The foundation of Jesmond Parish Church requires us to be a Church
in which evangelical truth shall be declared [and which would] form a central point for the maintenance and promulgation of sound scriptural and evangelical truth in a large and populous town.
From time to time we have had to be firm in faithfulness to that trust in respect of our bishops. But until now there have only been two occasions in my 25 years that we have felt it right to take specific action. The first was in the time of the previous bishop of Durham, David Jenkins. He publicly (on TV) denied the virginal conception of Jesus and doubted his resurrection from an Empty Tomb. He caused huge confusion both on Tyneside and nationally; then he caused confusion in the House of Bishops as the initial response from the then Archbishops, Robert Runcie and John Habgood, was one of fudge. This suggested that any doctrinal view is compatible with the Christian faith (and certainly the Church of England).
For our part at that time we decided we could only have bishops coming to us at JPC (and who come principally for confirmations), who could affirm the biblical and orthodox faith. Personally I have a duty under my own ordination vows (in the language of the Ordinal in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer) to "be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God's Word." Because of some confusing remarks from our own Bishop at that time over the virginal conception of Jesus and his Empty Tomb, the churchwardens, and then I myself, went to see him to explain our worries. On this occasion there was a happy outcome. In the vicar's note for February 1986 I was able to write as follows:
I have recently been in discussion with our own Bishop (of Newcastle) over these matters - before the House of Bishops has collectively reported. I am delighted to be able to write, with his agreement, that in the course of our discussion he made it quite clear that he personally believes in the facts of the Virginal Conception of Jesus and his Empty Tomb.
The second occasion was ten years later in 1996 and the issue was the vexed question of homosexual relationships. Let me quote now from the vicar's note of December 1996:
Many people were confused, distressed and, yes, angry over the celebration to mark 20 years of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in Southwark Cathedral on 16 November. All this compounded the confusion that already existed from the publicised statements and certain actions of various individual bishops. Distress and problems had already been caused by the Bishops' Report Issues in Human Sexuality. In the summer to help dispel some of the confusion the evangelical group Reform argued that we needed a reaffirmation of the basic biblical teaching that has been the clear tradition of the Church down the centuries in this whole area of sexual and marital ethics. For clarity Reform said that we need to get back to:
1) the received teaching of the church that all its members are to abstain from sexual relations outside holy (heterosexual) matrimony;
2) the need for appropriate discipline within the church where there are sexual relations outside holy (heterosexual) matrimony, and
3) the practice of ordaining only those who themselves will teach, and seek to model in their own lives, the received teaching of the church that all its members are to abstain from sexual relations outside holy (heterosexual) matrimony.
Our own Bishop and assistant Bishop have assured me that they agree with these three propositions and have been arguing the same or similar points on a number of occasions. This is very encouraging. But please pray that there is clarity throughout the Church among bishops, clergy and laity alike.
The discussion that led to this vicar's note (December 1996) came about as the result of the following resolution of our own PCC:
the PCC, in view of the serious confusion that has been caused in the Church over sexual relations, particularly homosexual relations, by the actions and words of individual bishops in the Anglican Communion and in the Church of England, and also by the ambiguous statement "Issues in Sexuality" from the House of Bishops, requests the vicar to consider only inviting for confirmation services bishops who have subscribed to Reform's threefold subscription - a subscription that reflects biblical and traditional teaching - so as not to cause confusion to young Christians and new converts.
In our discussions I explained to the former Bishop that this resolution would have implications for his successor. "You will have to sort that out when he is appointed," was the reply. "Sorting that out" is more complicated than I expected. That is because the person appointed as Alec Graham's successor was a suffragan bishop from Southwark (the diocese where the Gay Celebration had been held), Martin Wharton. But at least the problem surfaced immediately. At an otherwise low key initial press conference, he was highly controversial over the subject of homosexuality. He was reported in the Evening Chronicle as saying:
I believe passionately in a diverse, inclusive and tolerant church ... I follow the church line that homosexuality within a loving permanent relationship is no sin, but I think it would be inappropriate within the priesthood.
Sadly, this is not an exceptional position for a bishop to take today in the Church of England. That is why, personally, I am sorry that the public exposure of this particular problem has to focus on the new Bishop of Newcastle. His is a representative position. There are other bishops who have more extreme views. But this view of Martin Wharton, as reported in the press, has been known as his view in Southwark for some time - namely that loving permanent homosexual relationships among the laity are permitted by the Church. And he believes that the statement from the Bishops' Issues in Human Sexuality allows for that. He summarized his position on BBC Look North (17 June 1997), in respect of homosexual sex as follows - these were his actual words (and so cannot be rejected as misreporting):
The Church through its statement from the House of Bishops has come to say it is possible to accept that faithful, lifelong, committed and permanent relationships are permitted - certainly amongst the lay-members of the church, but that cannot be the position for the priests.
This is clearly unbiblical. The arguments why are to be found in the Addendum to the Jesmond Statement. And being unbiblical is in defiance of Canon C 18.1, the basic canon that gives the job definition of a bishop and that says: "it appertains to his office to teach and to uphold sound and wholesome doctrine and to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange opinions."
But I personally did not want to get into interminable arguments and certainly we had no intention of taking any one to court over doctrinal matters. However something had to be done. So a fairly forceful point was made in the Jesmond Statement and on behalf of the PCC I asked the Archbishop of York for alternative oversight. He replied the first time suggesting more dialogue. I replied with my Reply to the Archbishop of York. I explained why, in my judgment, the way forward was not to have "cosy chats" with the new bishop. The issues were over fundamental doctrinal error. As I had sent the Jesmond Statement and my Reply to Martin Wharton, he knew that the only way to solve the problem, from our point of view, would be to say (publicly) that he had changed his views since the press conference in June; that he no longer agreed with his position as articulated in Southwark; and that he would subscribe to the Reform propositions. He did not do that and he has not done that. That is why we are still appealing to the Archbishop of York under his duty "to correct and supply the defects of other bishops" (Canon C 17.2). The "defect" in this case is the clear defiance of Canon C 18.1. But others, too, were beginning to see the problem and take action.
Not long after the Jesmond Statement was published another church in Newcastle issued a statement as follows on 7 December 1997:
The PCC. of St. Mark, Byker and St. Oswald, Walkergate affirms its adherence to the Bible's teaching, and that it will therefore only be in fellowship with those leaders in the Anglican Communion who are orthodox in their faith and morals, as expressed in the Kuala Lumpur Statement on Human Sexuality.
This means that, in the light of his public statements on homosexual behaviour, we cannot, as things stand, accept the oversight of the new Bishop of Newcastle, Martin Wharton - not on personal grounds, but on grounds of doctrine and morality. Bishop Martin's views are totally unacceptable to us.
We wish to emphasize that this is not a personal matter, but a public issue of faith and morals. The Bishop has spoken publicly of his views on homosexuality. Therefore we feel constrained to make our position public too.
The cause of the gospel in England and overseas is greatly hindered by unbiblical, public pronouncements of Anglican leaders in England, the rest of the United kingdom and overseas.
The High Court
This statement was picked up by the Journal newspaper on 8 December 1997 and the focus now shifted to Ed Moll. Ed was a prospective curate for St Oswald's Walkergate who was expecting to be ordained in Newcastle Cathedral on 21 December 1997. On 9 December, the day after the Journal report he was summoned to a meeting with the acting Bishop (Kenneth Gill) and the Archdeacon of Northumberland. He wisely took his vicar, Ken Moulder, with him. Ed Moll has subsequently reported on what followed in a briefing and it is corroborated by Ken. Ed wrote that at the meeting it was made clear that unless he refuted his PCC's statement he could not be ordained on 21 December. But quite properly he was not willing to accept this additional condition that was placed uncanonically on his ordination; nor was he able to condone unbiblical teaching. He was, however, willing to swear the oath of (canonical) obedience. That is because it is made to the office and not to an individual person ("the Lord Bishop of Newcastle, his heirs and successors" and not to "Martin Wharton"); and most importantly the "obedience" is limited by the words "in all things lawful and honest". That means that obedience can never be unquestioning; and there can never be obedience in an area that is unbiblical. However, the Assistant bishop was not prepared to administer the oath without the prior refutation of the PCC. That meant that Ed was withdrawn from ordination at the Cathedral on 21 December 1997.
So in the word's of the briefing:
Ed Moll's ordination had been stopped because he and his parish wanted to adhere to orthodox Christian biblical teaching on human sexuality. He was already fit for ordination, and had been since Summer 1997 (an ordination to coincide with his arrival in September had been postponed because no bishop was available).
The briefing then went on:
Further delay would both impair the ministry of St Oswald's, and confirm the difficulty of being ordained while holding fast to traditional orthodox Christian teaching. An alternative ordination was therefore planned, at very short notice, to be carried out at St Oswald's on 21 December by a retired missionary bishop. A High Court Injunction was sought by the acting bishop, Kenneth Gill, against the retired missionary bishop, the vicar and the churchwardens of St Oswald's to prevent the ordination. After a four-hour hearing, the injunction was granted at the high court in Middlesborough against the retired bishop and the vicar for three months to prevent a possible breach of canon law. Apparently this is the first time a High Court injunction has been used to deal with canon law. No ordination was held on 21 December for Ed."
This was all quite disgraceful. It was very wrong (see 1 Corinthians 6.1 and 6) for the assistant bishop, acting with the full knowledge of Bishop Wharton, to appeal to a secular court over what in reality is a doctrinal matter. The court, not being an ecclesiastical court, could not discuss, nor would allow discussion of, the doctrinal issues at all. But in this case doctrine is everything. To add insult to injury and symptomatic of what is going on there then was the diocesan account of what happened. This was given in the report in the diocesan newspaper, The new Link, for January. It says: "an injunction (lasting three months) was granted preventing the ordination of Ed Moll, of St Oswald's, Walkergate, following his refusal to make the oath of obedience to the diocesan bishop, as required by the ordination service." That is absolutely untrue. Ed was willing to take the oath of obedience.
Ken Moulder asked me to represent him at the High Court. Unfortunately I did not have the opportunity to read out in Court a letter of Ed Moll to bishop Wharton that he sent before the hearing on 17 December. Ken particularly wanted me to make it public. It makes it crystal clear what are the issues and the only way they can be resolved by Martin Wharton. Ed Moll wrote:
I am writing to ask you for written and unambiguous clarification of your views on the issues of human sexuality. The serious doctrinal and moral nature of the issues involved, and the public exposure of your reported views make a clear, unambiguous, written statement by you essential to establishing your position on these issues.
I am sure you will understand the importance of a written statement of clarification, and the need to deal with press reports of your public views. I can only repeat the suggestions contained in Rev K Moulder's communication sent to you last week, and ask that your statement consist of the three areas he indicated, namely (1) your public affirmation of the Reform propositions, (2) our support for the Kuala Lumpur Statement, and (3) your assurance that you no longer hold the view reported in the Press on Tyneside that "homosexuality within a loving permanent relationship is no sin", and the same view expressed more fully to more than a dozen witnesses at Emmanuel Church, Wimbledon.
I have been informed that Bishop Wharton simply replied in the terms he has used before, namely that however he expressed himself at his press conference last June and however his comments have been interpreted, he stands firmly with the statement of the House of Bishops' Issues in Human Sexuality and this is the framework within which he exercises his ministry. That is quite inadequate. According to Bishop Wharton's own words on TV (as we have seen), Issues in Human Sexuality in his judgment permits homosexual sex among the laity. So the situation for our friends at Walkergate is quite unresolved. Ed is staying on as a diocesan layworker until the end of March. Who knows what will happen then?
What is happening at Jesmond? I am in correspondence still with the Archbishop of York about "alternative oversight". This has become all the more necessary as I personally am being attacked by the Newcastle diocesan authorities. There are attempts to stop Ian Garrett preaching and Jonathan Redfearn giving us clerical assistance. This too is quite disgraceful. But let me conclude with five propositions.
One, the fundamental issues are doctrinal and in particular the view that "homosexuality within a loving, permanent relationship is no sin". Bishop Wharton has in no way retracted this view or resolved the problem. Further press reports have made the problems worse.
Two, what was and is needed is not face to face discussion but simple "yes/no" answers. The avoidance of ambiguity is necessary when there is such confusion. Clear answers have been studiously avoided.
Three, as I have said, I never wanted to get involved in interminable arguments. And we at Jesmond had no intention of taking any one to court. Most of us simply wanted to make a fairly forceful point and then have oversight that would enable us to get on with evangelism and biblical ministry on the one hand, and on the other hand prevent doctrinal or moral confusion that would hinder the work of the gospel on Tyneside.
Four, with the doctrinal issues unresolved, of course, there may be consequential secondary problems in terms of Anglican irregularities or untidiness on the part of those seeking to be faithful. And opposition from those who want to attack these irregularities without first dealing with the fundamental problems will cause a huge wastage of time, energy and money. This is especially so if Bishop Wharton condones taking people to court.
Five, the issues are spiritual. So remember that God is in control. Then pray. Then focus on Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 16.9 - they seem so relevant to us at Jesmond Parish Church: "a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me." Then forget this sorry story and concentrate on the "great door for effective work" that Jesus Christ by his Holy Spirit has opened for us here on Tyneside.