A defence of the Bishop of Hereford

I have been reading the Church Times’s coverage of the case of the Bishop of Hereford, Dr Anthony Priddis, who has just been reprimanded by an Employment tribunal for refusing a job as a youth leader to a gay man who said at the job interview that he would remain celibate. All of my instincts are against the bishop, but there is one important, and in the context decisive point in his favour: what is being assailed is his judgement. He didn’t believe that the man in question — fresh from a break-up — could honestly make a binding commitment to celibacy.

Now this, it seems to me, is the sort of judgement that a bishop has to make all the time, and irrespective of the sexual orientation involved. They are constantly dealing with people who swear they will be good in future, that they won’t do it again, and so forth. Some (not, in this case, the youth worker) add that they are very sorry for their past deeds. Not all of these repentant or at least reformed sinners will manage to carry out their new resolutions, however sincere they may be at the time.

This is an argument which has nothing to do with whether homosexual behaviour is in itself sinful or not. I don’t think it is, for what my opinion is worth, but the law says that the Church is able to hold that all gay sex is sinful, and that is one of1 the official doctrines of the C of E at the moment. I repeat, on a point of law, the church is quite entitled to discriminate against sexually active homosexuals in positions of “leadership”. It is in the light of that fact that the tribunal’s decision must be understood.

The tribunal has taken the view that the bishop should be forced to accept the applicant’s word, and this is what I think is wrong. Rightly or wrongly, I can see that there is at least a theoretical possibility that a promise of celibacy, exacted under such circumstances, would be broken in the future. Certainly, if I were asked to promise to remain celibate as the price of a job I wanted, and I had just emerged from a smashed up relationship, I might very well make that promise, only to discover, in a year or two, that just possibly broken hearts do mend. In fact I wouldn’t, come to think if it, entirely trust the judgement of any bishop who believed me.

Of course, I’m not gay. The Church of England has many ways to accomodate my sexual preferences.2 It does discriminate, institutionally, against gays: this is wrong (but perfectly legal) and within the framework of the law as it stands, the Bishop, I think, was within his rights. Even at that, he may have made a wrong decision. But the question is whether he had the right — whether he should have the right — to get that decision wrong. I think he clearly did, and that to say otherwise makes it more likely that management in the future will be more mechanical and worse.

1 In a rather Groucho Marx sense: if you don’t like this doctrine, it has others.

2 a sentence I never knew, until this moment, that I waited all my life to write.

This entry was posted in God. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A defence of the Bishop of Hereford

  1. H. E. Baber says:

    Can’t blame the guy. Have you been following the travails of the RC Church in the US, slapped with multimillion dollar lawsuits for the sexual abuse of minors in diocese after diocese? My own diocese has filed for bankruptcy and I think LA is trying to file too. Of course ALL the defendants in these cases were sworn to celibacy.

  2. Mark Vernon says:

    Andrew –

    I agree that the tragedy of this case is that the church was upheld in its legal discrimination against gays. However, I don’t agree that the bishop was within his rights.

    As far as I know, the law doesn’t say that the church may not be forced to employ practicing or individuals it regards as could be practicing homosexuals. Rather it is exempt from the equality law. So, the question the bishop is entitled to ask is whether or not clergy and others accept the document, ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ as stating the mind of the church. In that way, the youth leader gave more assurances than necessary. For as presumably hundreds of gay clergy do, it is quite possible to accept ‘Issues’ as the mind of the church and be in a relationship. And as many bishops will add, ‘Issues’ also represents a listening process, which is to say that it needn’t be accepted as written in stone.

    Having said that, this is clearly a fudge and poorly covers profound hypocrisy. Perhaps this is what needs testing in the law – though I understand that at least one conservative diocesan bishop has been advised not to try it out, the advice being that he would lose, and perhaps take down the exemption with him


  3. acb says:

    Mark – it doesn’t seem to me that a situation where people are asked to accept “as the mind of the church” something they think is complete bollocks adds anything to the Church except another layer of camp. It is exaclt analagous to the positionn of th eopponents of women priests, that they will accpet these women are lawfully ordaind. All that really means is that they think the law of the c of e is out of tune with that of God (or the Church). I don’t see what is gained for anyone by paying their salaries to feel that, in either case.

  4. Rupert says:

    “The Church of England has many ways to accomodate my sexual preferences” – I wonder how many heterosexual males’ preferences actually match the sole sanctified sexual behaviours: abstinence or lifelong monogamy? As has been so often noted, adultery is much more strongly, repeatedly and unambiguously condemned in the scriptures than is homosexuality, but are there many candidates for youth leadership rejected on the grounds that the bishop believes that they may well go and sleep with an unsanctified woman? (This isn’t entirely rhetorical – I don’t know, and it would be interesting to find out.)

Comments are closed.