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Another big test for Bishop Andrew Watson

This is a guest post by John Bevan. It is divided into four parts.

PART ONE: FEBRUARY 2015

HP readers will no doubt recall that, in February 2015, Stephen Sizer was banned by Revd Andrew Watson, the Bishop of Guildford, from any campaigning on the Middle East. The Bishop imposed the ban after Rev Sizer had posted an article alleging Israeli involvement in 9/11 on his Facebook page. The Bishop’s then statement included the following words:

“In order for Stephen to remain in parish ministry, I have therefore asked for – and received from him – a solemn undertaking, in writing, that he is to refrain entirely from writing or speaking on any theme that relates, either directly or indirectly, to the current situation in the Middle East or to its historical backdrop.” [emphasis in original]

“He has promised to refrain, with no exceptions, from attendance at or participation in any conferences which promote or are linked to this agenda; from all writing, tweeting, blogging, emailing, preaching and teaching on these themes, whether formally or informally – a prohibition which of course includes posting links to other sites; and from all background work in this area which may resource others to act as spokespeople in Stephen’s stead. [emphasis added]

“Should Stephen be deemed by the Diocese to have broken this agreement, in letter or in spirit, he has pledged to offer me his immediate resignation, which I will duly accept…”

PART TWO: AUTUMN 2016

Last October, Rev Sizer announced that he would be retiring from parish ministry from 16 April 2017 (Easter Sunday). in order to launch a new charity, “Peacemaker Mediators” (whose “International Board of Reference” will include, among others, Baroness Jenny Tonge).

Following this announcement, Rev Sizer attended the notorious launch meeting of the “Balfour Apology Campaign” in the House of Lords, organised by the Palestine Return Centre and hosted, coincidentally or otherwise, by Baroness Tonge. He also wrote about it on his Facebook page, thereby breaking his 2015 undertaking in two ways.

On 2 November 2016, the Bishop of Guildford released a second statement (emphasis added):

In February 2015, Dr Stephen Sizer undertook to refrain from writing or speaking on themes relating to the current situation in the Middle East and to its historical backdrop for as long as he remained a parish priest in the Diocese of Guildford. Until now, this agreement has been upheld in letter and spirit, however Dr Sizer recently attended an event which clearly engages in these themes, and around which there has subsequently been understandable controversy. Additionally, Dr Sizer published a social media post relating to the event, also contravening his agreement.

Dr Sizer has already given notice of his resignation as vicar of Virginia Water from Easter 2017, and said that he attended the event in question on the understanding that our agreement no longer stood now that his resignation had been tendered. This is certainly not the case. I have spoken with Dr Sizer to make clear that I am disappointed by his actions and to clarify that our agreement categorically must run until the end of his tenure of office.

Dr Sizer is aware how seriously I view this and has stated to me that it was not his intention to break the agreement which he has upheld until now. However, with its terms now clarified beyond any doubt, Dr Sizer has been warned that any further breach of the agreement must result in his tenure of office ending with immediate effect.

PART THREE: FEBRUARY AND MARCH 2017

Now fast forward to 28 February 2017, a matter of weeks before Rev Sizer’s impending retirement date. On that date, as noted by Daphne Anson, Rev Sizer posted a Facebook link to a 2015 Spectator article by Nick Cohen about the Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallström. The article includes the following words (emphasis added):

She [Wallström] is foreign minister in Sweden’s weak coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, and took office promising a feminist foreign policy. She recognised Palestine in October last year — and, no, the Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Co-operation and Gulf Co-operation Council did not condemn her ‘unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of Israel’. I confess that her gesture struck me as counterproductive at the time. But after Benjamin Netanyahu ruled out a Palestinian state as he used every dirty trick he could think of to secure his re-election, she can claim with justice that history has vindicated her.

(It only seems fair to mention that, since writing that piece, Nick Cohen has criticised both Wallström and – on more than one occasion – Stephen Sizer himself.)

On 4 Marchas noted, again, by Daphne Anson, Rev Sizer posted a link to a video titled “Islam and ISIS”.

On 5 March, Rev Sizer preached a sermon titled “Jesus is the True Temple”. That sermon included the following words about those who believe that the Jewish Temple must be rebuilt in Jerusalem:

No, the most valuable piece of real estate in the world, is the Haram al Sharif, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The site on which Abraham offered Isaac, on which Solomon and Herod built their temples. The Temple Mount is sacred to 16 million Jews as well as 1.6 billion Muslims, and of interest to 2.2 billion Christians. Were it for sale, there would be no problem getting a deposit together. Orthodox Jews pray 3 times a day that the Temple will be rebuilt in their life time.
Many Fundamentalists are dedicated to destroying the Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock to achieve it. And millions of Bible-believing Christians are convinced it must happen for Jesus to return…

This is a theme that Rev Sizer has written about previously, and that he considers to be relevant – indeed integral – to “the current situation in the Middle East”.

On 6 March, Rev Sizer posted a link to that sermon.

In summary: between 28 February and 6 March 2017, Rev Sizer - in four separate ways – broke his February 2015 undertaking not to write or speak “on any theme that relates, either directly or indirectly, to the current situation in the Middle East or to its historical backdrop”. He did this by linking to two other sites; by preaching on a theme directly related to the current situation in the Middle East; and by then linking to that sermon.

PART FOUR: WHAT NOW?

It would seem that Rev Sizer is trying to get away with breaching his February 2015 undertaking. He appears to have calculated that his Bishop won’t now go to the fuss of requiring him to resign, since he will be retiring on 16 April anyway. Yet the Bishop of Guildford’s November 2016 statement was (and remains) clear and unequivocal: the undertaking is to run until the end of Rev Sizer’s tenure of office; and any further breaches will result in that tenure ending with immediate effect.

What happens next could be very significant.

No decent person – and certainly no Christian – should want anything to do with “Peacemaker Mediators”, a charity whose CEO will be Stephen Sizer and whose International Board of Reference will include Jenny Tonge. Yet if his Bishop now takes no action, Rev Sizer will retire after Easter, like the soldier who is discharged with honour. He will then, no doubt, trade on that relentlessly in his fundraising and future work. Yet if the Bishop upholds the twice-stated agreement, Dr Sizer will be forced to resign his parish ministry prematurely and with dishonour. This would have well-deserved negative effects on his future activities.

And so Bishop Andrew Watson once again faces a challenge. Will he now act on his strong and unequivocal warning of last November? Or will he meekly retract it, now the time has come for enforcement? Let’s hope he has the courage to do the right thing.