The Bishop of Liverpool has apologized for his part in opposing the proposed appointment of openly gay cleric Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading. The Right Reverend James Jones – perhaps the Church of England’s most prominent evangelical bishop – has also drawn attention to God-sanctioned same-sex relationships in the Bible, describing the story of David and Jonathan as a “witness to love between two people of the same gender,” and signalling an openness to more dialogue on the subject.
Jones was one of nine Anglican bishops to put his name to a letter publicly opposing Jeffrey John’s consecration in 2005. The Very Reverend John, currently Dean of St Albans, has been in a civil union with his long-time partner since 2006, but has always said the relationship is celibate, in keeping with Church rules. Writing of the controversy, the Bishop of Liverpool now says:
I deeply regret this episode in our common life. … I still believe that it was unwise to try to take us to a place that evidently did not command the broad support of the Church of England but I am sorry for the way I opposed it and I am sorry too for adding to the pain and distress of Dr. John and his partner. I regret too that this particular controversy narrowed rather than enlarged the space for healthy debate within the church.
In the essay, which was published last month in A Fallible Church: Lambeth Essays (ed. Kenneth Stevenson), the Bishop goes on to talk about the Old Testament story of David and Jonathan:
Their friendship was emotional, spiritual and even physical. Jonathan loved David “as his own soul”. David found Jonathan’s love for him, “passing the love of women”. There was between them a deep emotional bond that left David grief-stricken when Jonathan died. But not only were they emotionally bound to each other they expressed their love physically. Jonathan stripped off his clothes and dressed David in his own robe and armour. With the candour of the Eastern World that exposes the reserve of Western culture they kissed each other and wept openly with each other. The fact that they were both married did not inhibit them in emotional and physical displays of love for each other. This intimate relationship was sealed before God. It was not just a spiritual bond it became covenantal for “Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:3). Here is the Bible bearing witness to love between two people of the same gender. I know that at this point some will ask, “Was the friendship sexual?”, “Were they gay?”, “Was at least one of them homosexual?”, “Were they both heterosexual?”, “Were they bisexual?” I want to resist these questions at least initially. Immediately you start using such words you conjure up stereotypes and prejudices. Further, you assume that it is a person’s sexual inclination that defines their personhood. Is it not possible to say that here are two men with the capacity to love fully, both women and men?
As an Anglican in Bishop James’s diocese, I welcome this apparent acknowledgement that gay men and women can and really do love. Although this clearly does not affirm gay sex, it is nevertheless a massive step forward from the blanket prejudices of many of the Bishop’s fellow conservatives.
He refuses to draw conclusions, but hints tantalizingly at the possibility of celibate same-sex covenants. This author wonders whether such relationships can ever be a way forward for ex-gays? It has been suggested before. In 20 Hot Potatoes Christians Are Afraid to Touch, US evangelical Tony Campolo argued in favor of exactly this, proposing committed, but celibate relationships as an alternative to “practicing” homosexuality.