Jeremy Fletcher's Blog

Another Jeremy, Same Sex Marriage and Licensed Ministry

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When I was a Vicar in Nottinghamshire I had good cause to be grateful to the Chaplaincy Team at Kings Mill Hospital, in between Sutton in Ashfield and Mansfield. It is a cause of great regret to me that the trust which now manages that hospital is unable to employ Canon Jeremy Pemberton. Its rules state that Chaplains must be authorised by their denomination, and the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham will not issue a licence. The story from the BBC is here.

I know Jeremy. We share a name. We have a curacy in common, and we’ve met down the years. I hope I would feel the same way if he was unknown to me. In February I wrote a blog post which regretted the strength of the wording of the House of Bishops’ Statement on Same Sex Marriage.

The House stated, incontrovertibly, that the Christian doctrine of marriage as it currently stands does not allow for a relationship between people of the same sex to be counted as a marriage. It went on, though, to use the words ‘conduct’ and ‘discipline’ in such a way as to allow individual bishops to use the statement as a means of their formal actions with clergy who marry a person of the same sex. I regretted this, because it seemed to me to prejudge the outcome of the ‘facilitated conversations’ we will be having  in the next two years.

Jeremy Pemberton was the first C of E cleric to marry under the provisions of the new law. His Bishop had to do something – the House of Bishops’ Statement required it. As I understand it the Bishop of Lincoln, in whose Diocese Jeremy is currently a Hospital Chaplain, wrote to Jeremy, noting that his marriage was at variance with the Statement, but not withdrawing his licence. That seemed to me a humane and pastoral response, though I’ve not seen the letter itself.

Jeremy had already applied for a new Hospital Chaplaincy job  in another diocese. Allowing an ‘errant’ cleric to keep their licence is one thing. Issuing a new licence to one is quite another. Again, it seemed to me that such a Diocesan Bishop could, in theory, note the circumstances of the cleric’s life, determine that, though irregular, those circumstances were not a bar to the proposed ministry, and issue a licence with a note on the file saying that those irregularities were on record. Such a Bishop could look his brother Bishops in the eye and say that the provisions in the Statement had been duly considered.

But…Southwell and Nottingham is in interregnum, and has a Bishop who is acting until a new diocesan is appointed. That Bishop is in an impossible position. Even if he wanted to issue a licence, he would not want to tie the hands of the new Bishop, and indeed he had already acted by removing Jeremy’s Permission to Officiate (Jeremy lives in that diocese, though he works in Lincoln). Advice from the Archbishop of the Province would no doubt be the same – again, entirely understandably. Though the House of Bishops approves of ‘conscientious dissent’, this was not then the situation in which it could be exercised.

Which is the pity of it all, and the unfairness, and quite possibly the injustice. Some injustices are not the fault of an individual, or one part of an organisation. They emerge out of a series of unfortunate events. Jeremy as a gay married cleric, is currently licensed to do the job he does. He is being refused a licence to do that same job in another place. What puts it into sharp relief is that the NHS would be prosecuted if it tried to prevent any other of its employees from being appointed to a post because they had married their same sex partner.

No one wins here. The House of Bishops, and the Church of England, is only at the beginning of a response to Same Sex Marriage, but the House’s initial statement is phrased such that it will now be continually on the back foot, or ‘behind the curve’, as Jeremy put it on TV last night. Jeremy now looks to be marooned, unable to be licensed to any other job than the one he holds. Kings Mill Hospital has to look for another Chaplain – and the hospital trust is surely baffled at a church which acts in this way. The Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham has to bide its time, awaiting a Bishop who can act in his own right, rather than simply holding the fort.

It will be reasonably clear that my personal theological views allow for the possibility of marriage being expanded to include those of the same sex, though I have much more thinking to do, and I’m sure many members of my congregation are in a different place. That’s a conversation for us to have, as the wider church will also have it. But I think there are wrongs in Jeremy Pemberton’s situation, and I pray they can be righted. I hope the House of Bishops can have a full and frank conversation very soon.

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