Stephen Sizer, antisemitism and church discipline

In this article, I wrote about why the church seems to have dealt badly with the problem of antisemitism, particularly in relation to the Stephen Sizer case.  Before going further, I should also mention again that this is not just about the Sizer case.  As I commented in the previous article, a couple of years back, a friend of mine pointed me in the direction of a book where he had spotted some concerning references to antisemitic tropes and quotes from known antisemitic sources.  I confirmed his concerns.  We did not at the time believe that the individual was antisemitic, that they were intentionally promoting that agenda. We presumed charitably that there had been a level of naivety on their part. However, it should be for publishers to pick up on such things and challenge them too.  Well, it is worth making three observations about this.

  1. We found that very few people were particularly fussed about the situation. A prominent Christian book containing antisemitic tropes and citing antisemitic sources was no big deal. 
  2. We did not have direct contact with the author himself but through intermediaries we understood that he was ready and willing to listen and to respond.
  3. The publishers put out a statement stating that there was no place for antisemitism but belittled those raising concerns as left-wing agitators. 

All of this is relevant to my question about how we deal with discipline. You see, the first comment I would make is this.  Too often we polarise things.  An individual is either monster or an angel.  They either wilfully and with intent did evil because they are an evil person and that’s what evil people do or they couldn’t have possibly intended anything bad because they are so nice and good and godly.

The Clergy Disciplinary Measure against Stephen Sizer concludes that he is not in the opinion of the Tribunal Antisemitic.  Basically, they are making the allowance of a level of ignorance for him. They are assuming that he is so passionately pro Palestine that he was careless in terms of some of the sources he makes use of and was unaware of the impact his words and actions were having.  Sizer is presented as pro-Palestine rather than anti Jew.  They do however identify that at least one action he took was antisemitic and that this and a number of other behaviours fell well short of what is expected of a Gospel minister.

This is similar to the conclusion of Andrew Watson as reported by the Church Society:

It was publicly reported that the Bishop of Guildford concluded: “I do not believe that [Dr Sizer’s] motives are anti-Semitic; but I have concluded that, at the very least, he has demonstrated appallingly poor judgement. By associating with, or promoting, subject matter which is either ambiguous in its motivation, or (worse still) openly racist, he has crossed a serious line.”

Now, Watson, as with the CDM recognise that a serious line was crossed. However, I’m still not sure that the level of seriousness and implications have been fully spelt out. So, to repeat, I think some may be at risk of continuing to hold the line that a good guy made a bit of a mistake but that is all.

The problem with this is that we seem to forget what the Bible has to say about humanity and sin.  We forget that it is possible for Christians to sin, that godly people still fail and sadly that believers and Christian leaders can fall quite seriously.  We also forget that Scripture talks about two types of sin. There’s what is sometimes referred to as “high handed sin” where there is intent or malice afore-thought if you like. However, Scripture also has the idea of trespassing, sins of wandering, neglect, ignorance.  These are still sin and still need to be dealt with. Further, there comes a time when we cannot ignore that the excuse of ignorance has worn thin.  The person has been warned too many times and the clues so obvious that we must at least talk in terms of “wilful ignorance.”

I felt that when we were trying to deal with the problem of that book that we came up against that particular wall. The author could not have intended a problem, so there wasn’t a problem.  Similarly I wonder if we might not have seen the same issues at play when it comes to the Sizer case. I think given that the specific complaint that was upheld was one among a number of complaints that were not upheld, given that it was presumed that the matter had been dealt with by a bishop and that Sizer had agreed to comply with measures in response to the failing -as well as apologising at the time, I can understand why some remained silent and passive. 

Indeed, even at this stage, as difficult as it might be for people to hear, I’m not convinced that the Tribunal result will deliver the change in attitude and actions looked for.  Why?  Well, in essence, it is too easy, if you don’t want to be disrupted, to read the ruling and conclude that Sizer basically was a good chap who made one mistake, apologised and faced the consequences. If that was one of your friends or a member in your church, would you be hitting the church discipline button?

I say “if you don’t want to be disrupted.”  I emphasise that because I believe we should want to be disrupted.  We should want to be disrupted because it matters to the Gospel, it matters to those affected by the sin here and it matters to Sizer’s own spiritual well-being that this matter is taken seriously.

As a postscript, I would urge caution/care in terms of the kind of naming and shaming gossip that can arise following a serious case. I note that Lee Gatiss of The Church Society has had to respond to claims made about his involvement with Stephen Sizer to explicitly deny the truth of the accusations against him.

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