Leaks and Truth

News broke last night in the Guardian of a controversial memo written by Colin Slee, the late Dean of Southwark Cathedral and a member of the Crown Nominations Commission.

The fraught divisions have been laid bare in the leak of an anguished and devastating memorandum written by the Very Rev Colin Slee, the former dean of Southwark Cathedral, shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer last November. Dr Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, and John Sentamu, the archbishop of York, vetoed candidates from becoming bishops of the south London diocese.

The document reveals shouting matches and arm-twisting by the archbishops to keep out the diocese’s preferred choices as bishop: Jeffrey John, the gay dean of St Albans, and Nicholas Holtam, rector of St Martin-in-the-Fields in central London, whose wife was divorced many years ago. Eventually Christopher Chessun, then an assistant bishop, was chosen.

John, an able theologian and gifted preacher and pastor, highly regarded in the diocese and a friend of Williams, is celibate but in a longstanding civil partnership with another clergyman. He was forced by the archbishop to stand down after being appointed suffragan bishop of Reading eight years ago, following an orchestrated protest campaign by evangelicals. Holtam’s promotion had been blocked because of his wife’s divorce but he has since become bishop of Salisbury.

Slee described Williams shouting and losing his temper in last year’s Southwark meeting, which left several members of the crown nomination committee, responsible for the selection of bishops, in tears.

Slee also in effect charges the church with hypocrisy, stating that there are several gay bishops “who have been less than candid about their domestic arrangements and who, in a conspiracy of silence, have been appointed to senior positions”. The memo warns: “This situation cannot endure. Exposure of the reality would be nuclear.”

Slee said of the meeting: “We had two very horrible days in which I would say both archbishops behaved very badly. The meeting was not a fair consideration at all; they were intent on wrecking both Jeffrey John and Nick Holtam equally, despite the fact that their CVs were startlingly in an entirely different and better league than the other two candidates …

“The archbishop of Canterbury was bad tempered throughout. When it came to voting, certainly two – possibly three – members were in tears and [Williams] made no acknowledgement but carried on regardless. At a critical point Archbishop Sentamu and three other members simultaneously went to the lavatory, after which the voting patterns changed.”

The memo was written during the inquiry into the leaks over the appointment of the new Bishop of Southwark and were seen by Andrew Brown of the Guardian, together with a covering letter by Slee’s daughter. The actual memo itself has not emerged into the open. The picture the memo draws though is of a highly fractious and ill-tempered meeting of the Crown Nominations Commission during which the prime candidate for the post, Dr Jeffrey John, was essentially vetoed by the Archbishops. The leak came days after the meeting and showed how the de facto veto had been imposed.

Where does this all leave us? Well, until we get sight of the actual memo itself and not just a few comments from it presented by a journalist, it’s hard to comment on the report of the meeting. What this does do though is highlight how this issue, however much it is ignored by some in the church hierarchy, is not going to go away. In particular, Dr John is the prima facie example of how the current impasse on this subject is tied up in ecclesiastical knots.

Humorous solutions aside, the question needs to be asked very seriously as to what actually prevents Dr John being consecrated Bishop. It is very clear that “Issues in Human Sexuality” has become the guide for the church as to the standards of sexual behaviour expected from its clergy, and by definition bishops. The problem lies though that Dr John’s self-reported manner of life clearly still fits this standard. If that is the case, Issues cannot be used to bar him from preferment and equally his views on changing the Church’s official stance on human sexuality cannot be a bar in and of itself because other men currently serving as Bishop hold identical positions.

The issue is whether if Dr John became a Bishop he could act as a “focus of unity” for a diocese. This appears to have been the concern of the Archbishops and the reason why Dr John was vetoed for Southwark. Now of course the issue is not simply that he is gay. There have been a number of gay bishops consecrated, the most prominent of whom was allegedly the former Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood. I could easily see a situation in the near future where someone else who is gay, but clearly celibate, is consecrated to the Episcopacy.

Colin Coward over at Changing Attitude writes with clear anger at the nonsense of the situation.

Well, this is just the most stupid, dishonest, corrupt outcome imaginable. Did not one of the gay bishops have the courage to say to his brothers, hang on, I’m gay? Did not one of their friends in the House have the courage to say to the gathering, hang on, some of you may not know who among us is gay, but I have several good friends in this room who are gay?

I feel so angry that it’s hard to know where to begin. There are some bishops who are naive, ignorant, and plain stupid, because they are still unaware that the Church of England ordains gay men as bishops, and some of the ‘conservative, Bible-based’ bishops will have laid hands on these men and assisted in their ordination.

Of course, the issue is not whether we have gay bishops, the issue is whether they are sexually active. Colin continues,

Colin [Slee], a good friend of Changing Attitude and totally committed to the integrity of LGBT people in the church, charges the church with hypocrisy, stating that there are several gay bishops “who have been less than candid about their domestic arrangements and who, in a conspiracy of silence, have been appointed to senior positions”. He warns: “This situation cannot endure. Exposure of the reality would be nuclear.”

I could name a number of bishops who are gay, including several appointed in the last 12 months. I’m sitting here this morning wondering whether I should, knowing that to do so is not in accord with my Christian ethos.

Having criticised Colin yesterday, today I have to applaud him for on this issue he is absolutely right. If it is true that the Church has knowingly consecrated Bishops who have been involved in “interesting” (for want of a better word) domestic arrangements, the refusal of preferment to Dr John is untenable and hypocritical. The only reason why these other bishops (if they exist) are not able to act as a focus of unity is that, unlike Dr John, they have been less than honest about their home life. Of course, the reality might be that they have been honest with the Crown Nominations Commission, but were appointed anyway. This, anybody can see from either side of the argument, is simply unacceptable were it happening.

Colin Coward’s internal and external debate over whether to out these gentlemen stems, I feel, not so much from an intent to embarrass and ridicule and rather from a deep pain as to the way the Church hierarchy is not effectively handling this on-going situation. A cold war in the Church of England is being prolonged by the pushing under the carpet of a real dilemma amongst the House of Bishops, that to be utterly truthful about the live situation would see the whole Church exploding in a powder-keg of moral conflict. One might disagree with Colin but one cannot fail to understand and appreciate his dilemma.

And this brings us to a much neglected piece by Andrew Goddard and Giles Goddard published on the Fulcrum website and in the Church Times last weekend. In it, the pair from opposite sides of the debate, after discussing the way that the Kirk commissioned an ongoing committee to explore openly these issues, wrote,

As two people who hold opposing views on this issue, and want the Church of England to follow different trajectories, we believe we can learn from our Scottish Presbyterian brothers and sisters. We need to move beyond the current stand-off and instead engage in serious and substantive conversations, not just talks about talks.

As the Archbishop of Canterbury said, part of the problem is that the subject “has become a cardinal example of how we avoid theological debate”. We urgently need an “opportunity of clarifying” how different perspectives “see the focal theological issues”.

Some formal structure therefore needs to be established to enable “robust but respectful debate” in the context of deepening relationships. This needs to resource and listen to the wider church. As in Scotland, this is unlikely to resolve disagreements but it may enable greater respect between opponents and help us move beyond the current options of either staying silent (as have most bishops) or joining a political campaign on one side or the other.

We believe that the Church of Scotland report helps to identify key areas that we need to explore. It also highlights the urgency of addressing these and our divisions over them. We need to find new and better ways of doing this if, as we hope and pray, we are to find a faithful way forward together.

They are of course right. If we continue as we are, with the conflict already clearly present being pushed under the surface in order not to make things worse, the final outcome is going to be  messy and dangerous. Perhaps the Scottish solution is the model for England. We need to allow the Church to have an open and frank conversation on the subject and, as the Kirk is now beginning to enact, ending up being very clear about where it stands on the issue and then enforcing that decision.

That kind of path forward might frighten a lot of people in the Church, but I’m increasingly beginning to see that it is a far better route then to continue as we are. Far better surely to be sitting at the negotiating table then cocking the pistol?


7 Comments on “Leaks and Truth

  1. As far as I can see, the entire Vacancy-in-See process is designed to produce a name to be put forward for Royal (or Prime Ministerial) assent. I wonder why it has to be done this way. Wouldn't the same result be achieved if the diocese itself chose its next bishop (like they used to do back in the days when dates had three digits not four) and then submitted that name for Royal assent? After all, such assent could always be refused – it would just have to be made public why it was.

    • The problem with this approach is that it would lead to exactly the situation that was trying to be avoided in Southwark (and elsewhere), namely a candidate who could not act as a focus of unity for the Diocese, the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion.

      • One thing it would provide is someone who could be a focus of unity for the Diocese. After all, the diocese would have chosen him (her…)

        Focus of unity is an interesting idea in itself, though. It's used so often by the great and the good that one might expect there to be an understanding of what it means – except that when I asked William Fittall in Synod questions recently what the definition of the term was that was used in the appointments process, he couldn't give me a coherent answer. Shades of Humpty Dumpty, methinks…

        • What you suggest is somewhat similar to the system we have in the Episcopal Church in the USA. Dioceses elect bishops, but they must then be approved by 2/3 of the House of Bishops, as well as 2/3 of the Standing Committees of the Dioceses of the Church (which include both lay and clerical members). The bishops collectively have a lot of power in this regard, especially since many standing committees historically have followed the lead of their bishop. But the problem for us has been that the sense of diocesan autonomy in this regard has led to a deep reticence on the part of the bishops to assert their authority and say no to inappropriate candidates. And when such (rare) blocks have taken place–as in the case of the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester whose election as the bishop of Northern Michigan was rejected by the House of Bishops when it became known that he is a Buddhist who has dismissed with much orthodox doctrine–the outcry from across the church is quite loud. Many bishops now just seem to think that their role is to rubber stamp episcopal elections.

          I do still think that it is a good idea for dioceses to elect their own bishops, but I wish that there were more guidance from the sitting House of Bishops in that process, so that candidates who come up for election are all known to be suitable before the vote is ever taken. But every system for electing bishops is going to be fraught with troubles, yet the Holy Spirit will work wherever He can. In the very early Church, they drew straws to elect bishops. Perhaps we should go back to that model.

  2. "Of course, the issue is not whether we have gay bishops, the issue is whether they are sexually active."

    No, the issue is whether we will have a COMMON STANDARD for the "sexually active" clergy, gay AND straight.

    If sexual activity is acceptable among straight clergy with spouses, it should be so for gay clergy with spouses. Full-stop. The assertion that gay clergy "cannot" marry—not as a legal dictum (contentious as that is), but an ontological one—is *insane*, and brings nothing but well-deserved contempt to Christ's Church.

    • There is a common standard and it is currently applied consistently. It is applied without distinction to the sexual orientation of the individual. The common standard is sexual activity within the marriage of a man and a woman (which is not restricted to "straight" people) and celibacy outside of marriage. The church does not recognise that a spouse can be of the same sex as his/her spouse and that is the nub of the issue.

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