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LONDON: Did the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral Deliberately Mislead C of E Evangelicals?

LONDON: Did the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral Deliberately Mislead C of E Evangelicals?

By David W. Virtue DD
April 26, 2016

When Dr. David Ison's name was proposed in 2012 to be the next Dean of St. Paul's in London, Church of England evangelicals were heartened that one of their own would ascend to one of the most prestigious pulpits in England.

However, immediately after his appointment was announced, it emerged that his position on homosexuality was less than fully biblical, even unbiblical, causing concern among those who had been his supporters and advocates.

Matthew Holehouse reported in the Telegraph on March 9, 2012 that the Very Rev Dr. David Ison, 57, had performed ceremonies for homosexual couples who had had civil partnerships as Dean of Bradford, even though the Church still forbids formal blessings. This begs the question, why had his actions not been made public at that point? His views, as an evangelical in a position at Bradford Cathedral which is appointed by evangelical trustees, would be of some significance in the Church, government and society.

The announcement took evangelicals by surprise and shock. No more so than Alison Ruoff who had been elected from the Bishop of London's Council to the Appointment panel to choose the new Dean of St Paul's cathedral. In a memo to friends following the Telegraph report she described herself as "absolutely devastated."

"I could not believe my eyes, such were the headlines. However there is no doubt that there is ambiguity in the apparent quotes from David as to exactly what he means with regard to 'gay' marriage.

My own reading and understanding is that he was probably speaking from a pastoral angle and was seeking to suggest that homosexuals should be faithful in their relationships, as is mirrored by marriage, rather than promiscuous, but if so, he was naive in the extreme and utterly failed."

Ruoff apologized to evangelical colleagues for her part in the selection of Ison.

Other evangelicals weighed in, also feeling deeply betrayed.

"To have "changed one's mind" in mid to late life - on the creation principles that are foundational to Christian belief - represents an subjective caving-in to prevalent western cultural pressures, and indeed to the sex-obsessed paganism of the ancient Graeco-Roman world that was so vigorously challenged by the early Christian church", said a leading Church of England evangelical Richard Bewes, a successor to John Stott as Rector of All Souls Langham Place and former chairman of the Church of England Evangelical Council,

Ison had trained at St. John's College, Nottingham an institution in the open evangelical tradition that states that its "core purpose is to inspire, equip and grow Christians to serve and lead in God's mission."

Following the newspaper articles on his appointment, Ison sought to allay concerns of his evangelical friends, mentors and new colleagues in the Diocese of London, saying that his actions were primarily pastoral not theological, and were in line with the House of Bishops' guidelines of 2005 for the pastoral care of those in civil-partnerships.

But Ison, who was brought up in the conservative evangelical tradition has later said he had changed his mind about homosexuality after meeting gay Christians at university and witnessing what he called "first-hand the damage done by the [Church's] traditional teaching."

Ison later tells us that in the nineties when he was in the Exeter Diocese he led a number of small groups into discussions about sexuality. "I want you to get into small groups and talk to each other about your past and present sexual practices and how they make you more or less holy in the sight of God."

One wonders if Dr. Ison's wife Hilary was a part of this and what her role was in all these discussions on sexuality. Did she tell all? Ison said such discussions would be private and then accused his hearers of talking about other people's privacy and not their own. "So this is holy ground we are walking on." Really.

Ison then likened it to debate on cohabitation in the early 1990s when almost nobody could be dogmatic because their brother or sister or child or parent was cohabiting and they were personally involved with the issue.

This raises a number of questions. As his views evolved from his student days, why was he not really forthright to the Appointments Committee which had an evangelical member in Alison Ruoff? He had held these views on homosexuality all along. Was he therefore less than frank to people about his true positon? Alison Ruoff, herself a magistrate, gave him the benefit of the doubt that he was speaking from a pastoral angle but was naïve in expecting the same faithfulness from same-sex couples as from male-female couples.

However, such benefit of the doubt and (deliberate?) ambiguity was blown away when three years into his post, the Dean gave an interview to Ruth Gledhill of Christian Today in Feb. 2015 in which he spoke of accepting same-sex marriage and what it would mean for the future.

In this interview, Ison said marriage should be available to same-sex couples: "It is better to refer to "Christian marriage" than to homosexual or heterosexual unions" he said. "You can regard two Christian gay people as wanting to have the virtues of Christian marriage," Ison continued.

"I'm encouraged that a good number of gay people want to take on the virtues of marriage. For Christian gay people to model that kind of faithfulness, in a culture which, historically, has often been about promiscuity, is a very good thing to do," he later told The Times newspaper.

He added he believes gay people should be able to adopt.

He concluded that the Church of England is seen by many as "toxic" and "oppressive" because of its stance on women and gays and said some gay Christians had even committed suicide because of the pressure of being told they had to be celibate.

The net effect of his now clear public advocacy for same-sex marriage resulted in St. Helen's Church, Bishopsgate, a well-known evangelical Anglican center of ministry in the City of London with a number of church plants saying they would no longer send its candidates to the cathedral for ordination. Bishop Richard Chartres has accepted their stand by going to St. Helen's to ordain their candidates..

The question has to be asked in reviewing this case, is whether the GAFCON Archbishops are right in claiming that senior Anglican churchmen misled them with reference to the decisions of the Canterbury case. And whether a culture of being less than frank about one's true views on controversial matters in the life and teaching of the church is more prevalent among senior churchmen than they would like to admit. Certainly the case of Dean Ison and the evangelicals of London Diocese is an object lesson that those on appointments committees and in other official roles need to take to heart.


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