The soon-to-arrive new Bishop of Chichester has some fine messes to clear up on arrival, in a diocese with a higher than average number of gay clergy and gay-friendly congregations presided over in part by a homophobic bishop.
In 2008 the Revd David Page retired as Vicar of St Barnabas Clapham Common to Chichester Diocese, to Winchelsea. David was a founder member of the Southwark Diocese Lesbian and Gay Support Network in 1991 and the first Chair of Changing Attitude trustees, resigning when he retired from Clapham. For some years Changing Attitude’s office was in St Barnabas’ Vicarage.
David lives with his life partner in Winchelsea, which is in the domain of the soon-to-retire Wallace Benn. Chichester is, as David says, a fairly dysfunctional diocese (on gender issues even more than sexuality, not to mention safeguarding policies).
Events have been unfolding in Winchelsea (a very gay-friendly community) to suggest that local churches and communities are not prepared to tolerate current official Church of England policy on Civil Partnerships. Both the parish and the diocese seem to be in considerable turmoil.
When David retired in 2008 and moved to Chichester Diocese he applied to Bishop Wallace Benn for permission to officiate. The bishop refused to grant it on the grounds that David is in a Civil Partnership and had declined to answer Benn’s intrusive questions as to whether the relationship was a sexual one. The Rector, Fr Howard Cocks, and churchwardens appealed but their appeal was ignored. Robert Hargreaves was the splendid churchwarden who made the running in 2008, a former ITN journalist and author of various books including ‘The First Freedom’ on freedom of speech. (Corrected since this blog was first posted)
The Rector encouraged the PCC to pass a resolution inviting David to preach and lead worship regardless of the bishop’s refusal. They voted unanimously to do this and David has willingly done so ever since. This arrangement continued unchallenged until the present time but, with the retirement of the Rector approaching, David sought permission again for a PTO.
David sees all this as a result of the Church of England’s exemption from anti-discrimination legislation. Faith groups are allowed to discriminate against partnered gay clergy and to demand assurances from them about their relationships that would be illegal if asked for in any other context.
The response this time has been to ignore the new PTO request and to file an official complaint in the name of the archdeacon under the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003 – against David for officiating without permission and against the Rector for allowing it. The documents arrived in the middle of last week. Both Fr Howard and David have received formal notification from the Diocesan legal officer that a complaint has been laid against them by the Archdeacon under the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003. David is complained against for officiating at services without the bishop’s permission and Fr Howard for having authorised this.
The Winchelsea community are up in arms about this, seeing it as, in essence, a homophobic act. This persecutory and homophobic exercise of episcopal authority is so out of tune with the views of our local church and community and, increasingly, of the nation as a whole. However hard the Diocese tries to muddy the waters, the truth is that this is only happening because David is gay.
David was due to preach at the Patronal Festival Service at Winchelsea last Sunday (mayor, corporation and London choir all present) but was forbidden. An announcement was made at the start of the service and, when the moment came, the Rector read David’s sermon on his behalf.
None of this relates in any way to recent news items about the woefully inadequate way the Diocese has handled the issuing of permissions and in particular their failure to check that all clergy had current Criminal Records Bureau clearance as best practice requires. That involves clergy who have permission but who were discovered not to have CRB clearance. David’s case is the opposite. He has CRB clearance but not permission.
There is to be an emergency PCC meeting on Friday to discuss a collective response. In the meantime, parishioners are writing letters of protest. They see this as a chance to demonstrate that here is a parish that will not tolerate anti-gay discrimination and is not afraid to say so.
Statement from the Rector of Winchelsea
This statement was read to the congregation at St Thomas’ Church, Winchelsea at the start of the Patronal Festival Service on Sunday 8th July 2012 in the presence of the Mayor and Corporation of Winchelsea
I regret to have to announce that the preacher this morning, The Revd David Page, is unable to preach because he has been prevented from doing so by the Archdeacon of Lewes and Hastings on the grounds that he, David Page , does not have the Bishops license to officiate. Because, over a period starting in 2009, David has preached and presided at the Eucharist at my invitation and with the knowledge and consent of the Church Council both he and myself have been cited under the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003 – David for exercising ministry and me for permitting it.
David Page had applied for a permission from The Bishop of Lewes (The Rt. Revd Wallace Benn) but was refused on the grounds that he is in a Civil Partnership and was not prepared to discuss the nature of their relationship finding the questioning intrusive. While the matter is being dealt with by the Bishop of Horsham, the Bishop of Lewes is strongly antagonistic to such relationships.
The sermon this morning has been prepared by David but will be read by myself. The whole business is deeply deplorable, and does not reflect well on Diocesan authorities when the whole question of licensing could have dealt with in a pastoral and Christian manner.
People have asked whether the complaint was originally made by someone in the local community. I am quite certain that this is not the case and that it originates at diocesan level and not locally.
The Revd Howard Cocks
Rector of Winchelsea
Sunday 8th July 2012