IT IS lawful to reject a candidate for a bishopric because of his or her public statements about sexuality, newly published guidance from the Church of England states.
The document, which dates from March, but has only now been posted on the Church’s website, sets out what a Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) can take into account when considering a candidate for a vacant see. “The CNC can . . . lawfully take into account the content and manner of any public statements previously made by him or her about the Church’s traditional teaching on same-sex relations,” the guidance says.
But it also states that “The mere fact that a candidate had publicly questioned the Church of England’s teaching on human sexuality . . . would not be sufficient to raise any issue from this point of view: that is something that clergy are free to do.
“An issue could only arise as a result of the way in which that disagreement had been expressed.”
The discussion should focus on whether a candidate’s past comments on sexuality would prevent his or her being a focus of unity in the see. The CNC should also take “particular care” to consider the impact in the Anglican Communion of appointing such a candidate, the guidance states. “An adverse reaction in the Anglican Communion to the candidate’s appointment . . . could in principle be a relevant consideration in so far as it touched on the candidate’s ability to be a focus of unity in the Church of England.”
But the guidance warns that opposition from the Anglican Communion “may well be based at least as much on his or her sexuality or civil partner status as on the nature of his or her previous public statements”. So, in practice, “considerable care” should be taken.
The guidance is attached to an earlier legal note from 2013, which explains how a CNC should weigh up a candidate who is in a civil partnership or has married after divorce. The previous guidance makes no mention of public statements on sexuality.
While the Equality Act does not apply to the appointment of bishops, the Church intends to act as though it did, the 2013 guidance says. Therefore, simply being gay or in a civil partnership does not prevent a candidate’s nomination.
But it would be lawful for a CNC to decide, before interviewing, to impose a requirement that all candidates are not in a civil partnership or in a marriage after divorce. This can be done only if they believe that it is necessary to “avoid conflicting with the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number” of worshippers in the diocese.
There are specific clauses in the Equality Act which allow religious organisations to discriminate when making appointments if it is necessary to avoid conflict with the beliefs of followers of the religion.
The publication of the legal guidance was prompted by a question to the Archbishop of Canterbury at the General Synod in February. The Revd Jo Spreadbury, from the diocese of St Albans, asked for confirmation that those who argued for a change in the Church’s teaching on sexuality would not be barred from preferment.
Archbishop Welby said that they would not, but went on to say that a candidate’s teaching on a range of issues was something that could be considered by a CNC. A follow-up question at the Synod in July asked Archbishop Welby whether CNCs were given guidance on how they could take into account a candidate’s teaching. The Archbishop replied that they were given such guidance, and it is that document that has now been published.
Tracey Byrne, the chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, said that the guidance was “chilling”. “If this isn’t silencing, then it’s the next best thing,” she said on Wednesday.
“I had always believed that priests were called to be people of integrity; this . . . suggests that we’ll be calling as our leaders people who either share a common view — one which treats gay and lesbian people as less than our straight brothers and sisters — or who have learned to keep their views to themselves.”
As in the case of Canon Jeremy Pemberton (News, 6 November), “while [the Church] believes itself to be legally protected, all it has done is to demonstrate . . . just how out of step it is with the nation.”
Lawful, but doeful - Leader comment