A 70-YEAR-OLD priest, the Revd Paul Williamson, is taking the diocese of London to an employment tribunal, after it ruled that he must retire.
Fr Paul Williamson has served at St George’s, Hanworth, for 40 years, and as Priest-in-Charge since 1992. On 28 April, the diocese announced that he had retired, changing his status in Crockford’s Clerical Directory and placing a notice in the Church Times. He is no longer being paid a stipend, and has been told that he must leave his house by 31 July.
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, has turned down his request that his appointment be extended for five years — a decision which, he argues, constitutes age discrimination.
Fr Williamson, who has requested that he stay in the rectory and serve as a house-for-duty priest while receiving his pension, said last week that the five-year extension would enable him to oversee the completion of ambitious plans for community facilities on church land due to be sold this month, including a youth and community centre.
“It has taken me years to stitch it all together,” he said. “All of this is going to be ruined by pulling me out, like pulling the plug out of the bath, after all the relationships and trust I have built up over the years. . . I have a broken heart that the Church I have served faithfully for nearly 50 years should treat me like that.”
The decision not to let him remain in the rectory until after the tribunal meant that the diocese was “trying to turn me out on the street,” he said. “I don’t own a cottage or a car. I have got nothing in bank or stocks and shares. I have spent 40-odd years as a priest looking after young people and old people, and putting up buildings for them.”
A spokesperson for the trade union Unite said that its solicitors were “currently considering the implications of Father Paul Williamson’s case, and the important and wide-ranging issues surrounding it”.
A spokesperson for the diocese of London said: “Although Mr Williamson’s office came to an end earlier this year, the diocese has permitted him to remain in the rectory, rent-free, until the end of July, to allow him plenty of time to arrange suitable alternative accommodation.
“A bishop’s discretion to extend the appointment of a priest on Common Tenure beyond the age of 70 arises only where the statutory criteria are met, and must be exercised fairly, transparently, without discrimination, and in a way that serves the ministry and mission of God and the Church of England, as the London College of Bishops’ policy expressly recognises.
“It is also to be exercised in accordance with the Archbishops’ Council’s Guidance on the Age Limit Measure. The policy in the diocese of London is to encourage those who still have the energy for ministry after the age of 70 to exercise it in a new context, rather than extending the existing office.”
In 2017, the General Synod voted in favour of new regulations that expanded the range of posts under Common Tenure where clergy can be allowed, in certain circumstances, to continue to serve beyond the age of 70 (News, 24 February 2017). The regulations state that “it is not intended for it to become standard practice that office holders remain in office beyond 70. . . There should be no expectation on the part of the office holder or the parish that a direction will be issued.”