The long shadow of a court case

Rev. Jim Ferry, Holy Trinity Church Toronto. MALCOLM TAYLOR/CNS, July 2007

I have just finished reading James Ferry's In the Courts of the Lord (New York, Crossroad, 1994).

It is a book in three parts. First the author describes his journey to accept his homosexuality as a normal part of himself and to lose the self-hatred he had previously developed. Second, he describes life as a parish priest and the hypocritical and destructive culture of 'don't ask, don't tell' which stemmed ultimately from the bishops' collective inability to be clear where they stood on their acceptance of homosexuality within the church.

The third section, on his trial before a church court, was my main interest, though both previous sections are essential to understanding the context of the trial.

The fact of Jim Ferry's homosexuality had become known in the parish not only to those who were supportive but also to a couple of people (and then further afield) who were decidely homophobic.

To pre-empt the coming storm Ferry went to his bishop and explained the situation including the fact that he was in a sexual relationship with a man he loved. In accordance with the bishops' guidelines at the time his bishop, Terence Finlay, asked him to resign. Ferry, asked to choose between his partner and his job, did neither. Finlay brought Ferry before the church court in February 1992.

The charge against Ferry was disobedience and the diocesan prosecutor struggled to stick to it. Ferry's defence was to raise the issue of homosexuality in the church. They made a number of arguments about obedience, not least the facts that Ferry had not actually been asked to give up his relationship, that the 'guidelines' were for assessing ordinands not clergy in post, and that they were applied inconsistently even within the diocese. But their central thrust was that homosexuals should not be treated any differently to heterosexuals in the polity of the church.

The case had international press coverage, though I confess I missed it at the time.

The judgement was self-contradictory. Ferry was found not guilty of disobedience (the pivotal charge against him) but was guilty anyway of refusing to refrain from a homosexual relationship 'contrary to the Bishop's instructions, the Respondent's vows on Ordination, and the discipline of the Church.' The court did not find his conduct to be disobedient or disorderly but did find him contumacious (which generally entails disobedience). A final charge of unbecoming conduct was simply ignored. Thus the court avoided any judgement on the precipitating issue of homosexuality.

The court had no power of sentence but made recommendations to the Bishop. Bishop Finlay removed Ferry from office and withdrew his licence.

On the face of it either an appeal or the civil suit that had originally been contemplated would have been successful. But neither were pursued.

However, time changes things. In 2006 Terence Finlay, then retired as Archbishop of Ontario, celebrated the marriage of a lesbian couple saying that he “came to the conclusion that their love for one another was part of God’s divine love and it was appropriate that that be deeply blessed.” He was himself admonished by the diocesan, Colin Johnson, and had his licence to celebrate weddings withdrawn. Ferry demanded an apology, he remains without a licence.

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