By John Martin
The case of the Rev. Canon Jeremy Pemberton, who was refused a license enabling him to work as a hospital chaplain because he married his same-sex partner, is likely to be fought all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.
On Nov. 4 an employment tribunal in Nottingham dismissed Pemberton’s discrimination claim against the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham. It likewise dismissed his petition that the church’s handling of his case constituted harassment.
Pemberton, who married Laurence Cunnington in April 2014, was blocked from becoming chaplain with Sherwood Forest Hospital Trust. The appointment required that a chaplain hold a church license. The Rt. Rev. Richard Inwood, acting bishop of the diocese, declined to issue the license.
The tribunal found the bishop could do this because entering a same-sex marriage was “contrary to the doctrine of the Church of England.” The Church of England’s rules are clear that marriage is between “a man and a woman” and not between two people of the same sex (Canon B30).
The 57-page judgment said a bishop’s license was “at the heart” of the health trust’s job requirements because it signified a chaplain was a recognized minister in good standing. The ruling upheld the view that the church was entitled to take this stance because it had an exemption under Schedule 9, Section 2, of the Equality Act 2010 of U.K. law. Under this provision the church was immune from the usual discrimination laws. The tribunal said the church’s handling of the case was “consistent” and there could be no question of harassment.
Canon Pemberton, a former IT specialist in London, was originally married to a woman and the couple with their family went to Congo and worked with the Church Mission Society. The tribunal heard that Pemberton suffered a nervous breakdown as he came to understand himself as gay. He moved to Nottingham and lived openly with his male partner. He held a hospital chaplaincy in Lincolnshire, but conflict arose when he was chosen for the post in Nottingham. When Pemberton married Cunnington, his bishop rebuked him but did not bring charges under the Clergy Discipline Measure.
Legal costs for this long case are unknown but expected to be high. Normally the loser can be required to meet the costs of both sides. The church has said it will not pursue Pemberton for its costs provided he makes no appeal. He has tweeted, however, that his legal team are assessing grounds for appeal. He very probably will be able to call on financial help from sympathetic backers in what will be a landmark case.
A statement from the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham said: “We are thankful to the tribunal for its work on this complex case and for its findings in favour of the Rt. Rev. Richard Inwood, on all the claims made against him. Churches across the diocese continue to offer a generous welcome to people from all backgrounds.”
Peter Ould, a consultant to the group Living Out, said the judgment “tells us that there are no legal obstacles in the Church of England holding on to its current doctrine of marriage,” and that House of Bishops guidelines concerning same-sex marriage and clergy “are legal and enforceable.”
Tracey Byrne of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement said the groundswell of support for Pemberton was “quite remarkable” and his case had “shone a light on the church’s ongoing discrimination against gay and lesbian people.”
The judgment drew the ire of the National Secular Society, which said publicly funded chaplains “should not have to be licensed by any religious body.”