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Gay rights v church rites: Get Religion, January 17, 2012 January 17, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Church of England, Get Religion, Human Sexuality --- The gay issue, Press criticism.
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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. Attention to detail and context, lightness of touch, lucid prose and a high degree of intellectual and moral sophistication mark these stories. There are also a few stinkers — 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 an opening day 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.

First published in GetReligion.

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