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Priest opposing forced retirement says ‘I’ve got no money left’

10 June 2022

Creative Commons

St George’s, Hanworth

St George’s, Hanworth

A FORMER Priest-in-Charge in London diocese who has been campaigning against his enforced retirement says that his latest appeal is in jeopardy because he has no money left to pay his legal fees.

The cleric, the Revd Paul Williamson, who had been Priest-in-Charge of St George’s, Hanworth, since 1992, was told by London diocese that he must retire aged 70 (News, 31 May 2019).

Fr Williamson had requested a five-year extension to his appointment, so that he could oversee the completion of ambitious plans for a youth and community centre and the creation of a new church school. The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, however, rejected his request, which, he believes, constitutes age discrimination.

Fr Williamson, who is now 73, is well known for his opposition to the ordination of women; he has repeatedly attempted to disrupt services at which women are being consecrated bishop. He believes that this is the reason that he was not allowed to continue in post, in spite of the support that, he says, he had in the parish. “It is an attempt to penalise an active, successful parish with lots of youth work, because I didn’t fit in,” he said this week.

Fr Williamson lost his first claim of age discrimination in 2019; he returned to court the following year with allegations of religious discrimination, owing to his opposition to the ordination of women. Neither case was successful, but, at the end of 2021, he was granted leave to appeal. The case will be heard on 13 July.

But Fr Williamson will now have to go to his appeal without the benefit of a solicitor or barrister if he cannot raise the £15,000 necessary to pay his legal team. “It’s a matter of David and Goliath,” he said. “I’ve got no money left. I’ve never had a property or owned a car. I took my pension pot and used that to go to court, and friends have subbed me.”

In the latest twist in the three-year case, Fr Williamson says that the diocese claimed to have lost the original Common Tenure document that he signed, which had no reference to retirement at the age of 70. “I signed [that] under duress, and crossed out lots of it in red,” he said. “They say they can’t find it. They are liars.” Instead, he alleges, the diocese presented as evidence an unsigned Common Tenure document, including a reference to the retirement age — which, they said, was identical to the one that he had signed.

In response, a spokesperson for the diocese of London said: “The Revd Paul Williamson’s office came to an end in 2018 when he turned 70. His licence was extended for a six-month period, to 28 April 2019, and he was given additional time to remain in the rectory rent-free until July 2019.

“Over the past few years, the diocese has been in regular contact with Mr Williamson following his repeated requests to extend his appointment further, which have been considered and declined. He continues to remain in occupation of the rectory and the diocese continues to be in dialogue with him.”

Permission to stay in the rectory for a limited period was granted “on compassionate grounds, to allow him to clear his belongings from the Parsonage House and to vacate the property”, the diocese said. It said that this was an arrangement that was made clear to him in correspondence and in meetings over several months.

“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.”

Fr Williamson’s continued occupation of the rectory will be subject to a separate hearing in October.

Meanwhile, he accused the diocese of London of waging “a dirty-tricks campaign” against him. “I suffered a mental-health injury caused by the diocese of London,” he said on Monday. “Everybody should be treated clearly, openly and fairly. I have not been.”

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