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.