I have barely stepped inside the office of Jeffrey John before he’s ushering me out of it again and in the direction of St Alban’s Cathedral next door, the majestic Abbey Church where he has been dean for the past eight years. It’s a way of breaking the ice, and he says as much: ‘I want to show you what happens here before we get into the issues.’ Those issues will be addressed, but for now I’m glad of the guided tour, as I’m also feeling a little apprehensive.
The fact is, we are both out of our comfort zones. I have come as the representative of a magazine of evangelical convictions, to interview someone who is a key gay-affirming voice in the Anglican Church. For my part, I’m hoping for a conversation, not a debate, but I suspect that John has had cause to become wary of media types like me – treating him as an issue to be analysed rather than a person to converse with.
Jeffrey John is a Church of England priest, and has been in a same-sex relationship (albeit now celibate) with his partner, Grant, for more than 35 years. John first came to national attention in 2003 when his nomination as Bishop of Reading was disputed by Anglican evangelicals who objected to an openly gay clergyman, who refused to repent of his homosexual relationship, taking such an office.
With the unity of the Anglican Church hanging in the balance, and reportedly under pressure from the Archbishop of Canterbury, John maintains that he was forced to withdraw his name. Nearly ten years later, and with unity as fragile as ever, he has returned to the public eye. With his republished booklet Permanent, Faithful, Stable, John has effectively thrown his theological weight behind the government’s plans for same-sex marriage.
As we tour the cathedral, John visibly relaxes. He is at home here on the site of Britain’s first Christian martyr, St Alban, a vibrant place where he wears his Anglo-Catholic colours on his sleeve (or robe?). A colourful mishmash of architecture added piecemeal over the centuries, John welcomes more than 1,000 congregants, young and old, through its large oak doors every Sunday. Today a group of Russian Orthodox are celebrating a liturgy, and Catholics, Lutherans and Free Church believers frequently worship here too. This ecumenical spirit is thanks to St Alban himself. His third century martyrdom predates even the divide of Eastern and Western Christianity, and pilgrims have been breaking bread over his shrine for literally thousands of years. Thus John, in so many ways a figure at the centre of a deep fracture in Anglicanism, oversees a historical landmark that represents a deep tradition of spiritual unity in Britain. I’m sure the irony is not lost on him.
In the end, our conversation is very friendly, though he takes a firm line on its boundaries, and some subjects have been ruled off limits. We won’t be discussing the details of the Reading nomination, his thoughts on Rowan Williams, nor the fact that he was passed over again for a likely spot as the Bishop of Southwark in 2010.
There is no wish to stir the pot, instead a genuine concern for the fate of the Anglican Church and its care of gay and lesbian people seem to be among his prime concerns. When we’ve finished, John remarks, ‘I don’t usually do this, you know...interviews.’ I’m glad that, at least on this occasion, he did.
Did you have a Christian faith growing up?
Childhood was in a little village just off the Rhondda Valley. My parents were not churchgoers. I was sent to Sunday school as a child, and I sometimes went to chapel services, but I didn’t really like either of them. By 11 or 12, I gave up on that and wouldn’t go any more. I did my best to be an atheist, really.
Did your best? You gave it a shot for a few years?
I decided that I didn’t like much the idea of God that came across. But I’ve always found it very difficult to avoid the sense that God is there. My older sister became a Roman Catholic, and I got very interested in this new brand of Christianity that was so completely different to what I was used to. Then I discovered there was a version of it in the Anglican Church.
Were there any spiritual milestones along that journey?
Yes, there was a moment when I had a very, very strong sense of the reality of God’s love for me. I’d describe it as a sort of ‘cosmic hug’, I think. I had never picked up that enormous sense of the love of God holding me before. I was never baptised as a child, so I was baptised at 18 in the Anglican Church, just before I went up to Oxford.
At what point did you realise that you were attracted to men and not women?
I’m not sure, but I think very early on. When I was about 10 or something like that.
At what point did it become ‘an issue’?
I think it becomes an issue for anyone who feels that very early on. You realised that this wasn’t acceptable and that it had to be kept quiet. Don’t forget, in those days, homosexuality was still illegal, and whenever you heard about it, it was always some sort of scandal – somebody had been arrested or something awful. Nobody would have thought that of me. You just suppressed it.
Did it present a big conflict with your faith?
It didn’t present a conflict between me and God. I never felt that this was a problem for Christ and I didn’t think that it was a bad part of me. But of course I realised that it was a problem in the Church. I was aware, once I’d got into the Church, that there were plenty of other people who were gay. I observed that for so many people it was a matter of secrecy or scandal, or that people were driven into promiscuous kinds of behaviour. From quite an early stage it seemed obvious to me that the way of dealing with this, if you were not to be on your own, was to find somebody for life.
Did you ever go through a period early on when you tried to change?
There was a point at which I asked a doctor about it, if there was any sort of medical way of changing. That got me into trouble, in fact, because when you’re interviewed to become ordained, you’re asked to release your medical record, so from day one that was an issue. I had to be sent (and this annoys me now) to a special psychiatrist in London to check that I was ok. It’s quite funny, though – the end of the story was that because he knew I was angry about being there, and worried, he showed me the report that he was sending in, which actually finished: ‘Mr John is a good deal saner and more balanced than those who thought it right to send him to me.’ I thought that was great!
When did your relationship with Grant begin?
Thirty-six years ago at theological college. I was in [my] second year.
How has that relationship shaped you as an individual?
When it became clear that we were going to be committed to each other and the relationship became serious, I went to see the principal of the college. I have always been determined to be truthful about it to everybody. I thought it was quite possible that I’d be thrown out – likely, even. But his response was incredibly supportive. He said, ‘You’re such a miserable introverted academic that loving someone will make you a better person and a better priest.’ And he was right – the wisest words I ever heard him say. I’ve always found, no matter what their churchmanship was, in private people can see that loving somebody is a good thing. But of course, it hasn’t been said in public.
In your book, Permanent, Faithful, Stable, you state that ‘not a few Bishops have themselves been in homosexual relationships, and in secret some still are’. Is there is a duty for them to be honest?
Yes, I think we’re all called to speak with our lips what we believe in our hearts. Men who in every other respect are men of integrity and honour and honesty, on this one subject will think that it’s ok to lie. Such is the strength of the taboo in the Church. There’s something very corrosive and demeaning about that.
Although the official stance of the Church is very hostile, the reality is that the great majority of bishops in private are supportive, and I’m very glad about that. But we can’t carry on having this private morality in the study and a different public morality in the Church. What’s driving it is a terror about unity.
A lot of evangelicals distinguish gay orientation from practice, and say that only the latter is a problem. Do you see that as a false dichotomy?
I don’t think it’s a false dichotomy because clearly there are genuinely celibate heterosexuals and homosexuals. The difficulty comes when gay people are forced into celibacy when they aren’t actually called to it. Celibacy should be a joyful call of God to opening up your life to love everybody, as it were. I know people, both homosexual and heterosexual, for whom that works, but I’ve also known gay people who have struggled with celibacy and been quite damaged, because they weren’t called to that. They needed a partner. They weren’t called to be alone.
You make a strong case for same-sex marriage in the book, and you suggest it reflects the Trinitarian love of God. But the most obvious analogy for marriage is Jesus and his bride, the Church. Isn’t marriage always seen in male/female terms in scripture?
But the Church isn’t literally female, is it? The force of the analogy doesn’t lie in the gender. The analogy is about persons, and how love between persons in covenant works. The mystery of how one person can lose themselves in another and find that they are suddenly more than themselves. I don’t think it’s to do with actual gender.
What about when Jesus quotes Genesis, ‘A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined with his wife’?
Well, that is how it is for the great majority of people. Jesus wasn’t saying that to be normative for everybody. He wasn’t married himself, so he wasn’t saying that everybody has to have a wife, clearly. He just doesn’t deal with the issue of homosexuality itself, does he? But the kind of relationship I’m talking about, between two men or two women, can be the same in spiritual and personal terms. The whole idea about cleaving to one person, but losing yourself in the other – reflecting God’s kind of faithful covenanted love for us – I think that’s really important.
What’s your relationship with the apostle Paul? I sense a sort of love-hate relationship with him.
No, no, you’re wrong about that. It’s a love-love relationship! I’m very fond of him. I did my doctorate on Paul.
You argue that many churches now see his instructions against women teaching as context-bound, and we should treat his words on homosexuality the same way. However, we find positive and negative evidence for women’s leadership in Paul – but homosexuality always seems to be mentioned in a negative context.
I don’t honestly believe the evidence for women’s leadership is there. Paul wasn’t that keen on it, but that doesn’t matter, because he gives us other reasons for thinking that we are meant to adapt the way we see relationships in the Church and relationships in general, in the light of the Spirit, according to context. This whole idea of Christian freedom in the Spirit as opposed to the slavery of the law is quite important, because part of that freedom is deciding what is right according to your own conscience, guided by prayer and by the Spirit in any situation. I wish there was more acceptance in the Church that it is possible genuinely and conscientiously to disagree on this as a Christian.
You want to see Christian marriage extended to those in same-sex relationships. Could it be said that you are an evangelical on the issue that sex should be within marriage?
No one’s ever accused me of that before! Yes, I do believe that sex has almost a mystical power of its own. It can’t be done recreationally; that’s nonsense. Whatever happens, it tends to unite persons, it tends to create relationships, and you violate something if you do that when there isn’t that kind of permanent commitment.
Most people with any sense can see that promiscuity is likely to be destructive of relationships, and not get you a happy life in the end. I want to defend this idea of Christian gay monogamy – not only against people who can’t accept it in the Church, but I also want to offer it to gay people who are not Christian, or on the edges, as something that is important.
Vaughan Roberts, an evangelical leader in Oxford, has recently spoken of his own struggle with same-sex attraction, and that he’s chosen to remain celibate. Do you recognise that he is doing his best with his understanding of scripture?
Yes, absolutely. Of course I’d respect anyone who took that line. It’s just important not to force people. The danger is that for some people who do that, celibacy ends up as this sort of endless striving, punctuated by occasional lapses into what is almost certainly going to be anonymous or promiscuous sex. They then get into this appalling cycle of misery and guilt and loneliness. I’ve talked to a number of people who were in that situation and it just dawned on them that this cannot be honouring God.
You have been something of a lightning rod for this issue in the Anglican Church. How have you borne that responsibility?
I’m called to be faithful to Christ and my priesthood, and I’m called to be faithful to my partner. And I really do believe in the depth of my guts that that is what God is calling me to do. Now, once you’re sure of that, there’s a certain strength in it. But there have been some really nightmarish periods along the path.
Have you gone deeper into prayer at those times of huge pressure?
Yes, and at the very worst times when I’ve wanted to give up, I’ve felt a very strong strength. I talked about the ‘cosmic hug’ and I think the greatest gift I’ve got is that I don’t find it difficult to believe that God is there. That’s what strengthens me.
I read that shortly before being installed here at St Albans, you attended a service incognito and were asked to sign a petition against yourself!
Yes, there were some emissaries who had come up from some big evangelical churches in London, trying to get the congregation to stop me coming. They were trying to get signatures, so yes, I had this wonderful experience of walking out of church and being asked to sign a petition against myself [laughs].
Did you inform the person?
I didn’t. I think I was so stunned. But also, I think I almost wanted to sign it! What was most impressive was that nobody signed it. They didn’t even know me yet; they just thought this was wrong. This was not how they understood their faith. They’ve been fantastically supportive and welcoming from before day one.
The issue of sexuality has defined you in the media, but do people just not think about that here?
It hardly comes up. Grant is here, he’s a priest and plays a part in the Liturgy, and people are very fond of him. When we had our civil partnership, the wardens saw the bishop and they decided (without our knowing) to arrange a champagne reception on the Sunday following the service. That really was a surprise. There were hundreds of people outside on the lawn here celebrating it, because they thought it was important to show that kind of support.
They’re a very good congregation and they’ve been great. But there’s nothing different. I don’t think we have any more gay people than you would in any average church. A few people have come back, I think, because I’m here, who’d felt alienated. But it’s an overwhelmingly family church. What’s good about this place is that it’s amazingly normal.