‘Some Ramifications of the Coekin Case’

A Fulcrum Response by Andrew Goddard

The instant responses to the judgment in the Coekin case by the Bishop of Winchester and the Archbishop of Canterbury's determination have perhaps been predictable given the outcome. There is barely restrained delight on the part of Richard Coekin and of evangelicals who supported him such as Anglican Mainstream. In contrast, supporters of the Bishop of Southwark such as Stephen Bates are expressing their outrage and contempt. Fulcrum's own response has also appeared and notes that the judgment and determination may not be quite as clear-cut and favourable to the obvious 'winner' as many have concluded on first reading.

There are, of course, a number of astonishingly critical findings and statements concerning the conduct of the Respondent, the Bishop of Southwark:

  • 'the failure to afford the Appellant the opportunity of an oral hearing amounted to procedural unfairness' (para 26)
  • 'His decision letter did not, however, do justice to the complexity of the issues before him' (para 27)
  • 'Despite the explanation of Mr Seed QC that this part of his pleading was directed to two separate points, namely the actual reason for the revocation and other grounds which objectively might justify it, I am not convinced that the Respondent's thought processes at the time of his decision-making were so subtle' (para 28)
  • 'The letter of November 7th 2005 failed to meet the standards required of a proper decision document' (para 28)
  • 'The deficiencies identified in this section of my Report are so serious, whether viewed individually or collectively, as to have a considerable bearing upon the outcome of the appeal itself' (para 29)
  • 'In a technical sense the Appellant had not been in breach of his duty of canonical obedience to the Respondent because the Respondent had not in terms directed him to perform or refrain from performing, some specified act. (Although the Respondent expressed his disapproval of the threatened ordination, he actually did no more than to warn of the "serious consequences" of contravening the provisions of the 1967 Measure. These consequences were never identified' (para 37))
  • 'summary revocation was a disproportionate outcome in the circumstances of the case' (para 37)
  • 'the procedure leading up to the Respondent's decision under Canon C12(5) was seriously flawed (paragraph 29) and that summary revocation of the Appellant's licence was inappropriate' (para 38).

However, some of the criticisms of Richard Coekin's conduct, although less colourful, are potentially much more wide-ranging and serious. This is because they relate not simply to specifics of this one incident (as is the case for most of the criticisms of the Bishop of Southwark) but rather to claims and patterns of behaviour currently being encouraged more widely among certain evangelicals. Three elements in particular stand out. They will need to be weighed very carefully in future evangelical responses when there is conflict with a bishop, particularly over sexuality, and they seem to require a rewriting of certain standard scripts for describing and justifying such situations.

First, Richard Coekin and many of his supporters placed great emphasis on the flaws in the House of Bishops' Statement on Civil Partnership as the basis and justification for their actions. This was also prominent in his pleading in the case - 'the Appellant sought to embark upon a challenge, from the standpoint of evangelical theology, to the House of Bishops' Pastoral Statement concerning Civil Partnerships. The revocation of his licence was, he alleged, the result of the principled stand which he has taken against the teaching contained in that document' (para 7). The Bishop of Winchester is, however, clear that 'an appeal...is...a wholly inappropriate forum for testing matters of this nature' and, furthermore, 'it was well established that a doctrinal motive could be not invoked to justify a breach of the law' (para 7). As a result, this issue was excluded from the appeal hearing and Richard Coekin 'exercised restraint' in avoiding this topic 'which I had ruled to be irrelevant' (para 9).

This makes very clear that, whatever is claimed about 'impaired communion', disagreements over the pastoral statement or indeed over any other aspect of sexual ethics or wider Christian doctrine is no justification for any failure on the part of an individual to comply with canon law or the performance of their statutory duties.

Second, in the vitally important para 35, the Bishop of Winchester returns to some of these descriptions by Richard Coekin of the state of his relationship with his Bishop. He writes (italics added) -

The Respondent's stated reasons for revoking the licence included the Appellant's apparent rejection of the Respondent's "authority" and "oversight", as well as the Appellant's description of their relationship as being one of "temporary impaired communion". I am not sure that the Appellant, when writing the deliberately challenging letters in which these phrases appeared, had really thought through their consequences in terms either of theology or law. Certainly the meaning which the Appellant has attached to them became progressively diluted in the course of the appeal proceedings.

This clearly has major implications for those who are liable to use such language as rejecting the authority and oversight of their bishop or being in a situation of 'impaired communion'. The language is indeed 'deliberately challenging' and the phrases have the appearance of theological weight and rigour. But has anyone 'really thought through their consequences in terms either of theology or law'? It is clear from this judgment that Richard Coekin had not done so even though this was a central plank of his justification. As a result, 'the meaning...attached to them became progressively diluted' when placed under careful scrutiny in the hearing. This means that major legal and theological work is required if these terms are to have any substance in the future.

Third, the Archbishop of Canterbury's determination also contains a significant 'sting in the tail' for those considering further 'irregular' conduct in response to disagreements over sexuality. On the surface it again appears to provide further humiliation to the Bishop of Southwark. Having overturned his decision to revoke the licence, the Bishop of Winchester proposed that, as a condition for cancelling the revocation, certain undertakings should be given by Richard Coekin. These were:

  1. except under the authority of the Bishop of Southwark, to refrain from any involvement in:
    1. ordination services within the area of the Diocese of Southwark, or
    2. the ordination of persons (of whatever Christian Church) to serve within the area of that Diocese
  2. strictly to abide by all general or specific directions given by the Bishop of Southwark concerning church planting or mission initiatives

The Bishop of Southwark described these as 'the minimum required in the circumstances' given the clear judgment that Richard Coekin's conduct 'merited censure'. However, in response to representations from Coekin's counsel, these explicit undertakings were not required by the Archbishop. His reasoning and its implications are of importance.

It had been claimed that such undertakings should not be demanded as they were 'unreasonable' and 'unjustifiable'. These are claims one could imagine being echoed by others who sit loose to the authority of bishops in the Church of England, especially if those bishops are seen as 'liberal'. This claim is clearly and firmly rejected by the Archbishop. In contrast, he makes clear that 'their content reflects the legal obligations which Canon Law imposes upon any licensed minister' (italics added). In short, what Richard Coekin and many of his supporters view as unreasonable and unjustifiable limitations on the freedom of a parish clergyperson are in fact binding obligations under canon law. Furthermore, as noted earlier, doctrinal disagreement with one's bishop or declarations of 'impaired communion' are not legitimate defences for disobeying canon law.

To ask for written undertakings on the part of one individual troublesome priest who had misbehaved, while perhaps providing a form of the 'merited censure', could also have been seen as having no wider significance for other clergy and simply be a punishment for his personal misbehaviour. By deciding not to ask for such undertakings the Archbishop has opened the possibility for a personal and relational approach to reconciliation (rather than one of a reluctant legal declaration). But he has done much more. He has made it quite clear that 'the onus placed upon the Appellant to conform to the discipline of the Church' (which was the rationale for asking for undertakings) 'is not in any way lessened' and that Richard Coekin is left 'bound to submit to the Respondent's episcopal authority and accountable for his actions to the wider Church'. Furthermore, this is not only true of Richard Coekin nor is it limited to the peculiar and difficult situation of this sad case. What it was proposed by the Bishop of Winchester to be explicitly required of this one person in this one case is actually now clearly shown to be required of all clergy in all situations. Whatever one's problems with one's bishop, no clergyperson is above the law.

No clergyperson in the Church of England can therefore now claim ignorance of the significance and seriousness of their acts if they involve themselves in any ordinations without the approval of their diocesan or if they disregard episcopal directions concerning church planting. Any such actions are a flagrant rejection of the discipline of the church and the standard rhetorical defences offered by those who threaten such actions have been found to be without legal or theological basis. In future any similar acts of disobedience, whether by Richard Coekin or any other cleric, are likely to result in disciplinary proceedings not by summary revocation of their licence but under the new Clergy Discipline Measure. As long as care is taken to follow due process, there can now be little doubt that any bishop faced with repetitions of conduct similar to that of Richard Coekin will be able effectively to discipline those involved as they have been shown by this ruling to have absolutely no justification in law for such actions.

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