Gay Nuptials in the Church of England

And lo it has happened. The Bishops said not to do it, but Canon Jeremy Pemberton went ahead anyway.

© Press Association
© Press Association

A senior Church of England clergyman yesterday became the first to enter into a gay  marriage – in direct defiance of the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby – plunging the Church into a fresh crisis.

Canon Jeremy Pemberton tied the knot with Laurence Cunnington under new laws allowing same-sex marriages pushed through by David Cameron in the face of bitter opposition from backbench MPs and the Church.

But Canon Pemberton, 58, now faces disciplinary action from the Church and could be expelled from his work as a priest because the House of Bishops has barred clergy from entering such unions, saying they undermine its traditional teaching that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

Edward Malnick in the Sunday Telegraph adds more details.

Although the Church of England formally objected to the introduction of gay marriage and has opted out of performing the ceremonies, there have been growing signs of a more relaxed stance on homosexuality. Bishops agreed that gay couples who get married will be able to ask for special prayers after the ceremony.

However, on Saturday night the Rev Preb Rod Thomas, chairman of the Reform evangelical group, said: “There’s no doubt that there is pressure within some parts of the church for the Church to change its mind on sexuality.

“If there is not clear discipline then it is the equivalent to saying ‘we really didn’t mean what we said.’ It will precipitate a crisis.”

He warned that traditionalists “who stick by the biblical understanding” of marriage would be unable to accept a “messy compromise”, potentially leading to a situation similar to in the US where a traditionalist splinter Church has emerged from the liberal Episcopal Church.

However, the Rev Colin Coward, a friend of Canon Pemberton’s and director of the Changing Attitude campaign group, of which he is a former trustee, said: “I’m really, really happy for Jeremy and his partner that they are finally able to get married after a long time of being together as a couple.

“I hope the bishops find a way to affirm and bless their relationship rather than taking action against them.”

Dr Giles Fraser, the former canon chancellor of St Paul’s, also congratulated the couple.

The Bishop of Lincoln, the Rt Rev Christopher Lowson, said: “I am aware that a member of the clergy who works in the Diocese of Lincoln has married a partner of the same sex. The priest concerned wrote to me in advance to explain his intention and we had a subsequent meeting in which I explained the guidelines of the House of Bishops.”

What do I think? Well first, I’ve had the pleasure of interacting at some point with both of them and have always found them courteous and pleasant. Laurence has commented a number of times on this blog and you can see from this interaction in particular that he is not in any sense a radical. I think we’re all big enough to realise we can (profoundly) disagree with people and still get on with them, so let’s try and do that. And that attempt to be courteous includes reflecting on the way some conservatives continue to use “marriage” and “husband” when referring to such relationships. Jeremy and Laurence got married (no quotes). They are husband and husband (no quotes). These are legal facts and we should recognise and accept them.

Second, (and speaking of legal facts) it’s very clear now that the Bishop of Lincoln cannot avoid having to make a decision about Canon Pemberton’s future licensing. The story is in two national newspapers and given that he’s admitted he knows about it he will need to take some form of action. But don’t expect anything too soon – the CDM process (forget the nonsense about the Ecclesiastical Jursidiction Measure) takes time and it is unlikely (though not improbable) that Canon Pemberton will be “suspended” in any way pending the outcome of the disciplinary process. And get out of your head any notion that because Bishop Lowson is a liberal he will go easy on Pemberton – if anything it will work the other way as the Bishop of Lincoln will not want to be seen as undermining the collegiality of the House.

Third, we need to pray for our Bishops and senior leaders as they deal with this. There will be some very hard decisions to make and its likely that attempts will be made to placate both sides at some point. Remember that an individual decision made by an individual leader does not necessarily indicate the direction of travel for the whole higher cadre of the Church of England.

We are cursed, as someone said, to live in interesting times…

16 Comments on “Gay Nuptials in the Church of England

  1. In times like these I remember Phinehas who was overwhelmed with a holy zeal against the sexual impurity among God’s people.

    Personally, I shall continue to use the quote marks, Herodias’ marriage to Herod Philip was also a legal fact, yet John the Baptist and those who respected God’s word saw it as an unlawful union.

    Whatever happen in the Diocese of Lincoln, we await similar development down here in Guildford.

    I will happily be the person with a proper interest in making a complaint under CDM 2003, if this ‘love’ (with quotes on) that dismisses canonical obedience happens in Guildford diocese.

    A few years ago, wHen we discussed Ladele, it was easy to suggest that she had a duty to put her job before the dictates of her personal beliefs, or that she should, while operating in a secular role, be prepared to face the consequences.

    In contrast, the grim fear of homophobic labelling will promote a softly, softly approach.

    Let gay priests try getting ‘married’ (quotes on) in the Diocese of Guildford. I will happily ensure that ‘a person with a proper interest’ registers a complaint under CDM 2003.

    This brother of true Christians was born for adversity, not lip service.

  2. So let’s assume I am a Liberal bishop and a gay clergyman in my diocese has just gotten married according to the laws of the state but in defiance of church authority. I don’t actually want to do anything about this. But I don’t want to undermine the authority of the bishops either. What to do?

    Well what did Rowan Williams do? Delay. Delay. Delay. Claim that processes are in motion but make sure they move so slowly, the issue will be forced in other venues before those processes teach fruition. A slow response favors change. There will be many more such marriages and they will occur much faster than the disciplinary process. If there is any strategic thinking behind this effort, they will occur in many dioceses in order to confront many bishops with the same dilemma. Each additional case makes it that much harder to proceed with any one case. It will build a faction of bishops that has a vested interest in resolving the problem without resorting to discipline. In addition, the conservative churches will be watching. They will not be infinitely patient. If resolution is delayed long enough, the conservatives might bolt and the issue will become moot.

    So I suspect what will happen is … nothing. There will be furrowed brows and stern glares and perhaps a not-so-reserved email or two. And then the whole thing will disappear into bureaucratic process. Where it will stay indefinitely while church lawyers work furiously to keep it there. Meanwhile the facts on the ground will change daily. The potential PR disaster will grow exponentially. All our good bishop has to do is wait for the House to blink. At which point it will find some face-saving way off the cliff.

    They will try to placate conservatives into accepting the new reality, of course. But it won’t work. The Great Game will be over.


    • The Clergy Discipline Measure doesn’t allow for delay. The first few steps need to be conducted within certain timescales. Imagine that a complaint is made to the Bishop tomorrow. The complaint has to be referred to the Diocesan Registrar within 7 days (1 week). He/she then reports back to the Bishop within 28 days (5 weeks in total). Within 28 days of receiving the report the Bishop then has to make a decision (9 weeks in total). So in theory, this could all be done and dusted within two months. However, the respondent may reject the discipline of the Bishop, in which case the case will go to tribunal.

      But as I said, if someone complains tomorrow, we should know by the end of June where we stand.

      • The Clergy Discipline Measure doesn’t allow for delay.

        Yes, see, that’s why I made reference to lawyers. I have almost infinite faith in the ability of those slimy reptiles to find small crevices in the law through which to slither. I have no doubt they will find a way.


          • Carl’s right. For instance, chaplains, like Pemberton, are appointed to extra-parochial ministry. Thoughtfully, the Clergy Discipline Rules tread very carefully where the respondent’s employer is not the church, but the hospital.

            It is because this person is not directly employed by the church that the bishop has to authorise the person making the complaint through Form 1e, NOT Form 1a.

            The rules also state that chaplain’s employer (hospital, prison, or army) must be informed. So let’s be clear. In the knowledge that he’s a salaried NHS employee, we’re a bit cleverer than falling for any inadvertent public victimhood of church discipline.

            We can also see how a Bishop’s notification of the NHS would play out in the media. Oh, and, of course, how the NHS would respond, citing it as homophobic harassment and Pemberton’s years of dedicated service to Lincoln hospital. An exchange between an insistent bishop and the NHS would probably end up in court.

            Ignore Pemberton. The best discipline is routine denial of preferment for those who reject canonical obedience. A complaint of such a person being overlooked for ecclesiastical office is far beyond secular jurisdiction.

  3. “… (forget the nonsense about the Ecclesiastical Jursidiction Measure) …”

    It only becomes “nonsense” after a ruling has been made on how to categorize this unprecedented situation.

    • Well, I was discussing this with someone last night. Their view was it had to be either Bishop (unlikely), Archdeacon or someone on the electoral roll of the parish. Not sure how that would cover a hospital chaplain. My understanding is that it can be someone in the diocese, so for example a fellow priest has a proper interest. It’ll be interesting to see how it works out.

      My suspicion is that Archdeacons will lay the charges to demonstrate the intent of the hierarchy. Anything less indicates the hierarchy is trying to avoid dealing with it.

      • There is no reason to establish a formal process.
        In his role as ordinary and a judge, the bishop and his priest can meet and discuss an infraction of the rules and together come to an agreed outcome. The details of this discipline do not, should not, be made public, even if the fact it has happened is announced.
        I would say that 99% of matters are dealt with in this way and I can see no reason, particularly bearing in mind the many complications of this particular marriage, why there should be any further action.

        • Martin’s right. Martin Dudley in London was dealt with like this and often things get sorted behind the scenes. That said, I would be surprised if some kind of statement wasn’t issued on the matter by Lincoln eventually.

          • I think the bishop of Buckingham has given the template for how this might be dealt with.

            I strongly suspect that the pastoral considerations here will heavily outweigh the prospect of legal confrontation. One also suspects there are those on both sides who would like to see this in front of some tribunal or another, the Church will I believe successfully resist this.

            I favour the view that recent changes such as encouraging those to speak out in favour of the present arrangements for marriage have made this a matter for legitimate dissent.

              • Maybe another couple, if the CofE decides it wants this, my guess is they will have many to choose from and the circumstances in this case are not the best for them.
                But to be frank, Peter, I can’t see it happening.
                There has to be a positive benefit from such an action, and I just don’t see any possibility of that. I am not being partisan here, it’s my honest view.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.