Mountains out of Molehills?

A story that has been doing the rounds on the internet for the past week has finally made it to the mainstream media (but not into print yet). Here’s the Daily Telegraph on a kerfuffle in Southwark Diocese.

Peter Gowlland, 78, was accused of sowing discord among worshippers at the liberal-leaning All Saints Church in Sanderstead, Surrey, by inviting them to sign a petition against the Government plans to introduce same-sex weddings.

Despite being told by his Archdeacon to “withdraw” from ministry for two months as a result, Church authorities continued to insist last night that he had “not been suspended”.

The retired science teacher says he was told “we don’t do that here” by a fellow lay reader when he set out a pile of leaflets promoting the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey’s Coalition For Marriage before a Sunday service last month.

Matters came to a head shortly during the service when he urged parishioners in his sermon to be “bold like the apostles” and register their opposition to the redefinition of marriage.

It prompted what might pass in the Church of England for a public showdown: a brief and polite disagreement with two other lay readers in front of the congregation, a retired bishop and the visiting Worldwide President of the Mothers’ Union.

The two women who stood up in front of the church during the parish notices and advised parishioners told them not to sign the petition, adding: “There are other views”.

The Rt Revd David Atkinson, the retired Bishop of Thetford, who was leading the worship, stepped in to advise that the service was “not the correct time and place” to discuss the bitterly contentious issue, according to Mr Gowlland.

The incident was not mentioned again until just over a week later when Mr Gowlland went what he thought would be a routine meeting with the Revd Canon Dr Barry Goodwin, the acting Archdeacon of Croydon, to have his licence to preach renewed.

Instead he was accused of “bouncing” the issue on the church, which currently does not have a full-time vicar, without consulting the other lay preachers and wardens, leading to a “regrettable” public show of disunity.

He was asked to stand although no action will be taken against the women to stood up to object to his sermon.

In a carefully worded letter to Mr Gowlland the following day Dr Goodwin said that there was “potential for disunity” at the church following the sermon and insisted the problem was not with what he said but “the way” he raised the issue.

“I asked you to withdraw from preaching and leading worship for two months, just to let the dust settle and in no way am I wishing or suggesting we suspend or revoke your [licence].

“The parish is in a vacancy and we have not been successful in finding a person to lead the team and I am endeavouring to reduce the tensions a long vacancy brings.”

Mr Gowlland lodged an appeal against his suspension with the Bishop of Southwak, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, but received a reply insisting that he had not been “suspended” but simply asked to take a “cooling off period to create space for reflection”.

Mr Gowlland said last night that the pains taken to avoid calling his suspension a suspension were “Orwellian”.

A spokesperson for the Diocese of Southwark said:”The Reader in question has not been suspended.

“Some members of the congregation had raised some pastoral concerns with the Archdeacon and he discussed these with the Reader. During the meeting it became clear that there are disagreements within the parish concerning how some matters are handled.

“The Archdeacon asked the Reader to refrain from ministry in the particular parish for two months in order for there to be time for these pastoral matters to be resolved.

“The Bishop of Southwark has put measures in place to try to resolve the difficulties within the parish.

“The issue is not about the traditional view of marriage but related to matters of church order and authority during an interregnum.”

Right then, some thoughts.

  1. Although Bishop David Atkinson was probably right to step in and settle the matter for that morning, we need to remember that Mr Gowlland was expressing the official position of the Church of England on this matter. If he was preaching at a church that is more liberal, it is the church that is out of step, not Mr Gowlland.
  2. It appears that the Archdeacon handled this badly. What should have happened was a gentle meeting where Mr Gowlland and the Archdeacon discussed how the issue could have been handled more politically and then moved on.
  3. The real issue is the “suspension”. Of course, the Diocese is not admitting that this is a suspension but rather it has asked Mr Gowlland to take some time to reflect on the issue. However, if the call was for all of those involved to take some time to reflect then all the Readers involved should have been asked to withdraw for the same period. Although I’m sure that the Archdeacon (and Bishop who was probably consulted as well) didn’t intend this to be an “anti supporting traditional marriage” move, in the light of all that has happened recently in Southwark Diocese, and knowing that Mr Gowlland was one of the committee members of the Diocesan Evangelical Union, surely they should have realised how this would be interpreted given that Mr Gowlland was the only person requested to take a cooling off period?

How should Mr Gowlland have responded? Well, it depends how much of any issue he (and others) wanted to make of it. It looks as though what he has done is to shake the dust off his feet and move to a different parish (and let’s see whether he’s allowed to minister there over the next few weeks). But let’s read the exact content of the letter from the Archdeacon (as detailed on the Christian Institute website).

“I asked you to withdraw from preaching and leading worship for two months, just to let the dust settle and in no way am I wishing or suggesting we suspend or revoke your [licence].”
Emphasis added

See, the Archdeacon is very clear that Mr Gowlland’s licence hasn’t been suspended and it’s only a polite request for him to withdraw from ministry. There is no instruction to do so, the licence is still in place and he can technically still minister as before. This means that if Mr Gowlland and others wanted to be confrontational (and there’s a bit of that mood now surfacing in Southwark) the response should have been to thank the Archdeacon for the offer of a cooling off period but to state that it wasn’t considered necessary, and that Mr Gowlland looked forward to ministering as usual in the parish next week. Such a response would then challenge the Diocese as to whether they really were or weren’t suspending him.

Now that would have been entertaining.

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