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Church marriage definition 'lousy'

Published 16/06/2015

Canon Jeremy Pemberton with his husband Laurence Cunnington
Canon Jeremy Pemberton with his husband Laurence Cunnington

The Church of England's teaching that marriage can only take place between a man and a woman is a "lousy definition" of matrimony, a bishop has said.

The Bishop of Buckingham Alan Wilson said the church's canon teaching "marriage is...of one man with one woman" was, in his words, "not much of a definition".

The bishop was speaking at the employment tribunal of Canon Jeremy Pemberton, who married his same-sex partner in a civil ceremony last year in defiance of guidance by Church of England bishops.

Mr Pemberton, the first member of the clergy to marry his same-sex partner, brought the case against Bishop Richard Neil Inwood, the former acting bishop for the diocese of Southwell and Nottingham.

The clergyman claims the bishop's decision to revoke his permission to officiate (PTO) as a priest in June 2014, and the refusing of a post for him as hospital chaplain in Nottinghamshire, breached the Equalities Act.

The church's case is that the issue of marriage between a man and a woman is enshrined in church doctrine.

Mr Pemberton's lawyers claim the issue is not one of doctrine, and that by his actions the bishop breached the law when he acted as he did.

The Bishop of Buckingham, appearing for Mr Pemberton, was asked by Thomas Linden QC, for the respondent Bishop Inwood, if he thought clergy "should accept the teachings of the church".

He replied: "Yes."

Asked about the church's teaching on "holy matrimony", he said: "It's not that I don't think it's true, or the canons of England should not be followed, all I say is it's a lousy definition, if it cannot tell you who is and who is not married."

The bishop, who is also an historian, said the reason that part of canon teaching was first included back in 1938 had little to do with the partnership being between a man and a woman.

He said the inclusion of marriage being between "one man and one woman" was "entirely coincidental because of the time it was framed".

The bishop went on: "They weren't making a doctrinal point but a statement about the position of marriage as it existed in that time, in 1938."

Mr Linden then asked: "Do you accept the clergy should accept the teachings of the church?"

The Bishop of Buckingham said: "Yes, but sometimes they don't do it very well.

"For example a divorcee may have difficulty teaching about marriage.

"That's just one example of how clergy might be limited in the doctrines they are expected to teach."

Earlier, the tribunal panel heard how Mr Pemberton had never been told about a Church of England press statement being drafted to explain his marriage to Laurence Cunnington in April 2014.

He told panel members a series of drafts, which went through the Archbishop of York's office, had never been shown to him and the first he saw of it was in a story about himself and his partner.

Mr Pemberton was asked by his own counsel Sean Jones QC: "Did anyone contact you to say they wanted to issue this press statement to assist you?"

"No," he replied, adding later: "I wasn't consulted."

The Church of England has defended its treatment of Mr Pemberton.

A spokesman said: "The Church supports gay men and women who serve as clergy in its parishes, dioceses and institutions.

"Jeremy Pemberton is one of many who currently serve and receive that support.

"The Church has no truck with homophobia and supports clergy who are in civil partnerships.

"The Church of England's doctrine on marriage is clear.

"The Church quite reasonably expects its clergy to honour their commitment to model and live up to the teachings of the Church.

"Clergy do not have the option of treating the teachings of the Church as an a la carte menu and only modelling those with which they personally agree.

"The Church is currently involved in a process of shared conversations about a range of issues on sexuality, in regions across the country.

"It is regrettable that this case risks undermining that process by invoking legislation which does not even apply to this situation."

Throughout the day, detail of church canons or the rules which set out how clergy carry out their ministry were discussed.

The Bishop of Buckingham said "different doctrines had different status".

"For example, in Article 37, it says capital punishment is ok, but that doesn't mean it's a requirement for every clergyman to agree with capital punishment," he said.

In a bad-tempered exchange, Mr Linden asked Mr Wilson: "You're a bishop, apparently?

"So, would he (Mr Pemberton) be exemplifying the teachings of the church if he had a sexual relationship with his boyfriend?"

The bishop replied saying there was "no teaching of the church" governing a heterosexual clergyman's sex life.

He then added that "rather than shacking-up with his boyfriend", a priest may choose to marry his partner "as a better reflection of God's love".

The bishop explained said there was a history of "evolving" rules in the church.

"If nobody ever experimented with going ahead of the rules, the rules would never change and that's the evolutionary process of the church," he said.

But Mr Linden then asked about the House of Bishops' statement on same-sex marriage published February 2014, in which they had emphatically barred clergy from such unions.

The bishop said: "This was not a legislative gathering, it was policy meeting, a group of bishops getting together to decide what to do.

"In terms of what Canon Pemberton might expect to happen to him, there was ambiguity at every level."

However, the tribunal judge Mr Britton, said: "As I read this, they (the bishops) discuss what they want to happen in terms of a clear unequivocal statement of where the church is and its doctrine stands.

"They take the view there's no appetite for change, and take the view the candidates for ordination of same-sex marriage should not be accepted, nor clergy, for same sex marriage.

"They don't go any further as to what their approach should be to errant priests."

The bishop had described the statement as "a poultice" and that not all the bishops voting on the statement had agreed to its wording.

Mr Britton then asked: "Do you accept the primates of the church of England, were all as one on what was the doctrine?"

The bishop replied: "Yes, I am happy to accept that although I can't verify it, because I wasn't there."

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