Jeffrey John to Sue the Church?

This originally in the Sunday Times (behind a pay-wall) and now in the Mail on Sunday.

A controversial gay dean has threatened to take the Church of  England to court after he was blocked from becoming a bishop.

The Very Rev Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans, has instructed an eminent employment lawyer to complain to Church officials after being rejected for the role of Bishop of Southwark.

Sources say the dean, one of the most contentious figures in the Church, believes he could sue officials under the Equality Act 2010, which bans discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. Such a case could create a damaging new rift within the CoE.

Dr John was at the centre of a storm in 2003 when forced to step down as Bishop of Reading by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams after it became known that he was in a gay, though celibate, relationship. The furore fuelled a bitter civil war within the Anglican Church that has dominated Dr Williams’s decade in office.

The dean was again a cause of infighting in 2010 when he was a candidate for Bishop of Southwark. A respected theologian and former canon at Southwark Cathedral, he had strong backing from senior Church liberals and it was said even David Cameron was supportive.

Challenge: Gay dean Dr Jeffrey John has said he will take action against the ChurchBut the Crown Nominations Commission, whose members are responsible for selecting bishops and include Dr Williams, appointed another candidate. Dr John was said to be furious and his supporters’ anger was stoked by a memo by another member of the commission, the late Dean of Southwark Colin Slee, claiming Dr Williams was one of those who tried to ‘wreck’ Dr John’s chances.

Dr John has instructed Alison Downie, partner and head of employment at London lawyers Goodman Derrick, to write to the Commission to suggest it risks breaching gay equality laws if it is blocking the dean over his homosexuality.

Ms Downie previously acted for a gay youth worker who successfully sued the Church in 2008 after the Bishop of Hereford Anthony Priddis refused him a job.

It is understood there has been a lengthy correspondence between Ms Downie 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.

Church lawyers published new guidelines last summer which said that under the Equality Act, candidates cannot be barred from senior Church posts because they are gay as long as they do not have sex. The guidance added that candidates could be blocked if they were regarded as divisive because their views or behaviour had angered  a significant number of their flock.

Ms Downie refused to comment last night.  A Church spokesman also refused to comment.

OK, what to make of this? When I first heard the story breaking last night my initial reaction was, “That doesn’t sound anything like something Jeffrey John would do”. However, one conversation with Jonathan Wynne-Jones later and it appears that it all stacks up. What is going on?

Back when the fuss over his nomination for Southwark emerged, I made some suggestions about how to proceed. John Richardson also had some wise words to say.

Secondly, it would be difficult to condemn Dr John’s appointment on the grounds that he is in a relationship with someone of the same sex. The Church of England accepts the existence of civil partnered clergy, and although some (including myself) may think this is a mistake, the House of Bishops has made it clear that this acceptance is based on the provision of assurances that such relationships are sexually celibate. Moreover, Dr John has (as I recall) declared that this is the case for his own relationship.

There are therefore no current grounds within the Church of England’s teaching and practice regarding Dr John’s domestic arrangements for condemning his appointment as a bishop.

In fact, the only grounds I can see for objecting to Dr John’s appointment in principle lies in his teaching about human sexuality.

Some years ago, Dr John famously wrote a short book called Permanent, Faithful, Stable in which he advocated the acceptance of homosexual relationships, including non-celibate relationships, which showed those three features. I havereviewed this elsewhere, and detailed the difficulties I have with his approach, and I believe it would be entirely proper to object to Dr John’s appointment on the grounds of the position he adopts in this book.

However, if that is the basis on which an objection is to be made, it must be realized that the same would apply — as I have pointed out already — to a number of other existing Anglican bishops.

In other words, if Dr John’s appointment is seen as a potential casus belli, it needs to be appreciated that we are potentially at that point in more than one other diocese. Personally, I do not think this has been understood, and I am not at all sure that the implications have been considered as they ought to have by those who might think this is an ‘open and shut’ case.

Before any fierce objection is voiced to the mooting of Dr John, therefore, it needs to be asked, “Why him? Why now?” And if the objections are, nevertheless, made and actions do in fact follow, then for consistency’s sake this should not just apply to Dr John’s appointment, which may, in any case, never happen.

John Richardson is absolutely right – the Church of England is now in some sense reaping the mess it has created by constantly trying to fudge this issue. We are getting nearer and nearer to the point where the institutions will have to decide one way or the other.

Of course, there is one more question to answer, and that is who to sue? Welcome to the complicated structures of the established Church…


Just remembered the Bible speaks very pertinently to the situation.

When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!
(1 Corinthians 6:1-8 ESV)

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