Articles appeared in several British newspapers over the weekend suggesting that Dean Jeffrey John of St. Alban’s Cathedral was going to sue the Church of England for discrimination unless he is made a bishop. We don’t think these stories were quite right.
It is our understanding, after some extensive conversations, that what John has done is hire a lawyer to inform the Church of England that provisions which prohibit anyone in a civil partnership–be they gay or straight, celibate or sexually active–from becoming a bishop exceed even the generous exemptions provided for religious organizations in the Equality Act of 2010.
John, a celibate gay man, is in such a partnership. Archbishop Rowan Williams appointed him Bishop of Reading, then pressured him out of accepting the appointment when it encountered conservative oppositions. The two men were again at the center of a controversy over the appointment of the last Bishop of Southwark.
John would potentially benefit from such a suit were it filed and won, but it is a bit of leap on the part of several British reporters (or, in some instances headline writers) to arrive at the conclusion that John is going to sue the church unless he is made a bishop.
Andrew Brown of the Guardian, who was not among those who previously misconstrued the story, does not think John can win. But he does think he can prove a point. Brown focuses on the legal opinion the church released detailing the reasons it could continue to deny appointing gay bishops–even celibate ones–without violating the Equality Act of 2010.
Look at the small print of its legal opinion on civil partnerships, transparently designed to prevent John from being able to sue for discrimination. No selection committee would ask straight candidates for a job whether they had ever had pre-marital sex, and, if they had, whether they were jolly sorry for it. Yet the Church of England believes that it is legally and morally OK to ask the equivalent questions of gay men: “Whether the candidate had always complied with the church’s teachings on sexual activity being solely within matrimony; whether he had expressed repentance for any previous pre-marital sexual activity.”
That is offensive enough, but the real point is found in the apparently balanced statements of disagreement. “It is clear that a significant number of Anglicans, on grounds of strongly held religious conviction, believe that a Christian leader should not entire into a civil partnership, even if celibate … it is equally clear that many other Anglicans believe it is appropriate that clergy who are gay by orientation entire into civil partnerships.” This formulation gives the game away. It is only conservative evangelical opinion which is described as “strongly held religious conviction”. The liberals merely “believe it is appropriate”, with the implication that their beliefs on this are not religious at all. This kind of nonsense was dealt with decades ago where women priests were concerned. What needs saying, loud and clear, is that the case for liberalism here is every bit as religious, and as theologically informed, as the case for the conservatives.
Brown understands that the argument against John becoming a bishop is essentially that being in a civil partnership is in and of itself too upsetting to conservative evangelicals to allow any such person to be a bishop. There is a new House of Bishops group revisiting this issue, but while it is doing that there is a total moratorium on all persons in civil partnerships being considered for all bishoprics. So the question is whether that moratorium is outside the law.
The other question raised by this rash of reports is: who benefits from having news about a potential law suit leaked, in misleading fashion, to the media. Not Lambeth Palace, which realizes its handling of this issue is an ongoing public relations disaster from which it cannot escape. And not Jeffrey John, who wouldn’t want this news out there in all its partial prematurity. After that, your guess is as good as ours.
Jerome Taylor’s article in the Independent is also quite good.