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London priest who supported lesbian faces CDM complaint

12 May 2021

Matthew Barrett

The Revd Robert Thompson

The Revd Robert Thompson

A COMPLAINT under the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) has been made against the London priest who has acted as a supporter of Rachel Gillingham. Ms Gillingham was ousted from a lay leadership position at St Luke’s, Kentish Town, after coming out as a lesbian (News, 12 February).

The complaint relates to posts on Twitter about her case by the Revd Robert Thompson, Vicar of St James’s, West Hampstead, in the same deanery as St Luke’s. Several of the postings were retweets from Ms Gillingham’s blog, and related to the payment by St Luke’s of £2500 towards counselling fees. Fr Thompson has now been accused of bullying, harassment, intimidation, and abuse of the Revd Jon March, the Vicar of St Luke’s.

Ms Gillingham has reported suffering from anxiety attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after her treatment at St Luke’s, a church-plant by Holy Trinity, Brompton (HTB).

Ms Gillingham was the leader of a home group (“hub”) at St Luke’s when she came out as a lesbian to Mr March. She was told that hub leaders had to live “beyond reproach”, and when she asked what this meant, she was met with evasions or silence.

A subsequent informal inquiry concluded that St Luke’s had been pastorally negligent in its treatment of Ms Gillingham. It quoted Mr March as saying: “It is by far one of my biggest regrets. It was lacking. It was thought about but we came to the wrong side of a wrong decision, a bad call.”

Ms Gillingham had earlier sought the advice and support of Fr Thompson, who acted for her in an attempt to persuade St Luke’s to fund more counselling for her. At one point, he posted on Twitter: “money to plant but not to care!!” and using the hashtag “#StopAbusiveChurchPlanting”. His intervention prompted a meeting with the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who contributed to a further seven months of therapy for Ms Gillingham.

The St Luke’s inquiry recommended a risk assessment be carried out “regarding the vulnerability of members of the LGBTQI+ community”, and that its PCC should draft a statement outlining the church’s policy “in relation to sexual identity and practice and the practical out-workings for leadership and congregational life at St Luke’s”.

Fr Thompson had supported Ms Gillingham’s attempts to persuade St Luke’s to fulfil these recommendations, retweeting sections from her blog in which she wrote: “The biggest challenge is the lack of transparency. As an adult who is out and proud of who they are in all my aspects, I cannot make an informed decision about those churches because nothing on their website tells me about their position on LGBT+ communities.”

Fr Thompson has made the CDM investigation against him public. It is understood that his posts were discussed in a meeting with Bishop Mullally at the end of February, and that Bishop Mullally asked him to stop, but without citing any examples of bullying.

The source of the complaint against Fr Thompson is confidential, but is assumed to come from within St Luke’s or the HTB network. In a blog on the Changing Attitude website, the Revd Colin Coward remarks that, for the complaint to be entertained, the diocesan registrar has to be sure that it is of “sufficient substance” and that the complainant has a “proper interest”.

Ms Gillingham said this week that she had defended Fr Thompson, writing: “None of the tweets that Robert has posted could be deemed as bullying, harassment, intimidation, or abuse of Revd Jon March. The main reason being that at no point does Robert ever name or tag in Revd Jon March. At no point does he tag in St Luke’s Church, Kentish Town, and at no point does he name or tag in any other member of the clergy or staff team at the church.”

She says that Fr Thompson had encouraged her to stay at St Luke’s: “His advice was always far, balanced, and broad. . . at no point did he say anything derogatory against St Luke’s Church or Jon March’s theology in this whole experience.

“As part of the pastoral relationship he had with me, he listened, cared for me and supported my decisions, checked in on my physical and mental health regularly, and conversations about using social media to get across my story were my ideas and never initiated or instigated by Robert.”

She writes about a “culture of silence” at St Luke’s, and suggests that the complaint against Fr Thompson is an attempt to extend that to his writing about her case. “To deny Robert the right to express his understanding of the recommendations and report and to deny Robert the right to share my story, denies him of freedom of expression.”

Changing Attitude England campaigns for “full equality in ministry and relationships for LGBTIQ+ people”. Mr Coward writes: “I do not understand why Robert Thompson is subjected to a CDM investigation, but no such action is taken against the Vicar whose behaviour towards Rachel, a member of his congregation, resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The chairman of the Campaign for Equal Marriage in the Church of England, Nigel Pietroni, said on Tuesday: “We have reviewed Fr Robert’s online comments, tweets and retweets in relation to the case of this young woman and can find no evidence of bullying and intimidation, and in fact no reference to the other priest concerned at all. . .

“The case demonstrates the deep harm that can be done by a lack of transparency and honesty about the position of LGBTQIA+ people in Church of England parishes. There are genuine questions raised by this case about spiritual abuse and the misuse of power.”

Both Fr Thompson and St Luke’s were approached for comment. A spokesperson for the diocese of London said: “Where an individual brings a complaint to the Diocesan or Area Bishop under the Clergy Discipline Measure, as is their right, it is taken seriously and the formal, confidential process is followed.”

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