A TRIBUNAL has ruled that the conduct of the Revd Dr Stephen Sizer was unbecoming to the office and work of a clerk in Holy Orders.
The Bishop’s Disciplinary Tribunal for the diocese of Winchester, which heard the case in May (News, 27 May), also concluded that he had “engaged in anti-Semitic activity” when, in January 2015, he posted an article that was “virulently anti-Semitic” on Facebook (News, 13 February 2015).
“There is regrettably a pattern of behaviour which falls short of the standard to which the Respondent should have aspired as an ordained minister,” the ruling concludes.
Dr Sizer was Vicar of Christ Church, Virginia Water, in Surrey, for 20 years, until his retirement in 2017. The complaint against him was brought by the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl, and focused on Dr Sizer’s conduct between 2005 and 2018.
The Tribunal considered 11 allegations against him. These were:
(a) participating in a conference run by the Islamic Human Rights Commission in 2005 entitled “Towards a New Liberation Theology”;
(b) meeting Sheikh Nabil Kaouk, a senior commander of Hezbollah forces in about summer 2006;
(c) speaking at a conference in Indonesia in May 2008 alongside Fred Tobin, a Holocaust-denier;
(d) in June 2008, promoting Michael Hoffman, a Holocaust-denier and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist;
(e) citing Holocaust-deniers and far-Right figures, in particular Dale Crowley, in about January 2009;
(f) in September 2010, posting a link to an article “The Mother of All Coincidences”; (g) accompanying and defending an Islamic Movement leader, Raed Salah, in June 2011;
(h) promoting the idea that Israel was behind the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 by posting a link in January 2015 to the article “9-11/Israel did it” that blamed Israel;
(I) attending an event in October 2016 chaired by Baroness Tonge in breach of an agreement with the Bishop of Guildford which required him to refrain from writing or speaking on any theme that related, directly or indirectly, to the current situation in the Middle East or its historical backdrop;
(j) in an interview on 30 March 2018 on Australian radio, defending the link that he had posted to the article blaming Israel for the 11 September 2011 attacks;
(k) posting an item on his Facebook page in August 2018 in relation to Jeremy Corbyn’s being a victim of the hidden hands of Zionists.
The Tribunal rejected the allegations (a), (c), (d), (e), (g), (i) and (k). It was satisfied, however, that the other allegations were examples of conduct unbecoming and inappropriate and, in one instance, anti-Semitic.
The Tribunal concluded that Dr Sizer’s meeting with Sheikh Kaouk (b) was an example of failing to take into account his role as a public representative of the Church. “It showed a lack of sensitivity to the Jewish community. It showed an extraordinary lack of sensitivity to be photographed in clerical dress meeting Sheikh Kaouk,” the ruling said. It concluded that the matter was conduct unbecoming and inappropriate.
It also upheld the complaint based on allegation (f) that Dr Sizer had provided a link on his website in September 2010 to an article, “9/11 The Mother of All Coincidences”, by Eric Margolis. The Tribunal accepted that members of the Jewish community were offended by this.
“Once again it considers that the posting of the link to this article demonstrated the Respondent’s lack of awareness of his being a public representative of the Church and showed a lack of sensitivity to the Jewish community,” the ruling says. As an ordained minister, Dr Sizer “should not have been giving the oxygen of publicity to such an article”. The Tribunal concluded (one member dissenting) that his conduct was unbecoming and inappropriate.
The “most serious allegation” against Dr Sizer was (h), that he posted a link on Facebook in January 2015 to an article blaming Israel for 9/11. “The Tribunal finds the article in its tone and content truly shocking,” the ruling says.
The Tribunal rejected Dr Sizer’s assertion that the article raised serious issues that required public consideration. “The article goes far beyond the criticism of Israel and is virulently anti-Semitic in its content. It fulfils all the tropes of classic anti-Semitism.”
It concluded: “The Tribunal is satisfied that the Respondent reposted the article in the knowledge that it would provoke and offend the Jewish community. The Tribunal considers that . . . on this occasion the Respondent crossed the line, and in reposting the article, he was engaging in anti-Semitic activity.”
The Tribunal concluded that Dr Sizer’s conduct in this instance was both unbecoming on the grounds that he provoked and offended the Jewish community and that, by posting the link on Facebook to the article, he was engaged in anti-Semitic activity.
Allegation (j), the radio interview in which Dr Sizer was closely questioned about his views, was also found to be inappropriate conduct. “It is of great concern that the Respondent was not more contrite in his apology for posting the article [on Facebook], and was also disingenuous in his answers . . . Of particular concern is the Respondent’s assertion that ‘the particular article was a list of Israelis who had benefited from 9/11 and I simply put it out there and said this is serious; it’s got to be considered.’”
The Tribunal also criticised Dr Sizer’s argument that no one had contradicted anything in the article, when in fact his diocesan, the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, had ordered Dr Sizer to take it down shortly after he posted the link on Facebook. The Tribunal concluded (one member dissenting) that his conduct was unbecoming for an ordained minister.
The Tribunal is yet to determine a penalty.
In a statement, Ms van der Zyl welcomed the conclusion to the case, saying that she was grateful to the Tribunal for accepting the evidence presented by the Board of Deputies. “I commend the Tribunal’s decision in the case of Stephen Sizer. In an unprecedented judgement, it has been found that Reverend Sizer has engaged in ‘anti-Semitic activity’, repeated ‘conduct unbecoming’ of a Church of England Minister and engaged in conduct that ‘provoked and offended’ the Jewish community over a sustained period. He was also criticised for being ‘disingenuous in his answers’.”
Dr Sizer said: “I accept those conclusions and the criticisms of my conduct, and apologise unreservedly for the hurt and offence caused. As I said at the time, I am particularly sorry that I posted a link on Facebook in January 2015 to an article blaming Israel for 9/11, and repeat my apology for the deep hurt that my conduct caused. I do not propose to say any more at this juncture as I pray and reflect further.”
The Acting Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Debbie Sellin, said: “The Church of England, together with our partners in ecumenical and interfaith working, is committed to building cohesive communities and fostering strong interfaith relations built on trust and respect. As Archbishop Justin Welby said in 2018, in a joint letter with other Christian and Jewish leaders, anti-Semitism has no place in our society and those in positions of power and influence must listen to concerns about it.”