vicar john parker bishop stephen cottrell
Ethics & Morality

What bishop would tell a vicar: ‘You’re no longer welcome in the Church of England’?

It made the pages of the Daily Mail, so it’s serious: ‘Vicar resigns after being ‘silenced’ over a Church of England school’s plan to keep an eight-year-old pupil’s sex change a secret from parents‘, they helpfully summarise in one of their succinct headlines which saves you the bother of having to read the story. The Sun then churned: ‘TRANS ROW Vicar resigns after Church of England school keeps pupil transitioning from male to female secret from parents‘, and then the Christian media woke up: ‘Anglican vicar resigns amid church school’s plan to hide 8-y-o student’s trans identity from parents‘; ‘Vicar quits over transgenderism policy at Church of England school‘, ‘Priest resigns in transgender-pupil row‘, and so on, and on.

Christian Concern explain the background:

A vicar has resigned as a governor at a Church of England (CofE) primary school after school leadership granted permission for a child under the age of twelve to announce to his class his transition from a boy to a girl, without any agreed procedures or policies and without informing parents until it was too late.

The age of 12 is significant: this boy hadn’t even hit the hormonal turmoil of puberty, yet here he was in the process of transitioning from a boy to a girl, facilitated by his school – a church school – which had determined not to inform other parents (or, presumably, involve medical/psychological professionals). By any measure of educational integrity, spiritual discernment and pastoral responsibility, this sounds really quite alarming: a headteacher acts (as all teachers act) in loco parentis, but this doesn’t (or shouldn’t) extend to usurping the functions and responsibilities of a parent in respect of what their child is taught or knows in respect of something as ethically complex and seismically life-changing as gender transitioning. The child concerned is eight years old, in class of other eight-year-olds. By what measure of Christian morality is it deemed appropriate to exclude other parents from all knowledge of the child’s (and their children’s) emotional, spiritual, physical and psychological vulnerability?

It is all the more concerning because the Rev’d John Parker, the vicar and school governor in question, also happens to be an Oxford graduate in Biology: he is not uninformed on the science or ignorant of the medical imperatives. He attempted to expound some of the social-scientific ethical, moral and pastoral concerns, and he was indeed ‘silenced’, as you can hear:

There are manifest concerns over the sort of training offered by ‘Mermaids’, who Mr Parker believes are inculcating an insidious and deceptive creed. He fears that children are being “sacrificed on the altar of trans ideology”, and is to be commended for challenging their agenda and bringing it to wider attention. Would you be happy if a group called ‘Fairies’ were drafted in to inculcate staff in your children’s school into a particular sexual-moral ethos, and then asked to chant: ‘We are all honorary fairies’, which they must then reify in the classroom? It isn’t at all clear why the Church of England considers this sort of training to be unassailable.

But there’s a recurring sentence in all the tabloid accounts which rests a little uneasy with those who know what others may not. Mr Parker is reported as saying: “I was basically told by my bishop that if I wished to faithfully follow the teachings of the Bible then I was no longer welcome in the Church. It felt very much like I was being silenced by the Church and the school.”

This also sounds really quite alarming.

It seemed appropriate to ask Bishop Stephen Cottrell directly about this, because no-one else was bothering:

And the Bishop graciously responded:

Which raises a question or two about Mr Parker’s ‘basically’, which appears to be a distillation of an inference (or a number of inferences) which have been fermenting in his mind for almost a year. It must be observed that ‘basically’ is never anything but ‘my interpretation’, which, however genuinely felt or sincerely believed, is simply not the whole truth but a subjective and partial apprehension of it, often hazed by the passage of months or years.

What bishop would tell a vicar: ‘You’re no longer welcome in the Church’, or even ‘basically’ not welcome? To do so would be a denial of episcopal vocation and an egregious offence against the Body of Christ. What bishop would say to any member of the Church: ‘I have no need of you‘ (cf 1Cor 12:21ff)? Certainly, some immature junior clergy may do so, but a bishop? Someone who is charged supremely with the pastoral care, spiritual nurturing and mutual flourishing of the flock? Someone who is exhorted to leave the 99 sheep and go in search of the one who has strayed? Someone who is called to be a visible source of unity in parish, diocese and nation? What isn’t generally known is that there are many theologically liberal bishops faithfully nurturing, pastoring and guiding theologically conservative curates, chaplains and priests (and vice versa), and their fellowship thrives. The thought of one telling the other to leave is highly improbable, if not quite inconceivable in a church whose ecclesial raison dêtre is to mediate between the extremes.

In response to Bishop Stephen’s tweet, the Rev’d John Parker issued a timeline:

Bishop Stephen then responded with an ad clerum:

It is always important to correct misinformation and distortion, not least because all the attendant publicity surrounding this case has caused the school to be identified, the headteacher consequently besieged, and the child at the centre of it all must be really quite scared, if not wanting to crawl beneath a stone and weep. He is eight years old. This is about a vulnerable child, not a silenced vicar. And it certainly isn’t about a belligerent bishop who doesn’t give a damn, or a church which is indifferent to how children are instilled with values or nurtured in their identities and moral worldview.

The Rev’d John Parker is manifestly a good, diligent priest. Bishop Stephen Cottrell clearly appreciated his ministry, wisdom and discernment. They may have clashed on matters of human sexuality, but the question of the boy’s transitioning is a deeply sensitive matter (and none reading this knows his biology or psychology, his suffering or distress: gender dysphoria is real). We can question the school’s decisions, the governors’ inadequacy, or the judgment of the Diocesan Board of Education in the involvement of ‘Mermaids’, but there has clearly been quite a lot of dialogue – written and spoken – between this vicar and his Bishop that it’s difficult to discern where in the relational chronology the vicar might have inferred or the Bishop might have suggested: ‘You can leave.’

Basically.

Was this a dispute over the theology of sexual morality or a difference of opinion on the notion of ‘good disagreement’? What via media is there between biblical faithfulness and false teaching? What if an apprehension of ‘false teaching’ is so dogmatically asserted as to impede or obstruct the flow of grace and love in fellowship, or the discovery of greater truth?

Is it possible that a minister in a church, finding himself increasingly unhappy and unable to submit to the spiritual authority, moral teaching or theological leadership of their bishop or overseer, has not already decided to leave?

Basically?

Is it not then possible over months or years that conversations may be mis-remembered, disagreements confused or conflated, and silences misconstrued? What if Bishop Stephen never said, ‘You can leave’, or anything remotely like that?

Even basically?

We can’t know, of course: all we have is the Rev’d John’s assertion and Bishop Stephen’s refutation.

And ‘basically’.

If you have a dispute with your brother and you go to him and tell him to his face and he responds: “I have no need of you”, do you not then tell him again to his face that he does have need of you because Jesus said he does? If he doesn’t listen, do you not then go to him with two or three others to impress upon him the gravity of the matter? If he doesn’t then listen, do you not tell the church? (cf Mt 18:15-17). If your brother happens to be your bishop and boss, do you not involve an archbishop?

Is it not also possible, in the labyrinthine and occasionally archaic Anglican ecclesial-educational network of church-state interconnectedness, that a bishop might not actually know what a diocesan board of education has determined on a particular matter of teacher training or in a specific case of child welfare because leadership is delegated and trusted? Why should it be assumed that just because a bishop is liberal on matters of gender-sexuality or sexual morality that he (or she) would endorse and embrace the whole modus operandi of ‘Mermaids’? Why should it be assumed that a bishop would be perfectly happy for parents to be kept in the dark about what children in a CofE school were being taught and exposed to?

It’s easy, isn’t it, to cry ‘Raca’ or create a martyr as the tabloids come sniffing, while the relational truth of conduct and conversation may be rather more nuanced, if not prosaic, and evidencing much more of commonplace theological disagreement than prophetic revelation?

Basically.

But this isn’t about a vicar in pursuit of truth and righteousness, nor is it about the relational breakdown between that vicar and his bishop: it’s about a vulnerable prepubescent boy discovering his identity, in need of professional psychological counselling, pastoral care, spiritual support and compassionate prayer. Those who lose sight of that fact in the tit-for-tat bulletins and chronological forensics might do well to meditate on the words of Jesus: ‘And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.’

Basically.