reports in the news recently that Jeffrey John is considering legal action against the Church of England on the grounds that he was blocked from the position of Bishop of Southwark on the basis of of his sexuality. In any other work environment, the way Jeffrey John has been treated would be illegal. The Church of England is exempt from the Equality Act, but these exemptions are very narrow. The House of Bishops sought advice last year on the legality of debarring people from positions on the basis of their sexuality and was apparently advised that they cannot exclude on the basis of orientation alone, only on the basis of sexual behaviour. They may also be able to exclude on the grounds that a candidate's views might be a cause for division - that they could not act as a "focus of unity."
It seems that the Church of England would be acting illegally if the reason for blocking Jeffrey John from the shortlist was his sexuality alone, given that his civil partnership is celibate. To argue that he was blocked because his views are divisive might be tenuous as there are other existing bishops with similar views, they might equally be seen as a focus of disunity? There has been a suggestion in some quarters that the Church of England might argue that Jeffrey John was blocked on the basis that he is "unrepentant about his previous sexual behaviour." I think to do so would be a mistake! Firstly and the greatest consideration, is that this would be a cruel, ungenerous and unchristian way to behave. Given that Jeffrey John is in a committed lifelong relationship, to require him to "repent" effectively of any intimacy with someone he so clearly loves would be downright shabby and present the Church in a very poor light. Secondly, the question of discrimination would still arise - are the sexual histories of all heterosexual bishops also to be investigated and public repentance for any sex outside of marriage required? Thirdly, according to compelling reports, there are other gay bishops, including some who are in relationships, although they are not open about this fact, leading to accusations of hypocrisy and that the Church rewards dishonesty (which it certainly does!) on this issue.
My first thought on reading the report was that it was a rumour. Taking legal action is not really seen as Jeffrey John's style. Reading between the lines, this has been an ongoing dialogue and one wonders if it is what led to the House of Bishops seeking advice last year? The Daily Mail reports:
It is understood there has been a lengthy correspondence between Ms Downie (John's solicitor) and Church lawyers in an attempt to resolve the dispute. No legal action has been launched but it is thought Dr John has not ruled out the possibility, although one source said Dr John suggested he would drop his legal threat if he felt he would not be ruled out for future posts.
It is important to note, therefore, that this is actually a very mild response from Jeffrey John, he is not yet taking the Church to court, merely trying to make them consider the unjust and possibly unlawful nature of their actions. I hope they do seriously reflect and decide that, as he certainly does not fall into some special category of sinner, that he should be allowed to apply for positions on the same basis as all the other applicants.
One of the saddest aspects of the whole matter (and there are many sad aspects) is that the fact that this story will do little to dispel public perceptions of the Church as bigoted, prejudiced, cruel, hypocritical and obsessed with judging other people. It is possible, of course, that this matter will be milked by the media for all it is worth. It is also possible that the British at large may have so lost interest in the Church and what it does and says that it will only be seen as a minor story, just more of the same from an institution that is seen by many as irrelevant and having little to offer. If that is the case, it may be even more of a cause for grief and reflection.