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C of E policy on appointing bishops may face legal test

18 January 2012

by a staff reporter

THE present moratorium on openly gay bishops, formally imposed last year by the House of Bishops, is facing a legal challenge.

Two Sunday newspapers ran stories on the subject last weekend. It is said to have been instigated by the Dean of St Albans, the Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John (above), after strong sug­gestions that he had been unfairly blocked at the Crown Nominations Commission meeting to decide the next Bishop of Southwark, in July 2010 (News, 27 May 2011).

A memo written after that meeting by the late Dean of South­wark, the Very Revd Colin Slee, described it as “two very horrible days in which I would say both arch­bishops behaved very badly . . . they were intent on wrecking both Jeffrey John and Nick Holtam” (the latter was subsequently appointed as Bishop of Salisbury).

The first stage of a challenge under employment legislation is the issuing of a questionnaire. It is un­derstood that this took place some time in the autumn of 2010. The church authorities reacted de­fensively: in December of that year, a briefing was issued to the Bishops by the Church House legal office giving a retrospective list of reasons why a priest in a civil partnership, as Dr John is, could be barred from the episcopate without falling foul of employment laws.

The list includes such questions as whether the candidate has expressed repentance for past sexual activity, and whether the appointment “would cause division and disunity within the diocese”.

Alison Downie, a partner at the law firm Goodman Derrick, is said to have been in correspondence with the Church of England’s lawyers. Ms Downie acted in the case of John Reaney, a gay youth worker who successfully sued the diocese of Hereford after he was unfairly re­fused a post in 2006 (News, 15 Feb­ruary 2008).

It is understood that the possibil­ity of legal action is still live, but not being actively pursued at present.

At the same time as the im­position of a formal moratorium last year (News, 8 July 2011), it was announced that a small group would examine the House of Bishops 2005 ruling concerning priests in civil partnerships (this allowed them to register a partnership, but required them to be celibate; News, 29 July 2005). Chaired by the Bishop of Sodor & Man, the Rt Revd Robert Paterson, the new group has now begun its work (News, 2 December, 6 January).

Bishop Holtam said on Wed­nesday that he was content that the C of E had set up this review process. “It’s what we have, and we’ve got to try to make this work.”

Of Dr John, he said: “I am absolutely certain that nobody is going to go to law lightly. If it is the case, then he does this with a really heavy heart, but does so because the Church of England has failed to pay attention to a change in circum­stance and in law. It has been a long struggle since Reading [when Dr John submitted to pressure not to take up the post of Bishop of Reading in 2003]; it was an injustice, and is now, I suspect, an illegality that must be addressed.”

This week, the LGB&T Anglican Coalition submitted its views to the group. It also issued its finding that 95 C of E churches from among its networks have said that they would apply to register their buildings for civil partnerships if the House of Bishops or the General Synod approved the move. None was asked whether it would defy the present ban.

The Revd Benny Hazlehurst, a spokesman for the Coalition, said on Wednesday: “When someone has been treated as badly as Jeffrey has been by the Church of England, it is entirely understandable that he should take legal advice.”

But he called the press reports misleading. If Dr John were to take legal action, “it would not be in order to force the C of E to give him an episcopal seat somewhere: it would be to show that the Church is legally as well as morally bankrupt in this area.”

Canon Giles Goddard, who chairs Inclusive Church, a member of the LGB&T Coalition, said on Wed­nesday: “It is time to test the legal­ities, and it would be helpful to know where the Church stands. If Jeffrey is willing to do that, then I’m full of admiration for him.”

See Press

Is it now time for the C of E to address the issue of clergy in civil partnerships?

See Press

Is it now time for the C of E to address the issue of clergy in civil partnerships?

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