The Pemberton Ruling – Liberal Theological and Political Method Exposed

76182996_tpjeremy3-300x205Back in the UK a very important case has just gone through the Employment Tribunal. Rev. Jeremy Pemberton was the first Church of England priest to contract a same-sex marriage. Subsequently he applied for a license to act as chaplain in a local hospital and the bishop denied the license. As a result the National Health Service trust that governed the hospital chose not to employ him. Pemberton took the diocese to the Tribunal claiming discrimination and the Tribunal laid down their judgement which fell against Pemberton on every major pillar of his case.

The full ruling can be read here [pdf].

Ian Paul and the Clone do a good job of laying out the facts:

1. It is very clear that the doctrine of the Church of England is that marriage is between a man and a woman and not between two people of the same sex. Notions from Pemberton’s team that the meaning of marriage changes over time were dismissed. The idea that, since Canon B30 doesn’t explicitly forbid same-sex marriage, Pemberton wasn’t breaking it was ruled a nonsense by the Tribunal. The Tribunal pointed out very clearly that at the time of the framing of B30 homosexuality was illegal, so it was ridiculous to assert that the framers of that Canon would have had a positive view of it, given half a chance (para 188).

2. The majority of the case rested on whether the Church of England had an exemption under Schedule 9, Section 2 of the Equality Act 2010. The Tribunal ruled very clearly that such an exemption clearly operated in this case. As para 151 of the ruling says:

The point being that if there is a clear doctrine relating to the nature of marriage and which excludes same sex marriage for the purposes of the Church, rather than the State, and that doctrine requires obedience from the Priest by way of Canons, then that is an end of the matter for our purposes.

3. The Church of England (and Bishop Inwood) was found to have been consistent in the way they handled the matter and that the process was not arbitrary.

4. The claim for harassment was dismissed on the basis that the Church carried out the processes it went through with no malice. Certainly the Church made no effort to create any publicity around the case (unlike the claimant whose husband make several public statements) and any distress that Pemberton felt was not actionable because the Church kept well within what it was permitted to do by law.

Put more plainly, on every argument mounted by Pemberton, the Tribunal ruled against him.

The intention of this piece is not to rehearse those facts in detail but to point you towards theological liberal method of arguing because the response of Pemberton to this ruling is a classic example that we can learn from. The discussion with Ian Paul on BBC 2 embedded above is well worth watching in full but Ian does a very very good job of responding to Pemberton but I want to draw your attention to 2 things as classic examples of liberal strategy and method.

First, Pemberton’s argument that Article XXXII of the 39 Articles somehow enshrines his right to a “gay marriage”. Here’s what Pemberton argues as his opening gambit (and returns to later on):

Actually, in the Church of England and in our rules we have an Article that says “priesta can marry who they want to marry” (I mean you can’t marry people if it’s not legal for you to marry them and it’s legal for me to marry them) and Article XXXII of the 39 Articles says it’s up to me who I choose to marry, not for anybody else to tell me.

Well, is Pemberton right?


BISHOPS, Priests, and Deacons, are not commanded by God’s Law, either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage: therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christian men, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.

This Article, quite clearly, deals with the question of celibacy. Clergy are not commanded to either a single (celibate) life or abstinence. Thus, the Article argues, they are free (like all other Christians) “to marry at their own discretion“. The “discretion” here is the discretion to marry or not to marry given that God’s law does not bind the Christian either way. It has little to say about who they may marry. But it does point us in a clear direction – that which is commanded by God’s Law and on that matter surely the matter is clear.

But even if it were not, Pemberton’s own observation “I mean you can’t marry people if it’s not legal for you to marry them” is incorrectly applied to himself. Rather than conclude “it’s legal for me to marry [someone of my own sex]” (i.e. according to the law of the land) Ian Paul points us to a parallel law – Canon Law. In Canon Law (which, incidentally, is also the law of the land in England as applied to the Church of England) marriage is only between a man and a woman and Pemberton cannot claim any surprise at this. The argument from the Articles is specious at best – it deliberately overlooks the clear intent of the Article, but then hasn’t this always been the liberal strategy, focussing on individual words abstracted from their context and thus their original intent? The Tribunal, of course, has it’s own words to add (p. 38):

168. It was … inconceivable … that the authors of the 39 Articles would have had in their contemplation that this provision permitted same-sex marriage.

Perhaps even more helpful for us is Pemberton’s outrage at the end of the interview. He switches from seeking to appear calm and reasonable to claiming offence. The exact moment is easy to spot from 11:24 onwards as Paul charges Pemberton as refusing to accept the discipline of the church and, crucially, not keeping his vows of canonical obedience. Paul rightly notes that this is a matter of integrity, which Pemberton calls a “fearful slur”.

Of course he protests loudly and with great outrage. But it’s telling that this is the point at which he does so, for here is where Ian Paul exposes for us exactly what the underlying issue is. It is a simple matter of integrity and Pemberton (as with so many like him) need to be calmly and clearly called out on in. The facts are clear and with no argument to defend himself all he has to fall back on is outrage.

On this perhaps the final word should go to the judge in the Tribunal:

270. … we accept as already stated that the Claimant was clearly distressed and felt humiliated and degraded by what had occurred. As to whether his dignity was violated, we are with Mr Linden [the diocese’s lawyer]. Despite the valiant efforts of Mr Jones [Pemberton’s lawyer], the claimant would have never been in this position had he not defied the doctrine of the church. In this case, context is all.

So there you have it. A judge with no horse in the race calls out theological liberalism for what it is – a brazen defiance of the received doctrine of the church. The ruling helpful reiterates (p. 8) the oaths of assent and canonical obedience that Pemberton made upon ordination and subsequently as necessary and then returns to them time and time again throughout. The point is clear. Pemberton promised that he believes and will uphold certain things. He then broke that promise in his actions.

And there is theological liberalism laid out. A laughable eisegesis of not only the Bible but also other documents (in this case Article XXXII) and a simple lack of integrity in refusing to live by and uphold doctrines that in our ordination vows we have promised to uphold. The only difference this time was that a bishop had the courage to deal with the matter accordingly, as he should. And it took a secular court to point out the obvious.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Graeme Bell

    Relevant to Newcastle Diocese where priests step outside doctrine and the Bishop is too weak to do anything about it.

  2. James Dawes

    I’m glad for this ruling. But is Pemberton still a priest in the Anglican Church? Because that’s meant to be one of those “issues on which we’ll split”.

  3. Matt

    This has always been my rallying point: that if the body [church, school, etc.] has an established set of rules (in this case Article XXXII) for adhering to marriage (or whatever sticking point), then you know what you have signed up for. Thus, if you move sufficiently away from the doctrine of the Church, then you move away, not rally against the church. To expect the church to bend over to your liberal interpretations of doctrine, is just an example of an inflated sense of self-importance.

    I absolutely agree with Ian Paul in the interview.

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