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Leader comment: When the Pastoral Principles are applied in court

23 June 2023

THE bishop who was entrusted with shepherding the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) project, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, is to be rewarded or compensated with a sojourn as Dean of Windsor. The announcement this week coincided with the news that one of the offshoots of the LLF process — some might call it the taproot — has been invoked in court in support of a school worker’s free­­dom of speech. The Pastoral Principles were developed as an aide­memoire for participants in the LLF discussions, when people of every shade of opinion and experience were encouraged to talk, face to face, about their most deep-seated views of sexuality.

These principles were to help the discussion to move into more existential territor. Writing here during the LLF process (Comment, 13 November 2020), Dr Cocksworth cited the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa: “A better world is possible, and it can be recognised by the central criterion, which is no longer domination and control, but listening and responding.” In the case of the school worker, Kristie Higgs, the head teacher and governors of Farmor’s School, in Gloucestershire, listened to (or, rather, read) her views on gender, and dismissed her: possibly not the sort of response that Rosa had in mind. At first sight, the intervention in her case by the Archbishops’ Council, given leave by the employment judge to present the Pastoral Principles, is an oddity. In court cases in recent years, Christians have attempted to argue that they lost their jobs because of religious discrim­ination. Employers generally respond by citing other reasons; and most cases have been lost. It is possible, though, that someone on the Archbishops’ Council saw in this case, on this topic, a forerunner of the sorts of arguments that might occur when church blessings for same-sex couples were finally permitted.

Under Canon B5, the decision to use the Prayers of Love and Faith rests solely with the priest. It is not a wild supposition that disputes will arise and be hard to reconcile, and may end up before employment tribunals. A secular court, accustomed to applying the Equalities Act, is likely to struggle with a case that may touch on the limited exemptions that the Church was given. Hence the suggestion that, guided by the Pastoral Principles, there should be a consideration of proportionality and context. A new tribunal will now try to decide how Ms Higgs’s reading of Genesis should be read in the context of her conviction of the obligation to “love everyone”, and whether either applies in relation to her former employer’s social-media rules. Making windows into others’ souls is easier in a world with Facebook and Instagram, but no more advisable ever. As the groups working on the LLF provision attempt to devise specific proposals to ensure that priests of all convictions are “respected, supported and protected”, it is no surprise that they have asked for more time.

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