Archbishop unjustly bars lay reader for marrying

By Savi Hensman
August 13, 2015

The Archbishop of York will block a lay minister from serving local churches, simply because he is getting married. This move is divisive and exposes the Church of England’s injustice towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Archbishop John Sentamu is to remove Jeremy Timm’s permission to officiate (PTO) because he is marrying his civil partner, Mike Brown. This has deeply distressed Timm and caused dismay in Howden, Yorkshire, where Timm assists six churches. It also sends out a negative message, harming mission and ministry across England.

“I was faced with choosing between marriage or ministry,” he wrote on the website of Changing Attitude, where he is the new coordinator. “This has caused tears and soul searching, but at the weekend Mike and I had a trip to Leeds and chose two new rings to mark this new milestone in our lives together!”

“The folk around here have known Jeremy since he was a lad and he is a popular and well-respected member of our ministry team. The removal of Jeremy’s PTO (for taking an entirely legal step) runs contrary to the message of welcome we proclaim”, stated the Rev James Little, Team Rector of Howden Team Ministry.

Readers are licensed to preach, lead worship, assist in pastoral care and outreach. Though unpaid, they play a crucial role in many parishes. They are “sometimes described as 'lay theologians'; their close contact with everyday situations helping them to interpret the Gospel”, a Church of England leaflet states.

Views on sexuality have shifted radically among Christians in Britain over the past century. Both among theologians and in the pews, increasing numbers recognise the value of loving, committed same-sex partnerships.

In the British Social Attitudes survey in 2013, just over a fifth of Anglicans believed that same-sex relationships were always wrong. This attitude was held by under an eighth of Roman Catholics and a little over quarter of other Christians.

However the minority opposed to greater acceptance tend to wield influence far out of proportion to their numbers. Nevertheless discussions on sexuality are taking place in several churches.

In the wider Anglican Communion, a process of study and dialogue was launched in 1978, but some church leaders have blocked this in their own countries. Indeed several have encouraged the state to punish members who disagree with them. Even there however, silencing dissent has proved impossible.

Shared conversations are underway in the Church of England on how space can be created for those with diverse views and experiences. Meanwhile, bishops have wide discretion on how to respond to ministers who marry their same-sex partners.

Issues in Human Sexuality, a 1991 House of Bishops study document, took the line that sex was only right in an opposite-sex marriage. However “there should be an open and welcoming place in the Christian community” for “those who are conscientiously convinced that a faithful, sexually active relationship with one person, aimed at helping both partners to grow in discipleship, is the way of life God wills for them.”

But clergy were supposed to abstain “because of the distinctive nature of their calling, status and consecration”, though no-one should pry into their private lives.

At that time, 59 per cent of the British public and 66 per cent of Anglicans, believed that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex were always wrong. Now, however, this stance is hugely off-putting, especially to younger people.

It has been increasingly recognised that the Bible, as a whole, rules out exploitative and unjust relationships but not faithful lifelong loving companionship. And, if treating others as one would wish to be treated (Matthew 7.12), barring a minority from the joys and challenges open to those who are heterosexual is questionable.

In 2014, the House of Bishops issued highly controversial ‘pastoral guidance’ which warned clergy against marrying same-sex partners, which had become legal. But bishops could choose how heavily to enforce this.

There were stormy protests when an acting bishop, after taking advice from Sentamu, refused a license to a hospital chaplain, Jeremy Pemberton, which meant he could not take up an NHS post he had been offered. The case is now in the courts. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/20916)

However, even the 2014 guidance seemed to recognise that laypeople’s conscientious choices should be respected. “Those same sex couples who choose to marry should be welcomed into the life of the worshipping community and not be subjected to questioning about their lifestyle. Neither they nor any children they care for should be denied access to the sacraments”, it stated.

The archbishops should model the ‘good disagreement’ they hope to promote through regional facilitated conversations, of mutual respect across theological differences. However Sentamu’s decision to override the conscientious judgement of the clergy and laypeople of Howden has deepened divisions.

Now numerous LGBT people, and in many cases their heterosexual friends and families, are feeling far from welcome. And many lay ministers whose unpaid time, prayer and commitment help to keep many churches going, and support local communities, have been reminded of how uncertain their position is.

It is high time for change, in the Church of England and beyond.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator of politics, religion, welfare and allied topics. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.