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Evangelical theologian sues Bishop over ‘discrimination’

Theologian and former Wycliffe Hall staff member Dr Elaine Storkey

The Bishop of Liverpool is being sued for religious discrimination by a leading Evangelical theologian – on the grounds she was treated as the "wrong kind of Christian".

The case is being brought by Elaine Storkey, known particularly for her work in the area of feminist theology, a popular speaker at the Greenbelt Arts Festival and a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.

The move is the latest development in a row at Oxford theological college Wycliffe Hall, which has pitched conservative evangelical members of the church against more ‘open’ ones. It also reflects apparently growing divisions within evangelicalism.

Storkey claims that conditions worsened at Wycliffe Hall with the appointment in 2005 of Dr Turnbull as the new principal. Six members of staff resigned from the college, saying that it was being taken down a conservative evangelical path.

Many moderates were also dismayed by the alleged fire-and-brimstone tone of a speech that Dr Turnbull gave to the conservative evangelical pressure group Reform, in which he apparently warned 95 per cent of the country was in danger of going to hell.

However the Bishop of Liverpool, Rt Rev James Jones, who is president of the college, has not been popularly considered to be on the ultra conservative wing of evangelicalism.

Elaine Storkey and the Bishop are also President and Vice-President of evangelical aid agency Tearfund, respectively.

Newspapers are reporting that this would be a test case concerning whether Christians can suffer religious discrimination from within their own religion. Until now the legislation has been seen as protection for people discriminated against on religious grounds by those who might be prejudiced against their faith – for example Muslims or Catholics in Northern Ireland.

At an employment tribunal this week Storkey accepted around £20,000 from Wycliffe Hall after the college authorities acknowledged she had been unfairly dismissed.

But she is pressing ahead with a claim of religious discrimination against the Rt Rev James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, who is president of the college.

She said after the hearing: "I’m really glad we have agreed on something.

"I was offered a settlement many months ago, but my point was I wanted it to be acknowledged that they had done this wrong to me."

The three members of an employment tribunal may have to decide whether Storkey’s brand of open evangelical Anglicanism constitutes a religion, compared with other evangelicals running Wycliffe Hall. She said she had enjoyed a fruitful relationship at the college until the arrival of a new principal, Richard Turnbull, who held strong conservative views.

Bruce Carr, representing the college trustees, said that Storkey could not allege discrimination against people of the same faith as her.

He said: "She is not saying ‘I’m a Christian and I’m being discriminated against because of my Christianity’.

"She is saying ‘I have a particular type of Christian evangelism, which stands distinct from conservative evangelism’.

"To paraphrase, she is the wrong type of evangelical."

Arranging a preliminary tribunal hearing for June 10 this year, Robin Lewis, chairman of the tribunal, highlighted the difficulties inherent in a theological dispute being thrashed out in a secular forum and urged the two parties to reach an agreement.

"One part of the tribunal’s regulations was not to resolve theological disputes within certain colleges at Oxford.

"It was to protect people from discrimination.

"I very much hope that the remaining hearing that has been timetabled won’t be necessary. I hope that it can be resolved.

"What I would ask the parties is how useful an adjudication might be by the three of us, sitting in this building, on theological matters?"

Ekklesia www.ekklesia.co.uk (This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License)

Photo : Theologian and former Wycliffe Hall staff member Dr Elaine Storkey