An Anglican priest has said the relationships between Jesus and his disciple John suggests he was gay, but that is is spiritually immaterial.

Writing in the Guardian, Paul Oestreicher, Canon Emeritus of Coventry Cathedral said the evidence for the biblical figure being “what we today call gay is very strong”.

Canon Oestreicher, whose parents fled Nazi Germany in 1938 for New Zealand and who was ordained a priest in London in 1960, was revisiting the message he had preached on Good Friday in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital.

He writes that John was the only male disciple to have come to Jesus’ execution and quoted: “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman behold your son!’ Then he said to the disciple. ‘Behold your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”

Canon Oestreicher writes: “After much reflection and with certainly no wish to shock, I felt I was left with no option but to suggest, for the first time in half a century of my Anglican priesthood, that Jesus may well have been homosexual.

“Had he been devoid of sexuality, he would not have been truly human. To believe that would be heretical.”

He continues that Jesus could have been straight, bisexual or gay, but the “homosexual option simply seems the most likely”.

In a modern reading of the Bible, he says: “The intimate relationship with the beloved disciple points in that direction. It would be so interpreted in any person today.

“Although there is no rabbinic tradition of celibacy, Jesus could well have chosen to refrain from sexual activity, whether he was gay or not. Many Christians will wish to assume it, but I see no theological need to. The physical expression of faithful love is godly. To suggest otherwise is to buy into a kind of puritanism that has long tainted the churches.”

He adds that addressing the issue on Good Friday was an “act of penitence for the suffering and persecution of homosexual people that still persists in many parts of the church”.

Acknowledging the view could be hurtful to the “theologically conservative or simply traditional”, he says it is spiritually “immaterial”.

If the Christian churches would “more openly accept, embrace and love” their gay and lesbian followers, he writes “there would be many more disciples”.