A meeting of Church of England bishops in York this week has broken up without agreement on whether gay clergy should ever be allowed to be chosen for promotion to bishoprics.
The leadership of the established church remains tied in knots over how far it can comply with the Equality Act in its treatment of gay people. Church lawyers have told the bishops that while they cannot take into account that someone is homosexual in considering them for preferment, they also cannot put forward clergy in active same-sex relationships and, even if they are celibate, must consider whether they can “act as a focus for unity” to their flocks if appointed to a diocese.
Conservative evangelicals remain bitterly opposed to the ordination of gay people, even though many clergy are more or less openly gay, and some are in same-sex partnerships.
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…
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.”
In a covering letter seen by the Guardian, Slee’s eldest daughter, Ruth, says: “Both my mother and I feel [his] hurt and anger were contributory to the cancer from which he died … this association is borne out by the medical timescale of his illness, but will never be known.”
The memorandum was written last September, shortly before his diagnosis and two months before his death, in response to an internal inquiry into how John’s and Holtam’s names had been leaked to the press. Friends know that Slee was extremely distressed about what had happened in the selection process and wanted to write a book about the church’s selection of its bishops…
Asked whether the doctrine that a bishop must be a focus of unity in his diocese meant that in practice Jeffrey John would never become one, Williams has suggested that evangelical attitudes might change.