At the end of last week I cancelled my planned writing schedule in order to enter what felt like a parallel universe as I was invited to debate with Jeremy Pemberton on BBC 2’s Victoria Derbyshire programme regarding the tribunal ruling that Jeremy had not been discriminated against by the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham. I offer here some reflections on the nature of the discussion, since I think it sheds important light on where we are heading as a Church. A recording on YouTube is linked at the end of this piece.
Jeremy’s opening comment was that the verdict was no surprise to him. This was interesting, since it contradicted the confident comments of his supporters prior to the judgement being announced, and suggests that Jeremy initiated the case not because he would win, but because it would gain publicity. Presumably the same will be true of his planned appeal.
Jeremy then cited Article XXXII on clergy marriage as warranting his entering a same-sex marriage against the current teaching of the Church and the explicit direction of the House of Bishops.
In our rules we have an Article which says priests can marry who they want to marry. You can’t marry people if it is not legal to marry them but it was legal for me to marry. Article 32 of the 39 Articles says it’s up to me to choose who it is I marry not for anybody else to tell me. I think the bishops were wrong to put out guidance that said you can’t marry people. That’s against our rules.
XXXII. OF THE MARRIAGE OF PRIESTS
BISHOPS, Priests, and Deacons, are not commanded by God’s Law, either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage: therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christian men, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.
In its historical context, it is of course directed against the Catholic requirement of clerical celibacy—its concern is not for clergy to go against their bishops on a matter of conscience, but that the ordained are not a caste apart from other Christians. The reference is the teaching of Scripture (‘God’s law’), and this is in a context where homosexual acts were a serious offence. The idea that this article provides any grounds for clergy to enter same-sex marriage requires setting aside any normal rules of reading, and using the text as a kind of cipher. It is similar had we found a 16th-century text permitting clergy to leave their carriage in front of the house, and on the grounds of that deciding we had permission to build a railway—since trains have ‘carriages’. The Tribunal commented on this explicitly:
168. It was … inconceivable … that the authors of the 39 Articles would have had in their contemplation that this provision permitted same-sex marriage.
Jeremy’s position on wanting to conform to ‘the rules’ seems to run against everything that he later says. (For more detailed discussion of this point, see Peter Sanlon’s piece.)
Thirdly, Jeremy then misappropriates the word ‘discrimination’; the Church had discriminated against him (though the Tribunal said it was allowed to) and people are ‘disgusted’ by this. Jeremy accurately captures the majority of public response, but to do so again ignores the actual judgement. The Tribunal was very clear that Jeremy had not been discriminated against because he was gay, and that the ‘discrimination’ of judging whether someone was defying the teaching of the Church was an important one to make.
270. … we accept as already stated that the Claimant was clearly distressed and felt humiliated and degraded by what had occurred. As to whether his dignity was violated, we are with Mr Linden [the diocese’s lawyer]. Despite the valiant efforts of Mr Jones [Pemberton’s lawyer], the claimant would have never been in this position had he not defied the doctrine of the church. In this case, context is all.
Jeremy goes on to cite a common accusation, that the Church has changed its understanding of marriage. Formally speaking, that is not the case; remarriage after divorce is a concession in the light of a failure to live up to biblical and Church teaching. (I think there could be an interesting conversation as to whether same-sex marriage could be considered under the same kind of rubric, as a concession in the light of human failure. I am not sure that Jeremy and others would welcome this though.)
At 7.02 on the YouTube video Jeremy makes perhaps the most extraordinary claim: that there has been ‘no discussion in the appropriate form of whether the Church has a doctrine of same-sex marriage or not.’ Only a hermit, hidden in the remotest mountain, could think that this subject has not been discussed to death. The Shared Conversations, which have prioritised the inclusion of active gay clergy and laypeople, will have cost the Church something like £350,000 and involved people from every diocese. The conversation might not have been on the terms of Jeremy’s choosing—but that is another matter. The Church does have a position on this question; the debate is about whether it should change that position.
He then claims that ‘all we have had is pastoral guidance from the bishops’ which oddly sets aside the explicit understanding of Canon Law and the marriage liturgy.
He goes on to say that he is a ‘priest in good standing in the Diocese of Lincoln’. That is an odd comment to make, given his diocesan bishop has said to him:
You have acted in a way which is inconsistent with your ordination vows and your canonical duty to live in accordance with the teachings of the Church of England. (cited in para 74 of the judgement).
He also claims that no complaint has been made against him; clergy in Lincoln diocese have been in touch with me to say that that is not the case, since they did in fact complain to the bishop at the time.
Jeremy then asserts that action under the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) is simple, and the fact that none has been taken means no-one has a problem with his situation. Again, anyone familiar with CDM knows that it failed to be such a simple measure, that it was never extended to include doctrine, as was intended, and that it has turned out to be not much better than the previous system of using Ecclesiastical Courts. The threshold for CDM action remains very high.
Finally, Jeremy rejects that accusation that he does not live within the teaching of the Church as ‘a fearful slur’ and ‘outrageous’. Since that is what both his bishop and the Tribunal judge have concluded, then he must presumably think they are both guilty of such a slur.
The reason for highlighting these things is to identify the strategy of debate. Rather than engage in what has happened, the strategy appears to be to simply ignore the facts. It is a strategy that works quite effectively in media interviews, since no interviewer is going to know enough about the Articles, Clergy Discipline, the legalities of licences, or even the state of the debate in the Church to contradict them. This strategy will never work within the Church of course, since Jeremy’s comments will be called to account. The strategy, then, involves having a quite different discussion outside the Church from within. Jeremy must have had considerable financial and personal support to pursue this case, presumably from gay lobby groups such as Stonewall and people like Peter Tatchell. But I suspect these are people who would also welcome an end to the Church’s wider role in society. [Having written this in the original post, I have been told this is not the case in relation to funding; some of the cost of the case appears to have been borne by the legal team pro bono. See Laurence Cunnington’s comments and my response below.]
Perhaps more worrying for the debate within the Church is the separation of fact from emotion. Jeremy was clearly upset by the end of the discussion, and walked off without speaking to me afterwards. On the Changing Attitude Facebook page, Jeremy observed that, unlike him, I have never been an incumbent, and so ‘actually know nothing at first hand about the business of leading a church, of managing the volunteers, of pastoring the flock…’ This contains the interesting idea that, in being an Associate Minister of a church with a USA of around 650, overseeing small groups of 250 people, being for a decade on the staff of a theological college, all this leaves me ‘knowing nothing’. It also assumes that evangelical and catholic orthodox clergy are either in denial, or are about to come out as changing their minds in the light of ‘the realities of pastoral ministry.’
This is not good news for the future of this debate. The assumption of superior insight, detachment from the actual facts involved, and the valorisation of emotionalism suggests that there is little prospect of further constructive conversation, let alone good disagreement.
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