Reports suggest that the Church of England’s most senior openly gay cleric, Dr. Jeffrey John, may be about to sue the Church for discrimination over his repeatedly being prevented from becoming a bishop.
This comes after John, who is celibate but in a civil partnership with a fellow priest, was made to give up a position as suffragan bishop in Reading in 2003, and was blocked from becoming a bishop of Southwark by the archbishops of Canterbury and York in 2010.
Reports on Sunday suggested John had become so exasperated at his treatment that he had hired Alison Downie, an employment and discrimination law specialist and partner at the law firm Goodman Derrick, to fight his case under equality law. Four years ago, Downie successfully represented a gay youth worker who was found to have been discriminated against by the bishop of Hereford because of his sexuality.
It is thought John’s case could hinge on a damning memorandum written by a former dean of Southwark Cathedral, which lays bare the divisions over sexuality at the very top of the church.
In the leaked memo, the late Very Rev Colin Slee described how both the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the archbishop of York, John Sentamu “behaved very badly” at a meeting to choose the bishop of Southwark in 2010, and “were intent on wrecking both Jeffrey John and [another candidate] Nick Holtam equally”.
The church has no official bar on appointing openly gay bishops, however the Church’s administration has discretionary powers to intervene where it feels appointments may bring about unrest or problems within that particular community.
John’s case, based on the UK’s sexual orientation-inclusive anti-discrimination legislation known collectively as the Equality Act, is already being marked as a potential escalation in what has been a continued and, religious leaders have warned, possible schism-making battle over the Church’s views on homosexuality.
Whether John would win such a case remains to be seen however, as the UK gives deference to religious institutions so that they may govern themselves and their internal politics based on their beliefs.
Regardless, the very fact that court action has even been rumored throws a spotlight back on the Church as it enters a year in which it must, at last, decide on another hot-button issue: women bishops. You can find out more about that here.
As to the lawsuit, no comment has yet been issued by Church leaders or John’s legal team.