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This page last updated 25 June 2003
Anglicans Online last updated 16 June 2019

In June 2003, the Revd Canon Jeffrey John was named Bishop of Reading. Because Dr John is a homosexual, there has been a great deal of argument about his appointment. On 17 June 2003, the BBC reported that a group of nine bishops wrote an open letter to British newspapers, opposing this appointment. AO staff member Simon Sarmiento wrote this commentary about that open letter.

 

What is acceptable episcopal behaviour?
by Simon Sarmiento, 20 June 2003

The most startling and disturbing aspect of this story is without doubt the issue of a public letter by nine diocesan bishops. Readers abroad, especially those who live in provinces of the communion where bishops having public slanging matches is a normal aspect of life may not appreciate how unprecedented this is in the Church of England.

In a note to editors, the bishops say they have issued it for the following purpose: The purpose of the statement is to give encouragement to clergy and laity of orthodox persuasion that many bishops share their serious concern, and to do so without making any threats or demands.

There are not many people on either side of this argument who believe that was the only purpose, and that it was not intended by the signatories to put pressure on those involved for Jeffrey John to withdraw. (Under English procedure, that is the only way the consecration can now be stopped, as the royal mandate has already been issued.)

The irregularity of this course of action by the nine bishops is clear if one reads the comments of other bishops about it.

A spokesman for the Most Rev Dr David Hope, the Archbishop of York said: "It would not be appropriate for the archbishop to comment on a situation arising in this way in another diocese and another province."

No such inhibition stopped other bishops of the Northern Province: James Liverpool, David Bradford, Graham Carlisle, or George Southwell, or Peter Cestr (pronounced Chester). In fact, only four are part of the Province of Canterbury at all.

A spokesman for the Right Rev William Ind, Bishop of Truro said: "He feels it is not appropriate to comment on the internal workings of another diocese; he would not like others to do so if it was his own diocese."

Another letter to Rowan Williams confirming support for the appointment was later published by eight other bishops, but there are very many more diocesans who support it but are unwilling to sign public letters attacking episcopal appointments, because they consider that to be the wrong kind of behaviour for bishops, regardless of the reason.

It is important to understand that the procedure for appointing suffragan bishops in the Church of England is unlike that for diocesan bishops, and does not involve any church-wide process, but is largely up to the diocesan bishop concerned although of course the archbishop of the province has a role as well.

The procedures for this appointment were followed to the letter, and beyond.

More significantly, the additional requirements that have been imposed on all episcopal appointments for over a decade now, were also followed to the letter. All candidates are required to give assurances that they will conform in respect of two specific matters. One is to conform to the current policy on sexuality (as set forth in the Issues in Human Sexuality document) and the other is to respect the different positions in the CofE regarding the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Jeffrey John had done all that, and all the bishops who signed this letter knew it.

It is hard to escape one of two views. Either these nine bishops are publicly accusing Jeffrey John of dishonesty. Or they themselves are violating their own agreement to abide by that same current policy on sexuality, because they think it is too lenient.

Neither of these is acceptable behaviour from a Church of England diocesan bishop.


The author, Simon Sarmiento, is European correspondent for Anglicans Online, and writes occasionally about the church in England.