Last week was dominated for me by the new reports that Jeffrey John was being shortlisted as a possible next Bishop of Southwark - and then that he had been vetoed by an angry Archbishop of Canterbury.
Jeffrey has been a significant part of my own Christian journey, and the way he has been treated by the Church of England is a sad reflection of the way in which the Church has become so obsessed with excluding people on the basis of their sexuality rather than rejoicing in their spirituality.
Below is the fuller version of my appeal to the Church to reverse that trend, an edited version of which was printed in the Church Times last Friday...
Recent articles in the press have once again put Jeffrey John in the spotlight as a possible Bishop in the Church of England. Merely the prospect of this is likely to result in feelings running high, and strong statements and counter statements being issued by differing protagonists in the debate over sexuality. In such situations, the first casualty is often any sense of the real person behind the issue, and of the good fruit in their ministry which has led them to be considered for a senior appointment.
I have known Jeffrey John for almost 30 years now, and although I am a committed Evangelical, I have nothing but respect for his ministry and vocation.
He was my college chaplain at Brasenose College, Oxford when I was an undergraduate. I was heavily involved in OICCU (the University Christian Union) first as college rep, and then as Outreach Secretary on the Exec. Despite our different church traditions, I found him an inspiring preacher, clearly longing for people to grow in knowledge and love of God, and in their understanding of the Gospel. We worked together on several projects in college including evangelistic events. I had no idea at that time that he was gay, only finding that out some years later. The man I encountered was a deeply devout minister of the Gospel who faithfully spoke the words of Jesus with a conviction that was contagious.
Our paths did not cross again for some years, until he was a Vicar in Eltham, Southeast London, and I was licensed by the Bishop of Woolwich to encourage outreach and mission in UPA Housing Estates. Jeffrey invited me to work with his church in developing outreach to a housing estate in his parish. Over the few months I was there, I saw a growing church of people hungry to know more of God, and keen to be part of God's mission in the world. They were there in large part because of Jeffrey's ministry.
I was looking for a spiritual director, and asked Jeffrey if he would do this. I have always looked for spiritual directors from a different tradition but with that same zeal for seeing people come to, and grow in faith. Jeffrey fitted the bill completely and I was delighted when he agreed.
It was around this time that he began to be more open about his sexuality but what I saw again and again was the fruit of his ministry. As controversy began to grow, Jesus words kept coming to mind, "By their fruit you will know them" (Mt 7:16). Indeed, it was this 'good fruit' that I saw in his life and ministry (alongside that of other gay Christians I knew) that began to challenge my own evangelical understanding of homosexuality, but nowhere was this more apparent to me, than in my own life in the midst of tragedy in 2003.
In April of that year while a vicar in Brixton, my wife Mel was dragged under the wheels of an 18 ton truck just round the corner from the vicarage. I arrived at the scene just as the first ambulance crews arrived, and sat next to her on the tarmac for the next 2 hours as ambulance crews, and eventually a surgeon stabilised her enough to be airlifted to hospital. During the next few months her life was frequently held in the balance, and the strain of supporting her during long months in hospital, while caring for our young children and continuing to run a busy parish took their toll.
I was also angry with God, feeling abandoned, hurt & betrayed during the early months after the accident, and when I was falling apart under the physical, emotional & spiritual strain, the person who did most to hold me together was my spiritual director, Jeffrey John.
He prayed with me, listened to me. At times – when I was unable to – he held on to God for me, and he ministered Christ to me in the midst of all the pain, confusion and despair. He helped me to re-live the awful events of that day so that I could start to deal with them. He prayed for me, and with me, when I couldn't pray.
What was ironic, however, was that at the very same time that he was holding me together, his life was falling apart. For it was at this time that he was appointed Bishop of Reading, and then forced to resign because of his sexuality. At the very time he was supporting me, he had become the focus of the media's all seeing eye, being chased by journalists, torn apart by half the church, and held up to be hit again by the other half.
On the week when he was unable to go home because of the press camped outside his door; when some Bishops were writing letters opposing his consecration, and church leaders were saying that he was unfit for service in the church; at that very time, he was listening to me, praying with me, crying alongside me, being Christ to me, as my wife lay in a side room with septicaemia, fighting for life.
The incongruence – the injustice – of this juxtaposition was not lost on me. 'By their fruit you will know them' came to my mind again and again, and I do not know where I would be today without the fruit of his ministry.
I also know that I am not the only person whose life has been helped immeasurably by the ministry of Jeffrey John, often despite great personal cost, and I am sure that there are many others who could speak of the ways in which his ministry has borne good fruit in their lives.
Whatever the outcome regarding the appointment to Southwark, or anywhere else, we would do well to remember that at the centre of this is a servant and child of God, who has a passion for seeing people strengthened in their faith in Christ, and the pastoral heart to sit with them through pain and suffering to hold them close to God.
Such are the marks of Christ in a man or woman's ministry, and do not deserve to be ignored, forgotten or pushed aside in controversies over doctrine, culture, or Biblical interpretation.
Jesus was, of course silent on the issue of homosexuality, but one area where he made his will very clear was in the way we treat each other. In John's Gospel, "Love each other as I have loved you" was his last command before he went to the cross. Let us hope and pray that this Christ-like love will characterise our words and actions more than it has in the past.