A Church of England bishop has refused a licence to Jeremy Pemberton, a hospital chaplain, because he married his partner Laurence Cunnington. This may prevent him from taking up a new job closer to his home. This has further strained church’s leaders’ already tense relationship with those seeking greater inclusion.
Earlier the acting bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, Richard Inwood, removed Pemberton’s permission to lead occasional services in the diocese where he lives. However this did not affect his work in Lincoln, where he was licensed to serve as a priest in hospital chaplaincy.
But when he got a job at a more senior level and closer to home, working for a different NHS trust, he had to apply to Inwood for a licence. Chaplains, though employed by the NHS – which is pledged not to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation and marriage – may need a licence from a church, which is exempt from some aspects of equality law.
Pemberton is seeking advice on his complicated legal situation. Meanwhile the bishop’s actions have triggered anger among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people who feel that the church’s actions are unjust and harmful. Many heterosexual people too want churches to honour committed loving partnerships, whether the couple are of the same or opposite sex.
Views on the theology of sexuality, including what can be learnt from the Bible, have changed radically over the years, though some Christians still believe that only heterosexual relationships are morally acceptable. Institutional churches have often been slower to change than their members.
Pemberton was accused of acting against his ordination vows and failing to model the church's teaching in his life. Yet many now find it unhealthy that LGBT clergy are frequently pressured into hiding their sexuality, sometimes leading to promiscuity or the pretence that a love is only a lodger. This seems to encourage dishonesty and devalue love. Civil partnerships opened the door to greater openness but gay and lesbian clergy are still officially supposed to stay celibate.
The Church of England is about to enter a two-year period of structured conversations about sexuality. This follows a report which acknowledged that views differed and called for more work on the issue. Plans have been set out in one of the papers for general synod, the church’s governing body, about to meet in York.
The Methodist Church in Britain is also about to start extensive discussion on sexuality. Though it agreed to keep its current definition of marriage – as between a man and a woman – for the time being, it agreed that ministers and laypeople should not be disciplined for getting married.
The United Reformed Church is also holding conversations on sexuality, after narrowly failing to agree to let ministers celebrate marriages between same-sex couples if they so wished.
The attempt to block a highly skilled and experienced chaplain from using his gifts to care for the sick and bereaved, and potentially deny him his livelihood, is likely to damage the reputation of a church which is already often seen as homophobic and sexist. It would be wise for bishops, at least while the conversations are taking place, to avoid taking action against LGBT clergy who marry their partners.
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