FACED WITH PERHAPS THE worst crisis in recent Church of England history, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams summoned openly homosexual priest Jeffrey John and his advisors to Lambeth Palace on July 5. It was for a "Dear John" session that lasted six hours.
The archbishop said he and other leaders had underestimated the level of opposition that Rev. John's appointment in May as a bishop would generate throughout the church and the 70-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion; the priest would have to withdraw his acceptance. Canterbury staff had already drawn up his withdrawal letter. The stunned and angry clergyman agreed to step aside but said he would write his own letter.
Rev. John, 50, addressed the letter to Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries, who had appointed him a bishop of Reading in the Oxford diocese. His consecration was set for October in London's Westminster Abbey. Archbishop Williams, a long-time John friend who years earlier ordained a practicing homosexual, had signed off on the appointment and forwarded it to Queen Elizabeth, symbolic head of the state church.
In his letter, Rev. John said he made the decision to withdraw his acceptance of the post because of "the damage my consecration might cause to the unity of the church, including the Anglican Communion." Indeed, his appointment sparked weeks of bitter controversy: Evangelicals-the fastest growing segment in the "mother church" of Anglicanism-threatened to redirect their giving, some traditionalists talked of bolting to Rome, and heads of some large Anglican provinces in Africa spoke of breaking off communion with the church and hinted at setting up an alternative global Anglican body.
Bishop Harries, who was at the Lambeth Palace meeting, made the John letter public the next day, Sunday. Canterbury officials wanted to get out the word right away to avert a threatened schism. In a rare and hurriedly called news conference on the palace lawn that same day, Archbishop Williams discussed the case with reporters. He praised Rev. John and warned that the issue of homosexuality in the church can't be ducked forever. Somehow, the church must "discern the will of God in this area of ethics," he said.
Rev. John, attached to Southwark Cathedral in London as a theologian, admits to being in a relationship with a male partner-another cleric-for the past 27 years, but claims he has been celibate since the Church of England banned the ordination of sexually active gay clergy in 1991. The pair owns an apartment in London. He maintains that there's "a sound argument from Scripture and tradition in favor of Christians accepting same-sex relationships."
But former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, an evangelical, disagreed. He said the Bible and church teaching always have held that homosexual sex "is wrong," a theme repeated by many bishops and other church leaders during the row. Rev. Carey said he would not have allowed Rev. John's appointment.
In response, gay-activist hypocrisy hunters alleged that Rev. Carey himself had knowingly consecrated two practicing homosexuals as bishops in the 1990s. Replied Rev. Carey: "I have never knowingly ordained a practicing homosexual priest or bishop, nor would I ever want to do so." He added that he has no doubts about the two's faithfulness to church teaching.
The Jeffrey John case arose as the Episcopal Church USA prepared for its triennial convention in Minneapolis next month. Delegates will vote on whether to accept the election of V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. Rev. Robinson left his wife and family a few years ago and moved in with a male lover, a relationship that continues openly. Many Episcopal and Anglican evangelicals say the Robinson case is much more serious than Jeffrey John's.
The Episcopal delegates also will vote on whether to approve same-sex blessings as a local diocesan option.