Prophets and Picnics

My great-grandfather was called Amos, and for generations before him boys in our family were given that name, so I’ve always had a fondness for the Old Testament prophet Amos. The Book of Amos was also very much in my mind yesterday as I set out to join the protest at Southwell Minster in support of Canon Jeremy Pemberton.

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Appointed healthcare chaplaincy lead by Sherwood Forest Hospitals NHS Trust, Jeremy was refused the licence he needed to take up his post by the acting Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, Bishop Richard Inwood, who is responsible to the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu. The Trust having since withdrawn its offer, Jeremy has now filed an employment tribunal claim against Bishop Inwood and Archbishop Sentamu.

Despite its name Southwell is in the Northern Province of the Church of England, whose primate is the Archbishop of York, and adjacent to the Minster is the Archbishop’s Palace, where mediaeval archbishops used to reside on their journey between London and York. The great hall of the Palace was recently restored with help from English Heritage, and the Palace was to be re-opened yesterday by Dr Sentamu.

There is a north-south differential to Jeremy’s case because he is still employed as a chaplain at United Lincoln Hospitals NHS Trust, where he continues to be authorised by the Bishop of Lincoln, whose diocese is the Southern Province of Canterbury. In Jeremy’s case, therefore, there is a discrepancy between the handling of his situation between the Southern and the Northern provinces of the Church of England.

And so, feeling like Amos, who came up from the southern kingdom of Judah, to deliver his message to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel, I travelled from the Southern to the Northern Province yesterday to stand in front of the Minster, hold my banner, and, if appropriate, say a few words, as the Archbishop passed. In the event I simply declaimed I John 4:16a, the opening sentence of the Marriage Service – which seemed very appropriate given that Jeremy’s only ‘offence’ was to have married his partner, Laurence: ‘God is love, and those who live in love, live in God, and God lives in them.’

However, that south-north journey is where the similarity with Amos came to an end, as I’d assumed that, like Amos, who was sent packing by Amaziah, the priest of Bethel (Amos 7:12,13), we would be unwelcome. Not a bit of it. The Archbishop took time to stop and listen to what some of our delegation had to say, and the atmosphere was extremely hospitable. The Minster had been warned that we were coming (as had the pub where we met beforehand) and many people were pleased to see us. Jeremy is also a senior lay clerk at the Minster, where he has much support from clergy and laity. Indeed, some of the other ‘protesters’ were members of the Minster congregation.

Once the Archbishop had opened the Palace we were invited in to tea and then to look at the restored great hall. More like a picnic than a protest then? Interestingly, it’s been said to me that, difficult as the struggle for women’s ordination as priests and consecration as bishops has been, it will look like a picnic compared to the battle for the full inclusion of LGBTI people in the Church of England. Perhaps, but perhaps not: maybe what looks to some like protest will turn into a picnic once the silent majority begin to join in.

The educational timelines at Southwell reminded us that the Palace has had its share of troubles – home to Cardinal Wolsey at a trying stage of his career, and the place where Charles I was first imprisoned. ‘English heritage’ is often the story of conflict and struggle, and one day, please God, our struggles for inclusion will be over.

The precisely incised Norman architecture which formed the backdrop to our protest spoke of continuity, but so did the young people, many of them musicians, from the Minster School, as they moved between the Minster and the Palace. Southwell has been a place of Christian learning, prayer and song for generations, but just at the moment its name is stained by an injustice that we pray will soon be put right.

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