church’s policies, when there is no evidence to substantiate this.

The issue of same-sex marriage is a contentious one in Britain. The Church of England, the Catholic Church and a number of civil society organizations have voiced their opposition to government proposals to broaden the gay civil unions law to marriage — the John affair adds another twist to what will be an interesting year for religion reporters.

The British press has taken a few hits of late, battered by the scandals surrounding the Murdoch tabloids. But as you can see from these stories, when they are good, they are great.

Wedding ring photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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About geoconger
  • Mark Baddeley

    Nice review and analysis, geoconger, thank you.

  • Jerry

    First, I echo Mark’s applause.

    In passing, it’s interesting to note the difference comparing the UK with the US especially given the recent Supreme Court decision. I’ve not read all of the referenced sites with this story, but if it’s not yet been covered, I think a compare/contrast piece between the US and the UK would make a good story.

  • Martha

    I would be interested to see some legal opinion on this, because if Dean John is going to take a case based on the nomination for bishop of Southwark alone (and not including the time when he was nominated and then pressured to step down as suffragan bishop of Reading), then it seems that he is relying on a memorandum issued by the late Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark Cathedral, who alleged that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, were vehemently opposed to and undermined the nominations of two candidates: Jeffrey John and Nick Holtam.

    The trouble is (1) isn’t that just hearsay evidence, particularly as Colin Slee is dead and can’t go on the witness stand to back up what he alleged and (2) since another candidate was rejected, and he was rejected for being the husband of a divorced woman, the defence could be that it wasn’t discrimination against a gay man but instead rejecting candidates whose way of life was not in consonance with the teaching of the Church of England on marriage?

    Any lawyers out there willing to opinionate?

  • Julia

    What Jerry said.

    The US has freedom of religion and a prohibition of establishing a state religion.

    The UK’s government has been entangled with the governance of its established religion since day one.

    It would be good for US citizens to understand how the difference plays out and affects our attitudes.

  • Stan

    To add to what Julia says above: taxpayers in the UK directly support the Church of England.

  • Thinkling

    Pretty much echo positive sentiments as well.

    This seems to be an area where there is a lack of universal rules about terminology, similar to those about the proper journalistic use of “Reverend”, etc. This involves the use of the words “gay”, “homosexual” etc. These terms are used interchangeably yet there are two distinct concepts (at least) which they communicate.

    For example, the word “gay” can mean possessing the medical/psychological attribute of being sexually attracted to those of the same sex, or it can mean acting in support of a particular constellation of political advocacy positions, or indulging in lifestyles benefitting from such advocacy. Communication thus becomes impeded.

    Thus there is a need to standardize the terminology. I now use “gay” to mean the advocacy / lifestyle, and “same sex attraction” for the attribute. This has the distinct advantage of overcoming the “born this way” Gordian knot: anything chosen (advocacy, relationship) is “gay” and anything not chosen (desire for a relationship) is SSA. Now obviously there are other conventions, but the point is there is not one universally accepted one. I do not even know if there is a Style-Guide-like convention which journalists can turn to; my strong suspicion is that there is not. Confirmation or correction welcome. I think one is desperately needed, or if present its adherence can stand to be vastly improved.

    There is another small ghost still present. Rev John is described as “celibate”. I would have liked to know if they meant “chaste” instead, or in addition. I do not know the CoE linguistic conventions, so they may be different than how I know those terms (the Catholic understandings). But clarifying what they mean there would go a long way to contextualize the nature of the objections to his episcopacy. I am not holding it against them though, as the vast majority of people think those terms are synonymous.

  • Stan

    geoconger: it is disingenuous for the Church of England to say that it receives no money from UK taxpayers. On the very page that you link to is this statement:


    over £200 million is given tax-efficiently each year through Gift Aid and a further £60 million is recovered from the Inland Revenue in tax;”

    Moreover, the government supports a large number of historic buildings that are also churches.

  • Dale

    Stan said:

    geoconger: it is disingenuous for the Church of England to say that it receives no money from UK taxpayers.

    No, it’s not. The U.K. permits taxpayers to designate a gift amount to the Church. The diocese then collects the designations and presents them to Inland Revenue, which in return pays the diocese the designated gift.

    This works in a way similar to a charitable tax credit in the U.S. Unless he chooses to do so, the average U.K. taxpayer does not support the Church of England.

  • Jeff

    geogoner and Dale,

    Thank you for doing the journalist’s work of counteracting ignorance and misinformation.

  • Jeff

    That should read “geoconger.” Someone is up past his bedtime.

  • Bain Wellington

    I thought the maligned Guardian piece by David Shariatmadari dated 16 January – (not to be confused with the one on 15 January by Sam Jones which identified the correct See of Reading when alluding to the 2003 fiasco)opened with some crucial input:-

    Jeffrey John would be unlikely to win any action against the Church of England over his sexuality according to legal experts, due to an exception in the Equality Act that allows churches to refuse to hire because of the religious beliefs of their members.

    Leaving aside [1] the over-casual choice of terms by the reporter, [2] the intricacies attendant upon Crown appointment of Church of England diocesan bishops, and [3] the question whether the Equality Act of 2010 was in force at the time of the Southwark fiasco, if any claim is to be brought regarding that appointment (indeed, it was not, since the nomination commission made its decision on Southwark the month before the Act came into force), this is a reference to para. 2 of schedule 9 to the Act which comprehensively sinks every hope for success of the litigation which Revd John is reportedly contemplating (whether as to the past or the future).

    This is because of the “non-conflict principle” enshrined in para. 6 of the schedule, which justifies acts which would otherwise be a breach of the Act if they are taken

    . . . so as to avoid conflicting with the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of the religion’s followers

    It is the parallel “compliance principle” (under para.5 of the schedule) protecting acts in pursuance of doctrinal purity which prevents the Catholic Church from being sued by womenpriests.

  • Stan

    Dale and geoconger are simply parroting the semantics of the CofE to reassure UK taxpayers. It may be true that there are various schemes by which direct subsidies are largely avoided. However, that is like saying that the royal family receives very little from the taxpayers since they are so personally wealthy. But when one asks where all the personal wealth comes from, it turns out that in fact they were given vast fortunes by the government. The same is true of the CofE. But it makes a good pr story to say that the CoE is supported entirely by the small proportion of Englishmen who are its members.

  • Dale

    Stan says:

    Dale and geoconger are simply parroting the semantics of the CofE to reassure UK taxpayers.

    No, I’m correcting your misrepresentation of the funding of the Church of England.

    It may be true that there are various schemes by which direct subsidies are largely avoided.

    So the Church of England is not being disingenuous.

    But when one asks where all the personal wealth comes from, it turns out that in fact they were given vast fortunes by the government.

    You might want to read up on your English church history. Much of the wealth of the royal family and the landed gentry was confiscated from the church. It’s the government that took a vast fortune from the Church of England.

  • Stan

    Dale, I think you need a history lesson. Much of the wealth of the royal family and the landed gentry was confiscated from the Roman Catholic Church. The Church of England, on the other hand, derives its vast wealth from the government of England.

  • Dale


    No, Henry VIII did not create a new church, he reformed the Church of England that already existed. The Church of England claims apostolic succession from Peter. The fact that Henry no longer recognized the pope as supreme leader did not change the fact that the lands seized belonged to the Church of England.

  • JWB

    There are ECUSA parishes in the U.S. of colonial vintage who still own real estate that originally came from the “taxpayers” or the Crown (and probably congregations of other denominations that were the publicly-funded church in the relevant part of the country back two or three centuries ago that are similarly situated), but you would have to be pretty picky to claim that that’s inconsistent with their being privately-funded at present.

    But as to the primary story, the Independent piece also mentioned Bain W.’s point, namely that “legal experts” consulted by the journalist thought the C of E would have a very very strong defense if sued due to the relevant carveouts of the Equality Act. So what the stories lacked, from a journalistic perspective, was either stuff from other legal experts disagreeing with that view (“experts disagree as to how court might rule” is always an easy theme for a lawsuit-related story) or a good explanation as to what the potential plaintiff might hope to accomplish by bringing a lawsuit that he knew was highly unlikely to win on its merits. I mean, just speaking as a US lawyer, there are a number of plausible reasons why long-shot lawsuits can be and are threatened or brought, but something other than pure speculation as to the specific reasons that might be attractive to Dr John or his supporters would have been helpful.

  • Bain Wellington

    I agree with JWB entirely (I missed where the Independent drew attention to the prospects for success).

    The deep question is what Rev John intends by this threat of legal proceedings.

    Not to mention the relevance of 1Co.6:1-8.

  • Jeff


    Thanks *again* for *continuing* to combat ignorance and misinformation — to say nothing of bigotry.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Henry VIII did not even much reform the Church. He died a Catholic at heart. He proclaimed the Church of England to have always been a seperate body. The Catholic Church actually conceives of different national churches as distinct bodies.

    The lands were clearly confiscated several years after Henry VIII was proclaimed the head of the Church.

  • Peggy R

    This is interesting, especially as many readers noted, in contrast to the recent SCOTUS ruling on this very issue of ministerial employment.

    One thing I wondered was how much the parliament and civil law govern the CofE v the authority of the Queen as the head of the church. I have wondered why QE2 doesn’t put the cabosh on the modernisms or have the final word on this particular case and the general policy that would flow from it. It looks like the parliament and civil law as well as ABC Williams make the policy and discipline decisions. The Queen seems to sit back and not do much of anything in this area, though I wonder if she could unilaterally.

    • geoconger

      In 2003 Rowan Williams withdrew the offer of a bishopric with Jeffrey John after a private meeting with the Queen. No reports have come from this meeting, but the archbishop’s about face came after this meeting.