A Church of England vicar who was subject to an unprecedented complaint from the Board of Deputies has acknowledged he should have taken greater care before posting links to controversial websites on his blog and expressed “regret” that some of his own online comments caused offense, writes Justin Cohen.
A report into the case was published today following the successful conclusion of a six-month conciliation process sparked by a complaint alleging “unbecoming or inappropriate” conduct against Revd Dr Stephen Sizer, the vicar of Christ Church in Virginia Water, Surrey.
The Board’s complaint centred on claims Sizer posted links from his website to articles on extremist sites “where scurrilous views against Jews and others are published” and made “statements that most of the Jewish community find utterly offensive, to the point of crossing the line into anti-Semitism, even if this is not his motivation or intention”.
Among incidents cited in a dossier produced by the Board was the posting of a link in March 2011 on Rev Sizer’s Facebook page to a website called The Ugly Truth, whose masthead reads: “Zionism, Jewish extremism and a few other nasty items making our world uninhabitable today.”
But after the Bishop of Guildford Reverend Christopher Hill ruled Sizer had a case to answer, two conciliators – one Anglican and one Jewish – were drafted in.
And in today’s report, High Court judge Sir Gavin Lightman and Revd Christopher Lewis, the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, write: : “Without accepting the substance of the complaint, Dr Sizer regrets that on occasions his use of language has caused offence to some and agrees that he should have reflected on his choice of words more carefully. The content of certain websites having been drawn to his attention, Dr Sizer also accepts that he should have taken more care before linking to them.”
However, they said, he maintains his opposition to anti-Semitism and that he did not link to sites “in order to introduce readers to anti-Semitic material”.
Rev Sizer acknowledged links to sites should be monitored carefully “to avoid possibility that there is implied approval of material other than that specifically referred to” – and has pledged to have three people monitor his website and blog going forwards. He does not however accept that his actions amount to conduct unbecoming of a clerk in his role.
But Board vice president Jonathan Arkush – who lodged the complaint under the Church’s statutory disciplinary code and has since held face-to-face talks with the Rev Sizer – said the outcome showed supporters of the case “were right to feel very deep concern” about the vicar’s conduct.
“The Board welcomes Rev Sizer’s acknowledgments and undertakings, which clearly demonstrate that conduct on his part which led to the complaint was unbecoming or inappropriate to a Minister of the Church of England.
The Board’s strong hope is that the type of behaviour which led to its complaint will never be repeated, whether by Rev Sizer or anyone else.” He reiterated the Board’s commitment to Jewish-Christian relations, adding: “Thankfully Rev Sizer has been the exception not the rule.”
Revd Hill welcomed the “spirit of this agreement as a positive step towards Jewish-Christian understanding”. He said: “Both sides have agreed on the importance of engaging in free political debate without using insulting or offensive language. Dr Sizer will be taking more care in future when linking to external websites. I am pleased to note that both parties have agreed to endeavour to resolve any future disputes promptly, informally and by personal contact.”
He added: “I am also pleased to take this opportunity once again to emphasise how important it is for the Church to stand firm against all forms of prejudice and the evils of racial hatred.”
Opinion: ‘The sorry tale of Reverend Sizer’ – click here