A wedding, a tribunal and two contrasting cultures

By Savi Hensman
November 5, 2015

Jeremy Pemberton, a hospital chaplain, has lost an employment tribunal case against the Church of England. He was unable to take up a new NHS post because he married his partner, Laurence Cunnington. He may appeal. Whatever the legal situation, the case is intensely embarrassing for the church.

The case draws attention to the ongoing discrimination which leaves lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) clergy at a loss. Pemberton is a skilled and experienced chaplain, working in Lincoln. When he got married he was rebuked, since this went against official church teaching, but was allowed to continue his work.

He was then selected by Sherwood Forest Hospitals NHS trust for a post which was more senior and closer to his home. But he was denied the clergy license he required by the acting bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, Richard Inwood. So the job offer was withdrawn. Dioceses can differ, which leads to much uncertainty.

It is also about a clash of cultures between two institutions. One sets out to put respect, dignity, compassion and care at the core of how those who seek its help or work for it are treated. It seeks to be honest and open and believes that everyone counts, so that nobody should be excluded, discriminated against or left behind, though sometimes it falls short of its ideals. The other is a church.

In most walks of life, treating people unjustly on grounds of their sex, gender identity or sexual orientation is unlawful. In the health service, it also goes against core principles and values in which numerous staff and patients believe and which are set out in the NHS Constitution.

These high ideals are not always put into practice. But it is a source of shame when unequal treatment comes to light.

However the Church of England plays by different rules. Its official stance is that it is always wrong to enter a physically intimate same-sex partnership, even if you end up being desperately lonely and frustrated. The joys and opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth offered by marriage are for heterosexual couples only. ‘Pastoral Guidance’ by the House of Bishops in February 2014 warned clergy against marrying same-sex partners when the law changed to allow this.

If I understand the outcome correctly, Employment Judge Britton took the view that, in effect, Pemberton should have known the code to which he had signed up and the risks of not obeying. He was indeed distressed and felt humiliated and degraded by his treatment but, the tribunal found, this was not unlawful harassment but the result of going against church doctrine.

If true, it is profoundly dispiriting that a church which claims to follow Christ should exact such a price from its clergy, especially only about a fifth of members actually believe that same-sex relationships are always wrong.

In practice many bishops value and rely on LGBT clergy, celibate or otherwise, though they may be pressured to be secretive or even dishonest. Distinguished Anglican theologians are among those who have argued the case for greater acceptance. Numerous congregations seek to be welcoming and affirming, despite off-putting official statements which fail even to admit that there are strong faith-based arguments for full inclusion.

‘Shared conversations’ which may, in time, lead to greater local flexibility are taking place. Meanwhile, if the judgment is correct, clergy who marry partners of the same sex may risk losing their jobs, even in workplaces usually committed to equality for all.

Whatever the legal rights and wrongs, the case has been embarrassing for the Church of England. At times the bishops have stood up for the disadvantaged and persecuted. On this matter, however, those who want to know more about loving their neighbours as themselves might be better off turning to the NHS Constitution.

© 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.