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.