The most senior openly gay cleric in Britain has accused the Church of England of pursuing a "morally contemptible" policy on same-sex marriage, criticising Rowan Williams for changing his "public position" on the issue as soon as he was made Archbishop of Canterbury.
In a new preface to his 1990 booklet on gay relationships, Jeffrey John, the dean of St Albans, writes that, contrary to the expectations of those who believed Williams would soften the Church's attitude to homosexuality, the church's line has in fact "continued to harden" during his near-decade as archbishop.
In an abridged extract of the preface published in the Guardian, the Rev John, who was forced to withdraw his appointment as bishop of Reading in 2003 due to fury from conservative evangelicals, says that as Archbishop of Wales, Williams had made the case for an ethical framework for gay relationships.
"Tragically, he changed his public position as soon as he reached the throne of St Augustine," he adds. "Since then the Church's line on homosexuality has continued to harden."
In Permanent, Faithful, Stable, republished this week as Anglicans prepare for a stormy autumn of debate over same sex marriage, John outlines the theological case for gay people in stable and faithful relationships to be offered the same recognition as heterosexual couples.
While superficially there is "little difference", he writes, between civil partnership and marriage, the official distinction "helps perpetuate a distinction in status".
"If marriage is the gold standard, civil partnership, though analogous to marriage, will always be seen as something less," he writes.
In its response earlier this year to a government consultation on plans to legalise gay marriage, the church warned the proposals could "alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman".
John, who was reportedly prevented from becoming bishop of Southwark in 2010, has been in a celibate partnership for decades. He has become a vehement campaigner for same-sex marriage, recording a video in July for the Out4Marriage campaign and urging gay people not to "judge God by the church".
In reprinting his text on gay relationships through the prism of Christian theology, John hopes to present once again the case for believers to endorse same sex marriage. In an updated postscript to the booklet also seen by the Guardian, he says that if the government is able to open civil marriage to gay people, it "will be the clearest possible signal that gay people are accepted in this society on a fully equal basis".
In the preface, John writes that Williams, who is due to stand down at the end of this year, had, before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, been in broad agreement with him on the issue which has gone on to dog him throughout his time at the head of the church.
John quotes him as writing in a letter to a friend: "By the end of the 80s I had definitely come to the conclusion that Scripture was not dealing with the predicament of persons whom we should recognise as homosexual by nature. I concluded that an active sexual relationship between two people of the same sex might therefore reflect the love of God in a way comparable to marriage, if and only if, it had about it the same character of absolute covenanted faithfulness."
'Scratching its head'
At an event with Christian teenagers at Lambeth Palace earlier this year, Williams admitted the church was still "scratching its head" when it came to same-sex marriage. "What's frustrating is that we still have Christian people whose feelings about it are so strong, and sometimes so embarrassed and ashamed and disgusted, that that just sends out a message of unwelcome, of lack of understanding, of lack of patience," he was quoted as saying.
Condemning the leadership of the Church of England for apparently prioritising the unity of the worldwide Anglican communion over gay rights, John adds: "This policy may be institutionally expedient, but it is morally contemptible. Worst of all, by appeasing their persecutors it betrays the truly heroic gay Christians of Africa who stand up for justice and truth at risk of their lives. For the mission of the Church of England the present policy is a disaster."
In the postscript, John denounces the church for "sanctioning" liberal wings of the communion while capitulating to vehemently homophobic churches. "This is morality turned upside down; and the inevitable result is that people of goodwill with a concern for justice and truth turn away from the Church in disgust," he writes.
"Almost as long as it has existed, the Church has been directly responsible for evils and injustices committed against gay people, and it is responsible for them still. Appalling atrocities have been perpetrated on homosexuals by the Church, or in the name of the Church, or as in Nazi Germany, with the tacit connivance of the Church. Yet there is still not a glimmer of repentance; rather the opposite – an arrogant restatement of 'traditional' exclusion and contempt."
Lambeth Palace said it would not comment on the remarks. – © Guardian News and Media 2012