Sunday, 15 January 2012

Will Jeffrey John sue?

There are some 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.


  1. To be honest I hope he doesn't sue, though he has every right to want to. Sadly I think if he were to do so, his motives would be terribly distorted and misrepresented by the media and his opponents and he would suffer.

  2. I guess he'd be finished in any real sense as far as a meaningful role in the church went? Maybe he is prepared for that. If the Church did promote him now, certain factions would claim it had given in to blackmail. On the other hand, is it going to risk a legal challenge with the (possible) bad publicity, especially if it loses. Whatever happens, it isn't going to be a happy ship as far as JJ is concerned, is it? He has been very passive so far in everything. That's why I thought it would turn out to be nothing of the sort. I did say the key word that sums the whole business up is "sad". I'm not exactly exultant over it!

  3. There are also various bishops with the completely opposite view to JJ on sexuality and I guess they would also have problems in being a focus of unity for their diocese!

  4. It occurs to me that the bishops and priests opposed to women bishops are very much a focus for disunity. Are they all to be demoted or blocked from promotion?

  5. I am in agreement with you and have always felt, irrespective of the divisions caused by the whole sexuality civil war in the Anglican communion that rescinding the Reading post had more to do with vindictiveness than any theological qualms.

    However, am I alone in finding the ambition to attain a bishopric distasteful?

  6. I don't think we expect those who go into the church to be terribly ambitious. The aim should be to serve, not to think of personal gain or aspiration.
    That said, we need to understand that those who go into the church still have the desire to use and develop their gifts to their full capacity, to take on new roles and derive all the satisfaction that brings - personally, professionally and in terms of ministry to others. There is nothing wrong with that desire - provided the motives still lie in service and the exercise of God given capabilities rather than simply personal gain.
    So, I don't think it is wrong for Jeffrey John to wish to be a bishop at all. In fact, if we used that argument we could suspect all who put themselves forward for that role! I think the question with Jeffrey John is more whether it is right to take or threaten legal action when we are treated badly by others and treated with clear injustice? The gospels do tell us to "turn the other cheek" or, in the case of fellow Christians, to take the matter to them rather than to the law. I do not think Jeffrey John ever intended this to go public. I do not think he would ever have taken legal action against the church. I think he used it as a means to try to make the Church confront its inveterate homophobia and hypocrisy. That homophobia and hypocrisy affects others as well as Jeffrey John. I also suspect that someone with their own ulterior motives leaked this to the press. And where is the Christian love and charity if that is what happened?
    I don't know where Jeffrey John will go or what he will do now within the church. I think he has been treated appallingly, singled out for people to have their squabbles over and used and abused despicably. I am not particularly interested in condemning the actions of someone who has been treated with such a lack of Christian charity by the institution he has served so well.

  7. I've posted a brief follow up to my comment on my blog I think my discomfort comes not so much from the ambition but the (possible) resort to legal means to fulfil it.

    That said, I have a latent anti-clericalism that would see abolition of a clergy so guess I'm not inclined to support advancement in any case!