Anglican Lay Reader suspended for supporting Coalition for Marriage

All Saints Church in Sanderstead is part of the Diocese of Southwark. The parish says of itself: ‘We rejoice in our diversity as churches – but rejoice even more in our unity, as we seek to serve God and our neighbour together.’ But it seems that their rejoicing in diversity does not extend to differences over the Coalition for Marriage petition, for a Lay Reader of 50 years standing and loyal service has been suspended over the issue.

Peter Gowlland, 78, was due to meet with Barry Goodwin, acting Archdeacon of Croydon, on St George’s Day for his Reader’s licence to be renewed for a further year. To his surprise, he was presented with some nebulous charges (with no prior warning) which concerned an incident eight days earlier, when he dared to suggest that the congregation at All Saints might like to sign the Coalition for Marriage petition. He had been preaching about the boldness of the Apostles, and told the congregation that the C4M issue called for a contemporary manifestation of like boldness.

As a result of this, there were one or two mumblings from members of said congregation who favour same-sex marriage, and so they complained to a higher level. Sadly, the Venerable (acting) Barry Goodwin didn’t exhort these believers to follow Scripture and take their complaint first to Mr Gowlland: he decided instead to suspend him for two months.

Bizarrely, the (acting) Archdeacon acknowledged that Mr Gowlland was ‘experienced and committed to preaching and teaching the Gospel’, but it appears that (retired) Bishop David Atkinson (and others) found him a little too committed to the cause of upholding the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage (which happens also to be the law of the land). And so he has been suspended because ‘there is a potential for division in All Saints’.

Well, there’s a bright Archdeacon. You suspend a voluntary and highly-experienced Lay Reader at a time the church has no vicar in order to sustain an illusory unity. Mr Gowlland is not merely a Reader of 50 years’ standing; he has a Diploma in Theology; taught A-level RS for 20 years; and was a headmaster for 24 years. He has been informed that the issue is not with his support for the biblical view of marriage, but with the way he introduced the subject and petition which were ‘bounced’ on his colleagues ‘without prior discussion’. For this reason, the Venerable (acting) Barry Goodwin has ‘withdrawn’ Mr Gowlland from preaching and leading worship for two months. This is not, however, a suspension.

Right.

The (acting) Archdeacon has listened to the complaints of a vociferous few who support same-sex marriage and without giving Mr Gowlland the chance to respond to the allegations has summarily ‘withdrawn’ Mr Gowlland’s licence to preach and lead worship for two months, but this doesn’t amount to suspension. And, moreover, the (acting) Archdeacon has done this during a interregnum, when the church needs all the lay expertise it can muster.

Incredible.

Mr Gowlland has appealed to the Bishop of Southwark, pointing out that the Chairman of the District Church Council was not only aware that Mr Gowlland intended to mention the Coalition for Marriage; he even offered to find a table for promotional literature. He told the Bishop that during the notices he read out the petition and encouraged people to sign it. The person leading the service was Mary Duncan, another Lay Reader, who made no comment to Mr Gowlland personally. It transpires that Ms Duncan didn’t approve of Mr Gowlland’s stance, and so made her feelings known to another Lay Reader, Penny Bird. And together, without warning or discussion, they came to the lectern and exhorted the congregation not to sign the petition. “There are other views,” they said. “Do not sign it without giving it very careful thought.” Ms Duncan turned to Mr Gowlland and said, “Just in the interests of balance, Peter.”

The Worldwide President of the Mothers Union, Rosemary Kempsell, then said that the Government was having a consultation and had asked people to respond. Bishop David Atkinson, who was leading the service, said that this was neither the time nor place to discuss this, but suggested a meeting in the near future to do so. It is quite incredible that neither Bishop David nor any of the Lay Readers expressed their concerns to Mr Gowlland privately. And neither has the Rev’d Andrew Watson (curate) nor the Rev’d Susan Atkinson-Jones (vicar-in-charge during the interregnum). This is a great shame, for the situation could easily have been defused with a quiet word in the vestry.

And now Mr Gowlland is suspended, but the (acting) Archdeacon isn’t calling it so, and neither is the Bishop of Southwark. What is significant here is that the Lay Reader whose licence has been temporarily ‘withdrawn’ for two months supports the Coalition for Marriage, while the Lay Readers who oppose it – and who stood up in front of the congregation to dispute publicly with Mr Gowlland – are not subject to any disciplinary action. Of course, Lay Readers are not employees, and so the (acting) Archdeacon is not bound by employment legislation. But, as a courtesy, one might expect the Church of England to uphold certain procedures and principles which accord with natural justice: viz. i) oral warning; ii) written warning; iii) final written warning; iv) suspension/dismissal. This would accord with the teachings of Jesus (Mt 18:15) and of St Paul (Gal 6:1ff).

Peter Gowlland has been charged, convicted and summarily sentenced without the right to present his case (cf Prov 18:17). The suspension (which it certainly is) is a manifest punitive action and a public humiliation. Mr Gowlland is elderly, fragile and very hurt: he and his wife now attend another church. He is not exercising his ministry.

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