THE minister of a proprietary chapel in Hampstead who was sacked by the trustees after the breakdown of his marriage is suing the church on the grounds that he was subject to discrimination as a married man.
The former Minister of St John’s, Downshire Hill, the Revd Jonathan Gould, who trained as a lawyer, was dismissed by the trustees in August 2016, after his wife, Beth, moved out of the family home after a breakdown in the marriage. They married in 1997, two years after Mr Gould became Minister at St John’s, and have four children.
Mr Gould’s first attempt to sue the church for direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of his marriage break-up was rejected by an employment-tribunal judge in March last year. This was overturned by an appeal in October, however, in which Judge Ingrid Simler concluded that “the facts give rise to an arguable case that it was his married status and his marital difficulties as a married man that led to his dismissal.”
The appeal judgment states that Mr Gould had not wished to take a sabbatical, during which his position was considered, but “came under pressure in that regard” from the church’s trustees.
Proprietary chapels function semi-autonomously in the C of E. The judgment cites an email sent on 7 May 2015 by one of the trustees of the church, Alex Chitra, which expresses concern about how Mr Gould’s marital situation “not only affects you and [the] family but the wider church family. . .
“What if the worst scenario occurs? Your marriage fails and you get divorced. I assume then your pastoral ministry at [St John’s] will come to an end. I hope this is a right assumption and not a presumption. . . We need an action plan to enable a handover for the functioning of core church affairs. . .”
A week later, Mrs Gould told her husband and a trustee simultaneously that she wished to move out of their home, the judgment states. The trustees held a meeting with Mr Gould that week at which a letter was read to him. It said: “After much careful thought, discussion, and consideration of scripture, it is our unanimous view that the ongoing situation of the breakdown of your marriage is incompatible with your position as leader of the fellowship of St John’s.”
Judge Simler said: “The obvious implication of this letter was that if [Mr Gould] did not manage to restore his marriage within the suggested four-month sabbatical, he should not return to his position as Minister.”
Mr Gould had several further meetings with the trustees before eventually going on a six-month sabbatical on 1 March 2016. His lawyers are arguing that he was subjected to a “sustained campaign of criticism in relation to his marriage” by the leadership team and senior members of the congregation during this time.
Four months later, Mr Gould received another email from the trustees inviting him to a meeting to address their concerns about the future of the church before his return from sabbatical.
“For the avoidance of doubt, one of the purposes of the meeting is to consider whether you should continue in employment at SJDH, including hearing your reflections from during your sabbatical on this topic,” it read. “If you are unwilling to attend on either of the remaining future dates, then the trustees will need to make this decision in your absence.”
The meeting did not take place, and Mr Gould was dismissed on 1 August 2016, with three months’ pay, in a formal letter from the trustees. Judge Simler said: “I have not been provided with a copy of that letter, but understand that the reason for dismissal given in it is that the relationship of trust and confidence necessary for a continued employment relationship had broken down.”
Mr Gould told The Sun: “It’s been absolutely devastating for me, personally, and devastating for the children as we lost our home when I was dismissed.” Mrs Gould said: “He had every chance to resign and bow out and to continue with the marriage. The church were very generous, as I was, too. There is definitely still an opportunity for him to work at our marriage.”
In a statement requested by the Church Times on Tuesday, the trustees of St John’s said that they were “saddened” at the way the dispute had developed. “There was a pastoral breakdown between Jonathan Gould and the leadership team, trustees, and other members of the congregation of St John’s, Downshire Hill.
“Jonathan and the trustees were involved in a reconciliation process during Jonathan’s six-month sabbatical in 2016, which unfortunately did not restore the relationship to enable Jonathan to return to St John’s, Downshire Hill. It is not appropriate to go into more detail at this stage due to the ongoing legal proceedings that Jonathan has brought against the church.
“Separately, the trustees are aware of the difficult family situation the Goulds are experiencing. The trustees continue to pray for reconciliation between Jonathan and Beth Gould.”
It is expected that the claim will now proceed to a full hearing in the Employment Tribunal.