Cannon Pemberton and Laurence Cunnington
A senior Church of England clergyman yesterday became the first to enter into a gáy marriage – in direct defiance of the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby – plunging the Church into a fresh crisis.
Canon Jeremy Pemberton tied the knot with Laurence Cunnington under new laws allowing same-séx marriages pushed through by David Cameron in the face of bitter opposition from backbench MPs and the Church.
But Canon Pemberton, 58, now faces disciplinary action from the Church and could be expelled from his work as a priest because the House of Bishops has barred clergy from entering such unions, saying they undermine its traditional teaching that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.
Speaking exclusively on Sunday, he described the private ceremony in front of family and friends in a local hotel as ‘very joyous, very happy’.
He said he had told the Bishop of Lincoln, Christopher Lowson – in whose area he works as deputy senior chaplain of the United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust – of his intention to marry Mr Cunnington, 51.
But he refused to comment on the conversation, saying he was fully aware of the Church’s position. Asked how he expected to feel after the ceremony, he said: ‘We will feel married.’
Bishop Lowson confirmed he had told Canon Pemberton of the House of Bishops’ statement but would not say if he was planning disciplinary action.
Canon Pemberton, a former parish priest and a divorced father of five, held his wedding under new laws that came into force last month giving gáy couples the same rights to marriages as heterosexuáls.
Gáy clergy can already enter into civil partnerships if they promise to remain celibate, but these are primarily legal arrangements while marriages include public vows.
Under guideline from bishops published in February, clergy are not only barred from gáy marriages but they cannot conduct them for others or bless such unions in church.
The House of Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance on Same-Séx Marriage admitted there were disagreements even among the bishops, but said: ‘We are all in agreement that the Christian understanding and doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman remains unchanged.’
The guidance, signed by Archbishop Welby and his counterpart in York, John Sentamu, said the House of Bishops ‘considers it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same-séx marriage, given the need for clergy to model the Church’s teaching in their lives’.
The bishops will now come under huge pressure to crack down on Canon Pemberton, especially as there are other clergy lining up to enter into gáy marriages.
One senior traditionalist cleric in the Church’s General Synod said: ‘This will become a crisis if no action is taken.
‘People are looking to the Church to enforce its teachings and discipline. The clergy have taken vows of obedience in public and they ought to live by that. Canon Pemberton should be stripped of his right to function as a clergyman.
‘This is a test of the authority of the bishops and a critical test for Archbishop Welby.’
But one leading liberal cleric said: ‘This is wonderful. I congratulate the couple and hope the Church will accept gáy marriage very soon.’