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Former school chaplain loses appeal for unfair dismissal from C of E college

01 March 2023

His sermons on gender and sexuality generated ‘unprecedented number of complaints’

Christian Concern

The Revd Dr Bernard Randall

The Revd Dr Bernard Randall

A FORMER school chaplain, the Revd Dr Bernard Randall, has lost his claims of direct discrimination, harassment, victimisation, and unfair dismissal against Trent College, a school with an Anglican foundation in Derbyshire (News, 14 May 2021).

A 76-page employment tribunal reserved judgment, published on Monday, found his argument — that the school had artificially orchestrated a redundancy situation as a means of forcing him to leave — “a sham”. It concluded that Dr Randall had “used his position of authority to undermine school policies that he did not like”.

Trent College is an independent boarding and day school. It is bound by the mandatory Education (Independent School Standards) Regulations 2014 (ISSR), which carries many provisos on religious matters, including the importance of “speaking clearly about LGBT+ equality”.

In 2016, Dr Randall embarked on a series of sermons delivered in the school chapel to pupils aged between 11 and 18, focusing on gender equality, same-sex marriage, and LGBT+ rights. His first sermon, the judgment states, “received complaints from pupils and staff who were upset by the underlying message that it is a sin to be LGBT+”.

His second sermon, which carried “the underlying message . . . that the majority of Christians believed that homosexuality is sinful unless homosexuals remain celibate”, provoked further distress and complaints, including from a religious studies teacher.

The teacher wrote in a letter to Dr Randall: “I finally cried for the students who sat through your Chapel on this topic feeling nervous, uncomfortable, upset, and left with the impression that they are hated by God, and hated by the Christian community.”

Dr Randall responded that it was his duty to present Christian teachings to the pupils, and that he had to “bear in mind the potential hurt to those Christians who would feel betrayed by a Christian minister propounding views which simply tried to ignore or propound the majority view”.

The sermon prompted about 90 pupils to sign a gender equality petition, presented to the Head, Bill Penty, by a sixth-form student who complained that the content was offensive. A parent suggested, “Perhaps [Dr Randall] could choose to dedicate his time to teaching the message of tolerance and forgiveness that Jesus spoke so much about and remember he is preaching to children who are already struggling to make sense of the world.

“He is purposely choosing to teach in such an inflammatory way despite the possibility of upsetting many of the children, and this is an abuse of his position.”

Towards the end of the 2017-2018 academic year, in view of reported incidents of homophobic language, the school decided to use Educate & Celebrate (E&C), an Ofsted- and DfE-recognised best practice programme taking a whole-school approach to tackling homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic bullying and ingrained attitudes in schools. It was approved by the Boarding Schools Association.

Dr Randall objected to it as “identity politics” with “Marxist roots”, contrary to Christian teaching. He particularly objected to its listing “gender” and “gender identity” as protected characteristics instead of “sex” and “gender reassignment”.

The training was delivered by the chief executive of E&C. Dr Randall was angered not to be invited to join the steering group, and by elements of the programme, the judgment says. In June 2019, a question from a pupil in a religious studies lesson — “How come we are told we have to accept all this LGBT stuff in a Christian school?” — prompted him to deliver two sermons on “competing ideologies”.

Dr Randall was “fully cognizant of the fact that the content he was going to deliver was potentially sensitive and ‘might ruffle a few feathers’,” the judgment says. He scripted it in full and sent it to the theologian the Revd Dr Ian Paul, “to confirm that it was a truthful reflection of Church of England teaching”.

He wanted the full text available, Dr Paul told the tribunal, because, “if anything [he] said was misreported to a parent, or any concerns raised, the school would easily be able to confirm that I had said nothing inappropriate”, and “it might be helpful in handling parental complaints, should there be any.”

Despite his “acute awareness of the sensitive content of the sermon, the impact on and potential harm it might cause vulnerable pupils, and that it might be misreported and generate complaints”, he did not share the content with the Head and staff. “Given the reaction to the 2016 sermon, he knew that if he did, he would have been prevented from delivering it,” the judgement says.

“The Claimant was determined to deliver the sermon come what may and his decision to do so, and in the manner in which he did, was in retaliation to the school’s decision to implement the E&C programme.”

He delivered the ten-minute sermon first to pupils in years 7 and 8, comprising 11- to 13-year-olds, reading from his script. “The very nature of Chapel services prohibited the possibility of question, debate or clarification by the pupils within the sermon,” the judgment emphasised.

“He told pupils that they did not have to accept the ideas and ideologies of LGBT activists, that anyone who said they did was jeopardising the school’s charitable status . . . that no one had the right to tell him to lie, because that was the tactic of ‘totalitarianism and dictatorship’.

“He caveated his sermon with a generalised need for respect and ‘love thy neighbour’, but the pupils heard the fundamental message that, in essence, it was wrong to be LGBT+ and that religious belief allowed them to discriminate.”

Students were greatly distressed. Concerns and complains were fed back to Dr Randall, but he went on to deliver essentially the same sermon to Years 9, 10, and 12, provoking “an unprecedented number of complaints”. The judgment says: “A common theme was that al­­though the sermon was littered with caveats, the message appeared to be that it was wrong to be LGBT+ and okay to dis­crim­inate”. A Year 9 pupil wrote: “The impact of his words made me feel physically sick. I wanted to leave.”

An informal investigation by the school was intended to “understand [Dr Randall’s] rationale behind the sermons, to help him understand the strength of complaint and possibly plan together how to formulate a response”.

Dr Randall responded that he took his authority from canon law. “He did not express any concern or regret about the impact of his sermon on the safety or well-being of the school’s LGBT+ community nor did he express any desire to address the distress he had caused. Furthermore, he did not engage with the possibility that his sermon was unacceptable for an audience of children,” the tribunal found.

The meeting reported its concerns to the Head, who felt that the matter warranted a full investigation. Dr Randall was suspended the following day, pending such investigation, and invited to a meeting on 1 July, before which the school contacted the Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Libby Lane, to request pastoral support for him.

The Head of the Elms, Trent’s Junior department, was appointed to conduct the investigation. Dr Randall said of the complaints: “If people are complaining that they don’t share the beliefs that I talk about then we are dealing with prejudice and bigots. Bigots do not listen to reason. In my worst moments, that is what I feel that I’m dealing with.”

He said that he would like an apology, and that the E&C programme should be put on hold. The matter progressed to a disciplinary hearing on 5 July 2019. Dr Randall was accompanied by Dr Paul, whose written statement to the tribunal contained an explanation of canon law, and referred to case law in respect of the protected characteristic of religion or belief.

It said: “In sum, it seems to me that what Dr Randall said was entirely in accord with the Church’s teaching. The teaching is something that Dr Randall, as an ordained clergyman in the church, has an obligation to understand, teach, and uphold in his own lifestyle.

“To in any way prohibit him from expressing and explaining this teaching might easily be construed as a breach of his own rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religious belief rights that are enshrined in international law, and I think it would certainly qualify as an example of direct discrimination on the grounds of religion under the Equality Act 2010.

“In addition, a straightforward reading of the Foundation of the college would suggest that, in his role as chaplain, he is in fact mandated to ensure that pupils understand this teaching and consider its historical, social and theological foundations and importance.”

Given the complex arguments and seriousness of the allegations, the Head, Mr Penty, wanted time over the summer holidays to consider the matter. He dismissed Dr Randall on 30 August, finding him to have “acted with wilful neglect or refusal of duty by not putting the pupils’ welfare first”.

Dr Randall’s assertion that the school’s stand on LGBT+ issues undermined its Anglican foundation and threatened its charitable status was “both inaccurate, inflammatory and inappropriate in front of the school pupils”, Mr Penty said. The sermons were pitched “at a conceptually complex and intellectually challenging level that was too high”, and Dr Randall’s lack of empathy for the feelings of pupil and staff amounted to “offensive behaviour”.

Dr Randall appealed against the decision. A panel hearing on 11 and 20 September 2019, agreed with the Head’s reason for dismissal, but elected to “give him one final opportunity to improve, and work with him to promote the school’s ethos and create an inclusive environment”.

His return was conditional on adhering to 20 management instructions to prevent repeat behaviour, which included being supportive of the school’s faith provision, and his sermon texts being reviewed by the Deputy Head (Pastoral) in advance of delivery. Dr Randall returned to work on 14 October, and complied with the measures.

In the period following his dismissal, the teaching timetable for religious studies had been re-allocated. To avoid disruption, Dr Randall was assigned to providing cover and supervision where required and continued to deliver chapel services.

On 19 October 2019, he raised a whistle-blowing complaint of discrimination. The school did not uphold it, and, on 28 January 2020, he issued his first claim in the employment tribunal. The school had begun a review of faith provision, but the Covid lockdown meant that it became a low priority, as chapel services were cancelled and teaching went wholly online.

The school furloughed more than 170 staff, including Dr Randall, who objected. In June 2020, several teaching and administrative jobs were placed at risk, and seven teaching posts made redundant.

A decision was made to restructure the chaplaincy to a part-time position. Dr Randall had the choice after furlough of returning to work on full pay, or staying at home pending completion of the re-structuring. He confirmed his wish to return, but the second lockdown came, and the furlough scheme was extended.

It was observed generally that during Dr Randall’s absence, there had been no requests for chapel services, or for him to be available for ad hoc support. The school’s pastoral managers felt that the faith needs of pupils had been met by other staff and pre-recorded services from the Church of England. Dr Randall was furloughed again on 2 November 2020.

The school was under pressure to make further costs savings. The decision was taken to convert the restructuring consultation to a redundancy consultation, and Dr Randall was advised of the change of circumstance and rationale. He appealed. A hearing on 20 November 2020 was satisfied that the financial impact of Covid had led to a necessary requirement to make cost savings on a school-wide basis, and that Dr Randall’s redundancy was part of those wider measures.

The tribunal, heard at Nottingham between 5 September and 9 December 2022, and led by Judge Victoria Butler, dismissed the allegations of direct discrimination, harassment, victimisation, and unfair dismissal. On Dr Randall’s submission that the school “went to the trouble of deliberately creating a role it knew it could not accept as a means of forcing him to leave”, she ruled, “We find that argument fanciful.”

The school has not employed another chaplain to date. An inspection by the Independent Schools Inspectorate found that it had met all the standards required by the Independent School Standards Regulations. 

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