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‘Not anti-Semitic, just stupid’: Stephen Sizer ordered offline to save his job

09 February 2015

Dr Stephen Sizer

Dr Stephen Sizer

A VICAR in Surrey, the Revd Dr Stephen Sizer, who linked to an online article suggesting that Israel was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, has been forbidden from speaking or writing about the Middle East again, or risk losing his job.

Dr Sizer, Vicar of Christ Church, Virginia Water, in Surrey, last month posted a link on his Facebook page to an article entitled "9/11: Israel did it" (News, 6 February), thus breaking an undertaking he had made last year to have his online activism moderated. On Monday, the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, announced that he had given Dr Sizer an ultimatum: stop your activism over the Israel-Palestine conflict or lose your parish.

In a statement, he said: "I do not believe that [Dr Sizer's] motives are anti-Semitic; but I have concluded that, at the very least, he has demonstrated appallingly poor judgement. By associating with, or promoting, subject matter which is either ambiguous in its motivation, or (worse still) openly racist, he has crossed a serious line. I regard these actions as indefensible."

Bishop Watson said that Dr Sizer had now retracted the suggestion that Israel was involved in 9/11. "It is my view that Stephen's strong but increasingly undisciplined commitment to an anti-Zionist agenda has become a liability to his own ministry and that of the wider Church," he said.

Dr Sizer has promised Bishop Watson in writing that he would not speak or write about anything connected to the conflict in the Middle East, nor would he attend or promote conferences about the issue. If he breaches this agreement, he has agreed to tender his resignation to Bishop Watson. He has also agreed to stop using all social media for the next six months.

In a letter to Bishop Watson, Dr Sizer apologised for the "distress" he had caused to the Jewish community and the Church. "As a minister of the gospel it is not my role to create controversy but to seek to maintain unity between the faith communities," he wrote. He declined to comment further when contacted on Monday. 

Interviewed on Monday, Bishop Watson said the diocese had considered proceeding against Dr Sizer under the Clergy Discipline Measure. They chose an informal agreement because of the need for a quick solution.

Bishop Watson said it was preferable, "particularly with anti-Semitic attacks on the rise in the UK", to find a resolution which would satisfy the "natural outcry from the Jewish community" without having to begin legal proceedings, which would have been long, given that Dr Sizer has the freehold of his benefice.

The agreement has real "teeth" in it, Bishop Watson said, and the publicity surrounding it would ensure that Dr Sizer kept his word.

"I think he was very pleased with the suggestion it was either his parish ministry or his pro-Palestine [activism]," Bishop Watson said. "He could have stepped down from being a parish priest, but he was very clear he wanted to continue his ministry.

"He is certainly hugely remorseful, and embarrassed and ashamed by it. He has been shocked by his own stupidity."

Dr Sizer has been in trouble in the past. In 2013, the Board of Deputies of British Jews made a formal complaint against him, accusing him of linking to anti-Semitic websites (News, 25 October 2013). The complaint was resolved through conciliation, part of which involved Dr Sizer committing to having three people monitor his online activity and any websites he links to.

The previous year he was investigated by Surrey Police after posting allegedly anti-Semitic content online. However, the Crown Prosecution Service decided he had not committed any criminal offence (News, 4 May 2012).

Bishop Watson also said in his statement that he was "hugely sorry" for the hurt caused to the Jewish community by Dr Sizer's actions. "This is a time when I would urge all Christian people to stand shoulder to shoulder with our Jewish brothers and sisters in countering the alarming rise of anti-Semitic incidents being reported," he said.

The Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) said in a statement that it welcomed Bishop Watson's decision as Dr Sizer's activities had been a "source of grave concern".

"We are grateful for the seriousness and clarity with which the diocese of Guildford has addressed this case, since this sends a clear message that Christians have a duty to identify and challenge anti-Semitism in all its forms," said the CCJ's director, Jane Clements.

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