Bishop Wallace Benn may have unwittingly started a process which will lead to the dismantling of the Church of England’s policy towards LGB&T people. Last week the Diocesan legal officer issued formal notification to David Page and Fr Howard Cocks 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 Robert for having authorised this. This follows a request from David to Bishop Wallace Benn for a new PTO.
Yesterday I suggested that Bishop Benn is being homophobic for having taken this action. I judge Wallace Benn to be homophobic because he has taken no disciplinary action against the 100-odd priests in the diocese who were not CRB cleared (when he is under investigation for his failure to deal with abusive priests) but has pounced on David and Fr Robert under the Clergy Discipline Measure for something that frequently happens – unauthorised people preaching or leading worship, especially in Wallace Benn’s evangelical circles. Plus he is acting contrary to Anglican discipline and tradition by actively supporting a schismatic movement in the Church.
Stephen Bates, former religious affairs correspondent of the Guardian, has commented on Facebook that prurience is not just confined to gay couples. When his wife applied to train as a lay reader in the diocese of Rochester (having been proposed by her evangelical vicar) Michael Nazir-Ali, spotting that she had been divorced 20+ years earlier, demanded to know in detail and in writing the reasons for her divorce. (Echoes of Nick Holtam’s problems in being appointed bishop come to mind, because of his marriage to someone divorced after a brief, unsuccessful first marriage).
The evangelical vicar thought bishop Michael’s interest was a little obsessive but when he asked the bishop whether it was really necessary, he was told, yes, because of who she is now married to, Stephen the religious affairs correspondent.
Now this is where it begins to get interesting and may have much wider implications. Readers are not under the same disciplinary measures as clergy, presumably (someone reading this will be able to advise).
David Page was chair of Changing Attitude for 8 years. Another key Changing Attitude person is Jeremy Timm, chair of trustees, who lives near Howden in the diocese of York. Jeremy trained for the ministry but immediately prior to ordination decided to enter the family flour milling business. He became a Reader instead. I forget when, but at some point in the past his licence lapsed.
Jeremy is now in a civil partnership and is also taking services and preaching in his deanery every Sunday because there is a shortage of clergy and because his ministry is deeply appreciated. He asked some years ago to be licensed as a Reader but +Sentamu refused. The parish wrote to the bishop of Hull asking him to reconsider but he refused. They asked him to attend a PCC meeting which he did. The PCC argued strongly for a licence to be given but still the bishop refused. However, with +Sentamu’s full knowledge and blessing, he gave approval for Jeremy to continue preaching and taking services in the deanery.
The Archbishop of York’s stance is exactly the opposite of Wallace Benn’s. Maybe someone will argue that a Reader’s licence is not equivalent to a clergy PTO, but Michael Nazir-Ali thought a Reader to be of sufficient consequence that he subjected Stephen Bates’ wife to intense scrutiny.
Clearly the action taken by three different bishops highlights the total dishonesty of the Church of England’s discipline, teaching and practice. Changing Attitude had already begun to question where responsibility lies in the hierarchy of the Church, in the House of Bishops and at Church House, raising the matter with William Fittall, the Secretary General. Nothing to do with me, Guv, was his response. But questions about the same matter were raised at General Synod on Friday evening and they are not going away.
Individual bishops (and an Archbishop) and the House of Bishops will now be scrutinised as to the actions they do or don’t take against individual clergy and readers and the whole teaching policy of the C of E about LGB&T people will continue to be challenged.
I understand that some years ago Wallace Benn instituted an enquiry into the sleeping arrangements of his single male priests. He was told to stop when this came to the notice of the wider diocese.
The Diocese of Chichester has been in a schizophrenic mess for a long time. I was told a long time ago that in a staff meeting when Eric Kemp was bishop, Wallace Benn revealed that he had never met a gay priest. Oh, said Eric, turning to Lindsay Urwin, then bishop of Horsham, but Lindsay is gay you know, thus unwittingly outing him to Wallace.
And to return to the present, Wallace has given David Page’s civil partner a PTO, in ignorance of the facts both that he’s gay and in a civil partnership.
Twenty years ago, when we might have smiled at the All Gas and Gaiters culture of the Church, all this might have been looked on as a charming joke. But in the Rev generation, when a gay Archdeacon fails in his episcopal ambition, the Church of England is a much darker and more hard-edged institution.
Stephen Bates has commented: “I thought the Church of England was now in favour of civil partnerships for gay couples? At least that’s what various bishops have been going round saying recently, in defence of their opposition to the Government’s gay marriage proposals.”
The Rt Revd Martin Warner arrives in a diocese which if not yet in crisis is a diocese in deep cultural conflict over gay clergy and women’s ministry. What is bishop Martin’s attitude towards the significant number of Chichester clergy in civil partnerships? What is bishop Martin going to do about Winchelsea when the Archbishop of York allows a Reader to minister without a licence? Why shouldn’t David Page be given a PTO?