Landmark is one of those words that inevitably loses its value due to over-use, but there is no other way to describe today’s ruling by an employment tribunal against the Bishop of Hereford.
The tribunal agreed with youth worker John Reaney that he had been discriminated against on the grounds of his sexual orientation.
The 2003 law that protects gay, bisexual and lesbian people in employment contains an exemption for religious organisations.
Today’s ruling affirms the fact that the exemption is very narrow.
This is the first time someone so high in the Church has been ruled to have discriminated.
Mr Reaney spoke exclusively to PinkNews.co.uk about the tribunal and the emotional journey he has been on in the past year, one he described as, “incredibly stressful … it has been a rollercoaster ride.”
His decision to take his case to a tribunal was a brave one, but he explains that as a man of strong principles and Christian faith, it was the only course for him to take:
“It was just so obvious to me that I had been discriminated against. The big issue for me is that the Church is supposed to be loving and accepting of all, whatever their background, status and so on.
“For me the Church wasn’t being that loving, caring welcoming body, it was putting up a barrier – I wanted to overcome that barrier.
“I feel that the Church should be a place of love. That was not being demonstrated and I felt I had to challenge that.
“Not even so much for my sake but for other lesbian and gay people, Christians and non-Christians.”
Mr Reaney was previously employed as a youth officer for the Norwich and Chester Church of England diocese.
In an application form for a similar job in Hereford, Mr Reaney stated that he is gay.
Following a successful interview, he was told that subject the consent of the bishop, he would be appointed.
The Right Reverend Anthony Priddis, the 104th Bishop of Hereford, admitted to the tribunal in April that he had asked Mr Reaney a series of questions about his sex life during their meeting.
When he found out that the youth worker had recently come out of a five-year relationship, the bishop said he did not feel that:
“It would not have been right for me to take an undertaking of his head that his heart could not keep,” namely that he would remain celibate, in line with church teachings.
The bishop decided Mr Reaney was not suitable for the job. The rejection hit him hard.
“The hardest thing was the feeling of worthlessness that came from the bishop’s decision,” he explains.
“But thanks to the support of my own church in Colwyn Bay, and others, I got through that. My faith has not wavered, it has become stronger through that.”
Mr Reaney was shocked that, in the Church of England, a bishop could be so blind to the skills that each person can bring to a key role such as youth worker:
“It is about getting to know the individual – I think sometimes people just take the sexuality and ignore the fact that this is a person.
“A lot of people who know me and found out this case was happening were quite surprised it was me, and that I am gay, but that has been positive.”
Mr Reaney contrasts his treatment with the reaction to the tribunal’s ruling in his favour.
“The messages of support from Christians around the UK and around the world have been huge. The interesting thing is that I have not had any messages of hate or disdain – they have all been supportive.”
He goes on to defend the accusation that the Church of England is institutionally hostile to gay people:
“I don’t think the church is homophobic per se, I think that there are pockets of it around but I think that is true throughout society as well.”
The tribunal ruling is a triumph for Mr Reaney, and also for Stonewall.
The gay equality organisation funded the legal action and Mr Reaney paid tribute to them.
“They have been incredibly helpful – I could not have done the case without them. I contacted Stonewall in Wales and that was it – the wheels went into motion. They have helped me incredibly – and my solicitor and my barrister Sandyha Drew – the team behind me has been amazing.”
The solicitor in question, Alison Downie of Bindman Partners, is equally pleased with the outcome.
“In this landmark test case the tribunal found not only that he suffered direct discrimination but that if necessary they would have found indirect discrimination in the diocese imposing a requirement of celibacy for lay people in employment within the Church.
“It is highly regrettable that the Bishop acted as he did and that my client lost a year of his life in bringing this claim to right the wrong done to him.”
It is unclear if the Hereford Diocesan Board of Finance, against whom the case was brought, will appeal.
What is certain is that a remedy hearing will now be held to decide if compensation will be paid to Mr Reaney and what action the diocese should take in light of the judgement against them.
The message sent out today could not be clearer, and many in the Church of England will welcome it.
“The Church is trying to encourage people through its doors – it needs to show it is supportive, welcoming and loving,” said Mr Reaney.
“If they are putting across a message that they do not want certain people there, then it will be very difficult to grow the Church.”
Mr Reaney, who continues to work with young people, is glad he took action.
Asked if he would advise others to do the same, the wisdom of his answer and the thought he has for others demonstrate the short-sightedness of a bishop who thinks sexuality is more important that suitability.
“I know what you go through to get to this point. You have got to have personal strength to get through this.
“If you can find the support, as I did with Stonewall, and the team.
“It is not a decision to be taken lightly, you have to understand that there are consequences, in terms of the stress.
“It is not done overnight, it is a long process. I am now waiting for the remedy hearing and getting on with the rest of my life.”