Derby Diocese has extremely serious questions to answer
Sometimes it is hard to believe what is right in front of your eyes.
A few days ago I was sent a forecast from our gas and electricity provider predicting how our payment balance will look over this coming winter. I struggled to comprehend what I was seeing on the graph at first, and it wasn't a pretty sight: think zig-zags, going down deep into negative territory, and fast. But, of course, I had to accept it. This is the situation we face in the UK at the moment; this is how it is.
I felt an even deeper sense of disbelief reading the latest news in the Mail on Sunday and on the Cranmer blog site about Rev Dr Bernard Randall, a Church of England chaplain who was sacked last year by a fee-paying school and reported to terrorism watchdogs for defending pupils' rights to think differently from prevailing sexual ideologies.
You can read a summary of that original sorry episode here and a prescient analysis of it and related issues here. Not surprisingly, it made headlines globally. The sermon that got him into trouble can also be looked at here.
You might think the Church of England would naturally wish to offer support to a minister hounded out in this way. He was, after all, preaching a set of beliefs which are not only absolutely the official position of the denomination itself, but also that of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and indeed that of the vast majority of Christians through history.
But apparently not. According to Dr Randall in the latest Mail on Sunday (MoS), his diocesan bishop, Libby Lane, the Bishop of Derby, "kept her distance." He went on: "Either she disagrees with the Church's teaching or it's just moral cowardice – neither of which are attractive qualities."
But it gets worse – much worse. According to diocesan documents the newspaper claims to have seen, the fact that Dr Randall's views were supported by both Scripture and Church of England law (known as Canon Law) was not a factor in his favour as you might expect – but an indication of the fact that the Church itself was a danger!
In case you have trouble believing that, let me quote from the written opinion of the "church safeguarding officer" (presumably in fact a diocesan one?), according to the MoS: "Due to some church scripture supporting Rev'd Randall's views the church itself may also be a risk-factor, to be used to justify Rev'd Randall's opinions." As the well-known religious blogger Archbishop Cranmer puts it: "For the first time we have the Church of England adducing Scripture and Canon Law as a safeguarding risk."
So this week Dr Randall is not only arguing at an employment tribunal that the school sacked him because of his religious and philosophical beliefs – he is also taking legal action against Bishop Lane. Court documents allege he was "subjected to less favourable treatment on the grounds of his beliefs. He would not have been treated in this way if he had been approving of same sex marriage and transgender beliefs."
You can understand his point, to put it mildly.
There are some deeply serious and troubling questions the Diocese of Derby needs to answer:
- Is it true Bishop Lane did not offer any support to Dr Randall? If not, why not?
- Does she support the right – indeed responsibility – of Church of England clergy to articulate orthodox Christian belief even if it offends prevailing contemporary ideology?
- Is the "church safeguarding officer" (to use the phrase employed by the MoS) a committed Christian – or someone who at least understands even the most basic theology? The phrase of "church scripture" is a decidedly peculiar one that is hard to imagine even a beginner in the Christian faith using.
- What was the reaction of Bishop Lane and others in the diocese to this extraordinary advice?
- Or is there somehow more to this case than meets the eye – and key facts which have yet to emerge?
I've just put in the last question to be charitable really – and on the off chance that there are things yet to be known that do radically change our understanding; such things have been known and it is always wise to remember that.
But all that said, I find myself – for the first time in some 34 years of journalism – struggling to find words to express the sheer jaw-dropping, mind-blowing, spine-chilling stupidity of what the existing known facts seem to suggest. In truth, no words can do it justice.
So, let me just close with these thoughts: is this incident an isolated one? Or is this a "canary in the coalmine" for orthodox believers in the Church of England? Or is it in fact possible that – to keep an avian metaphor going – the ravens have now flown from whatever the C of E equivalent of the Tower of London is ... and the only sound now to be heard is that of the circling vultures, screeching?
David Baker is Contributing Editor to Christian Today and Senior Editor of the newspaper and website EN, available at less than the cost of a cappuccino per month at https://www.e-n.org.uk in print and online. He writes here in a purely personal capacity.