Further analysis of the Bishop of Hereford case
An openly practising homosexual has won his case in the Employment Tribunal after he was refused a post as a youth officer by the Bishop of Hereford.
The freedom of churches (particularly Anglican churches) to ensure that they employ Christians of integrity, living in accordance with the Bible’s teaching, was damaged by the recent judgment of a Welsh Employment Tribunal. On the 17th July the Tribunal held that the Hereford Diocesan Board of Finance had acted unlawfully in a case concerning the decision of the Bishop of Hereford, Anthony Priddis, not to offer a 5 year post as Diocesan Youth Officer to an openly homosexual applicant, John Reaney.
On paper Mr Reaney was a strong candidate with substantial previous experience as a Diocesan Youth Officer. Along with three other applicants who were called for interview, Mr Reaney was specifically asked to confirm his compliance with the 1991 “Issues in Human Sexuality” statement by the House of Bishops and General Synod. Mr Reaney declared his compliance with it by saying that he was not currently in a relationship and “for this post he did not intend to enter into a relationship.” Mr Reaney had been in a five year homosexual relationship that had ended a few weeks prior to his application for the Youth Officer job.
After the interviews, an 8-person panel unanimously recommended Mr Reaney to the Bishop for the Hereford post.
The Bishop was concerned because Mr Reaney had not ended his recent homosexual relationship in order to be celibate, but rather because the relationship had simply broken down. In addition, Mr Reaney’s previous job in the Chester diocese had finished prematurely when he was told to choose between his homosexual partner (who had turned up “unannounced, inappropriately” at events), and his job in the diocese. He had chosen the former.
When the Bishop asked Mr Reaney what would happen “if he met someone [another man]” in the future, Mr Reaney responded that if a homosexual relationship might develop, he would discuss it with the Bishop.
After consideration the Bishop informed Mr Reaney that he would not be offered the post. A short while later, with the assistance of the gay activist group Stonewall, Mr Reaney issued legal proceedings against the Diocese.
The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations were passed by the Labour Government in 2003 in order to implement an EU Directive. The Regulations make it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation in relation to employment.
After lobbying by the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England and other religious groups, the Government created a “very narrow” exception to the Regulations. The exception operates where someone is being employed ‘for the purposes of organised religion,’ so that the employer (a church, mosque, synagogue etc.) can refuse to employ someone on the grounds of their sexual orientation if to so refuse is necessary in order to comply with the ‘doctrines of the religion,’ or in order to avoid conflicting with the ‘strongly held religious beliefs of a significant number of the religion’s followers.’
The classic case where the exception applies would be where a church advertise for a vicar or pastor, and want to turn down an application by an unrepentant practising homosexual, because that person’s sexual behaviour is contrary to Biblical doctrine.
The judgment of the Cardiff Employment Tribunal is notable for its lack of criticism of the Bishop’s conduct in the case. In fact, it is clear from the evidence heard by the Tribunal that Anthony Priddis dealt with the situation with wisdom, sensitivity and grace. For this reason, the Tribunal unanimously threw out the allegations of harassment that Mr Reaney had made.
As was expected, the Tribunal reinforced the High Court’s position that there is no difference between sexual “orientation” and sexual “behaviour” in the eyes of the law. It did not matter that the Bishop was not discriminating because Mr Reaney was attracted to men, but because of Mr Reaney’s lifestyle as a sexually active homosexual. The Tribunal decided that on the face of it, Mr Reaney had been unlawfully discriminated against because he was a homosexual.
However, the Tribunal decided that although Mr Reaney was not applying for a job as a clergyman, the post of Diocesan Youth Officer did fall within the “very narrow” exception for which the Church of England could discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation. This was a valuable decision for all churches – Stonewall had argued aggressively that churches should not be able to refuse to employ practising homosexuals in any jobs other than the clergy.
Churches that want to protect the integrity of their ministry should therefore be able to do so, providing the job they are recruiting for involves the employee being “closely associated with the promotion of the Church.” In such a case, it is likely they can ensure that the employee is not a practising homosexual.
However, specifically in relation to the Church of England, the Tribunal drew one key distinction between clergy and non-clergy posts, by saying that “we do not think it would be in accordance with the Issues [in Human Sexuality] statement to require [unmarried] lay persons to commit to celibacy.” Sadly, the equivocal position of the Church of England means that the courts have said that the most that Anglican churches can require of lay employees is that they are not in a practising homosexual relationship during the employment. Lay employees cannot be expected to be repentant about past homosexual behaviour, or to acknowledge that such behaviour was wrong. Of course, this position would change if the House of Bishops and General Synod were to revise the Issues on Human Sexuality statement and strengthen its requirements. Thankfully this part of the judgment does not apply to denominations outside of the Church of England.
It was only at the final hurdle that the Tribunal, surprisingly, decided that the Bishop had fallen. The Tribunal, in its infinite wisdom, held that the Bishop was wrong to take the view that Mr Reaney did not meet the Church of England’s requirements in relation to sexual morality. The Diocese was consequently found to have acted unlawfully. The Tribunal held that “there was no good reason to consider Mr Reaney did not at the present time meet the [Church of England’s] requirement.”
The court implied that providing Mr Reaney was single on the day of the job interview and declared an intention to remain single, then he fulfilled the Church of England’s requirements - a position which they said was “wholly logical and rational because the future is not known to any person.”
The Tribunal’s argument that Mr Reaney fulfilled the Church of England’s requirements “because the future is not known to any person” is specious. It was perfectly reasonable in the circumstances for the Bishop to listen to Mr Reaney’s comments about his current and future intentions in the light of the substantial past evidence (particularly his long-term homosexual relationship that had ended weeks before applying for the Hereford job), and conclude that Mr Reaney did not satisfy the “Issues in Human Sexuality” document.
The Church of all places is called not to tolerate sin or unrighteousness. In a spirit of grace and love the Church should require the highest standards of Christian integrity. Where applicants to positions of authority within the Church display a lack of acceptance of the clear teaching of the word of God, either through their speech or their behaviour, they should not be employed.
The judgment in this case shows that where the issue at hand is homosexuality, the Church can legitimately refuse to employ a practising homosexual lay person but it may be difficult for Anglican churches if that person gives a verbal assurance that they will remain single throughout the duration of the post, however strongly the evidence indicates to the contrary.
It is to be hoped that the Church of England will have the courage and conviction to appeal this decision to the Employment Appeals Tribunal. It is also to be hoped that the Anglican Church will make clearer its position on the requirements relating to sexual morality for lay employees. Its current position makes it very hard for Christians like Bishop Anthony Priddis to uphold the orthodox teaching of the Bible. The judgment also shows the importance of all denominations having clearly stated positions on the issue of sexual morality in relation to employment. A lack of such a document can leave churches vulnerable to legal action.