Winchelsea case sends a message to all bishops

The Revd David Page retired as parish priest of St Barnabas Clapham Common and chair of Changing Attitude England in 2008, moving eventually to Winchelsea with Howard, his civil partner. Howard has held a Permission to Officiate (PTO) in the diocese of Chichester for many years, having lived and worked there as a teacher. When David and Howard moved to Winchelsea, and with the retirement of the Rector, Howard Cocks, imminent, David made an appointment with Bishop Wallace Benn to apply for a PTO himself. David refused to answer Wallace Benn’s question about his sexual activity in the relationship and was as a result refused a PTO.

The people of Winchelsea were angered by this decision. The Rector and PCC agreed that David should continue to preach and officiate at services and passed a resolution to that effect, knowing that David didn’t hold a PTO. When this fact came to the notice of the Archdeacon and Wallace Benn, procedures under the Clergy Discipline Measure were initiated against David.

Clergy Discipline Measure interview

The facts were not in dispute – David had officiated without permission – when David met the Bishop of Horsham Mark Sowerby (Acting Bishop of Chichester) on Wednesday for the formal conclusion of the complaint under the Clergy Discipline Measure.

The Measure required David to agree a ‘penalty by consent’. The penalty that the Bishop had proposed before the meeting was ‘an injunction not to officiate without permission for a period of three years.’

Since the disciplinary proceedings were launched in July, the damning interim report of the Archbishop’s Visitation had been published, including, of course, severe criticism of the Diocesan leadership for failing to keep control of permissions to officiate.

As David wrote in an email to his friends, the meeting would only deal with the narrow technical matter of officiating without permission; it could not address the more important matter of the Church of England’s continuing exemption from anti-discrimination legislation and the intrusive way that the Bishop of Lewes had attempted to implement the exemption.

Penalty a formality, PTO immediately granted

David and the bishop agreed a penalty, as the Measure requires, and he was then immediately given permission to officiate in the Diocese. Though such an outcome had been hinted at, he had not expected a PTO to be granted immediately. David feared that the Bishop of Lewes might still have it within his power to object, but clearly he does not. The agreed penalty was effectively a formality. David was at no point asked for an apology.

David asked that it be clearly written in to the record of the proceedings that the Winchelsea case had nothing to do with concerns about safeguarding. This was readily consented to and a mutually agreed form of words was drawn up and signed. This means that Chichester Diocese has asserted proper order – which they felt they had to do, given the intense critical scrutiny they are under at the moment – but they have made it clear, in giving immediate permission, that they do not endorse the decision the Bishop of Lewes’ made in 2008 and that it is a chapter they wish to close.

David and the congregation in Winchelsea have challenged discrimination which, though legal, they believed to be wrong. The resulting disciplinary procedures and publicity enabled the local church and community alike to make it clear that they will not accept such discrimination.

Challenge to discrimination sets a precedent for all bishops

The Winchelsea case has set a precedent. Most bishops already know that the current policy is untenable. They would not behave as the Bishop of Lewes behaved. Something is seriously wrong when the Church acts in discriminatory ways that our society has legislated against.

Changing Attitude hopes that following the Winchelsea case, fewer bishops will ask intrusive sexual questions of their LGB&T clergy. Changing official policy will take longer. Changing Attitude is waiting for the Sodor and Man Working Party addressing civil partnerships to report to the House of Bishops in December to find out whether the House has yet found the courage to be honest about bishops who licence and grant PTO’s to clergy in civil partnerships – without asking THE question.

As David wrote, if the reaction to what has happened to him helps to make life easier for the next generation of partnered clergy, he will be very happy indeed.


  1. Richard Ashby says

    This case is extremely important. It negates the advice to Bishops of many years to enquire as to the nature of same sex relationships, it means that the rug has been pulled from under the feet of those who continue to do so and wil encourage those who have been victims of this policy to defy it in future.. It also shafts the Bishop of Lewes again and endorses the conclusion that all have come to that he is not fit to hold ofice and must be removed immediately to enable the Church and the Diocese to begin the long process of restring some semblance of credibility.

  2. says

    Are you folks reading a different press statement then the one I saw? It’s obvious that the only reason David Page got a PTO from Bishop Mark was because he agreed to be celibate. Ring up the Bishop’s office to get them to deny that and see how you do.

    How therefore is this in any sense a “positive development”? How does it “encourage those who have been victims of this policy to defy it in future”? Chichester Diocese’s policy remains the same as does the national policy and it remains the fact that a priest who wouldn’t give his Bishop assurances over his sex life was refused a PTO until he gave such assurances.

    Or are you seriously suggesting that after all the fuss over Page’s PTO originally being withheld Bishop Mark didn’t ask for assurances? Wouldn’t Colin be making that the story if it were true that Page didn’t have to give such assurances. Now *that* would be a victory for you guys but the very absence of such bold claims in Colin’s piece betrays the truth.

  3. Changing Attitude says

    Peter Ould, you astonish me. You require others to abide by the ‘plain meaning of scripture’ but decide to infer (by which you mean read into the Chichester Press Statement words which are not there) and claim that the people commenting above have not read the press statement attentively.

    There is NOTHING in the press statement from which you might infer that David Page was asked about his sex life by Bishop Mark and NOTHING that infers David agreed to be celibate. David wasn’t asked and was not required to give any assurances. Yes, Peter, like it or not, I am seriously saying, not suggesting, saying that Bishop Mark didn’t ask for assurances. Why should this surprise you – you spend so much of your time checking the Church for its responses to those of us who are gay?

    This is what happens in the majority of conversations between bishops and their partnered lesbian and gay clergy across the country. That is why the Winchelsea story breaks new ground and is of national significance. Winchelsea is indeed a victory, if you want to use the language of warfare.

    • says

      So just to be clear – neither at the “interview” or before-hand were any assurances given. Neither was there any communication between the parties that the prior offering of assurances to Wally Benn when the PRO was first reapplied for earlier this year was to be taken as given?
      If all that is true then you are essentially alleging that Bishop Mark did not follow the agreed national practice in the 2005 House of Bishop pastoral statement. Now that would be a story…

      • Changing Attitude says

        Peter, I’ll be clear with you – neither at the CDM interview nor before the interview were any assurances asked for or given. Neither was there any communication between the parties that any parts of the earlier interview with Bishop Wallace Benn could be taken as given. David Page refused to answer Wallace Benn’s inappropriate questions at the interview.

        I am not alleging anything, essentially or otherwise. This is your construction and yours alone. Why do you keep doing this? Where is your Christian integrity? Many bishops do not follow the 2005 House of Bishop’s pastoral statement. That’s not news for Changing Attitude, though it may be for you. Bishop Mark hasn’t done anything that the majority of other bishops do. I’d really appreciate it if you could make this a story – it would help our campaign no end.

        • says

          That almost answers the question because the assurances were given to Wally Benn in a letter this year and not in an interview. But I’ll take it that you are NOT including that letter in your sentence beginning “Neither was there any communication between the parties…”.

  4. Richard Ashby says

    Only those with the most fertile imagination could possibly interpret the press releaase as saying that assurances were given regarding celibacy or the sex life of those involved or indeed that sexual activity was discussed at all. This sentence make it quite clear:-

    ‘Rev David Page had over a protracted period exercised his ministry as a priest in the parish of Winchelsea without holding the Bishop’s Permission to Officiate (PTO) and that the then incumbent, Canon Howard Cox had given his consent to this. Both the clergy concerned have admitted this misconduct and the matter has been brought to an agreeable conclusion’.

    The operative word is THIS and refers to the exercise of priestly ministry without a PTO. To suggest that it means anything else is straining credultiy beyond breaking point.

  5. Richard Ashby says

    Careful, Colin. Using words like ‘personal, conservative evangelical obsession’ will get you banned from Mr Ould’s blog as I have been for a rather lesser offence.

    • Changing Attitude says

      If Peter wants to ban me, that’s his prerogative, Richard. He isn’t banned here even though he is writing things that are conjectures of his own mind with no basis whatsoever in reality. This is the reason why I think it is accurate to describe what Peter is doing as having a personal, conservative evangelical obsession. That’s only my opinion, of course, but it at least has some basis in reality.

  6. says

    “Many bishops do not follow the 2005 House of Bishop’s pastoral statement.”

    You can’t have it both ways. You can’t demand PTOs and then get upset when a Bishop actually follows the rules! Bishops make a mockery of their own authority when they don’t follow their own policies. Bishop Benn was doing his job and asking the kind of questions he’s supposed to ask!

  7. Richard Ashby says

    From the House of Bishops Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships

    ‘Members of the clergy and candidates for ordination who decide to enter into partnerships must therefore expect to be asked for assurances that their relationship will be consistent with the teaching set out in Issues in Human Sexuality’.

    Note the exact words please ‘ must therefore expect to be asked’.It does NOT say ‘The Bishop will ask…’ This is not negated by the earlier statement ‘…provided the person concerned is willing to give assurances to his or her bishop that the relationship is consistent with the standards for the clergy set out in Issues in Human Sexuality’.

    I imagine that the wording was very carefully considered. Again, wouldn’t it be better to understand what was actually written rather than interpreting it to fit an agenda? It seems to me to be entirely with in the rights of any bishop NOT to enquire about sexual activity within a same sex relationship.

  8. Anonymous for obvious reasons says

    The current situation is ridiculous.

    My partner has a PTO in the diocese where we live. The evangelical Diocesan Bisop having discovered we were living together then ‘sent him to Coventry’ for the remainder of his (the Bishop’s) time before retirement. Yes, the Bishop actually pretended not to see him when they passed each other in the street of the small town where they both lived. At no stage had my partner lied to the Bishop about his circumstances – he was never asked what they were.

    In a strange way, I would have had more respect for the Bishop had he called my partner in and asked him the ‘inappropriate questions’ as he was entitled to do under the Bishop’s guideline, rather than the nasty little way he chose to handle it. His replacement as Diocesan – another utra-conservative Evangelical – has also issued him with a PTO without any questions asked.

    I really cannot stand this sort of hypocrisy. Either follow the guideline and refuse to issue PTOs if the requirements of it are not met or declare openly that they don’t follow it.

    • Anonymous says

      I find it hard to believe that we are still having this debate and that discrimination is continuing, in the Church of all places, when we should be setting an example of love and generosity, as David & Howard are doing. One day, and let us pray that it is sooner rather than later, Bishops will take the lead in affirming wholesome, honest sexual relationships so that the whole Body of Christ can be nurtured and directed in the way of the One who loves us what ever our orientation. Life is hard enough, without having to fight some Church authorities for recognition. Jenny Clark – retired trustee of CA

Join the discussion