Skip To Content
BuzzFeed News Home Reporting To You

This Is What Happened To The First Priest To Marry Another Man

Exclusive: Canon Jeremy Pemberton was the first British clergyman to marry another man. What happened next sparked a landmark legal battle. He tells BuzzFeed News how the fight for equality became a fight for his sanity, career, and reputation.

Posted on December 5, 2015, at 4:21 a.m. ET

Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

There is a hand-stitched cushion cover that sits, unfinished, in Jeremy Pemberton’s house. He began sewing the design when he could not get out of bed, when he had sunk so far into despair that focusing on each tiny stitch was the only way to stay sane.

The story of how he sank, off work and resisting thoughts of suicide, reaches far beyond the walls of the home he shares with the man he loves. It is the story of what happens when you take on the Church of England. And it is one that Pemberton has never revealed in full – until now.

The case of Canon Jeremy Pemberton, daubed across newspapers and television channels, has been reported so widely that many already know what happened to the first British clergyman to marry someone of the same sex: that he was stripped of his powers as a priest, unable to conduct official duties, and then barred from a job as an NHS hospital chaplain. As a result, he took the Church of England to an employment tribunal on a charge of discrimination.

But what has gone untold is the inner story behind the landmark case, and, remarkably, the household name that was backing him.

The stakes were higher than many suggested: If Pemberton won, the precedent set could begin to unravel the Church of England’s exemptions from same-sex marriage and equality laws. It could also block the church from dictating who the NHS is able to hire. In the battle between religious and LGBT rights, it would be a crucial fight.

Jeremy Pemberton

The cushion cover cross-stitched by Pemberton while unwell.

BuzzFeed News begins contacting Pemberton, 59, in April, two months before the tribunal begins. He says at the time his legal team are feeling “very positive”. And then, in November, 12 days after the judgment comes in, a text message arrives at 3:47am confirming that he will come to BuzzFeed News’ London office for an interview.

Eight hours later, Pemberton sits gazing out the window, explaining why he texted at such an ungodly hour.

“I’m not sleeping,” he says, trying to sound upbeat. “I sleep for about three hours and then wake up thinking about it all.” With so much riding on the case, what has that responsibility been like?

“I feel it quite acutely,” he says softly. “There is no precedent. This is the test case. The way the Church of England has developed the exemptions is just wrong and to use them like this to effectively punish me for getting married went against all natural justice.”

The Equality Act 2010 ensures everyone has the same access to employment, as well as private and public services. The Church of England, however, along with certain other religious groups, enjoys a loophole: It can bar LGBT people from jobs if they're sexually active or, in some cases, in civil partnerships. Similarly, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 exempts the church from performing same-sex ceremonies – and canon law, which defines marriage in heterosexual terms, is protected. Both sets of exemptions came following lobbying by Anglicans.

Some have said Pemberton should have known what would have happened when he married Laurence Cunnington at a register office in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, on 12 April 2014 – two weeks after same-sex weddings became possible.

“But no one ever told me,” says Pemberton. Guidance from the House of Bishops only materialised a few weeks before, several months after Pemberton had begun planning the wedding. “It would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same-sex marriage, given the need for clergy to model the Church’s teaching in their lives,” said the guidance. The precise repercussions for anyone disobeying were not explained.

Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

“The bishops hadn’t thought, ‘Maybe some people will be planning weddings and maybe it’s not very fair to people to expect them to cancel,'” says Pemberton.

Nevertheless, prior to the wedding, Pemberton contacted Christopher Lowson, the bishop of Lincoln, where Pemberton worked as a senior hospital chaplain, to discuss his intentions.

“He assured me he would not be starting a disciplinary action against me,” says Pemberton. Instead, after the wedding, Lowson sent Pemberton a written rebuke and advised him that this black mark would stay on his file forever. It arrived during the couple's honeymoon.

On Pemberton’s return, Richard Inwood, the then acting bishop of Southwell and Nottingham – where Pemberton lives – asked to see him. Inwood had been in his role for just three days before Pemberton’s wedding. At the meeting, says Pemberton, the bishop told him he should not have married, because doing so contravened the doctrine of the Church of England.

“At the end he said, ‘I’ll let you know what I decide,’” Pemberton says, so the canon pressed Inwood for the likely outcomes. The possibilities were: that Inwood would do nothing, or he would present Pemberton with a rebuke, similar to Lowson’s, or he would remove Pemberton’s permission to officiate (PTO). The PTO is the piece of paper priests need to be able to do most of their job. Three days later, Inwood chose the last option.

It meant, says Pemberton, that in the area he lives, “I can’t take services, I can’t preach or take Holy Communion or marry, bury, or baptise. I can play no ritual part in the life of a church.” Under normal circumstances, he says, a PTO is removed for egregious wrongdoing such as breaking the law – if, for example, a priest is accused of sexual abuse. The letter also demanded that Pemberton return the PTO document to Inwood’s office “as soon as possible”.

After more than 30 years of service to the church, what was that like?

“Awful,” he says, his baritone voice cutting out. “Absolutely terrible. It felt so degrading. As if I couldn’t be trusted.”

Pemberton had been a rising star in the Church of England. After graduating from Oxford he trained to be a priest and was ordained while still in his mid-twenties – exceptionally young. By 2005, after serving in several posts and devoting years to working in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pemberton was made an honorary canon. This title is bestowed upon the best – the most dutiful, long-serving priests. His then bishop advised Pemberton to consider a future as a dean, archdeacon, or bishop. Ten years later, after becoming a canon of Ely as well as Boga in the Congo, that future was stubbed out. He had disobeyed.

Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

But as Pemberton talks, his imposing 6’ 2” stature supporting a sweetly authoritative voice, it is compassion and fortitude – albeit dented – that cloak him, not victimhood or embitterment. Given what has happened this seems remarkable – that is, until BuzzFeed News takes him back to his wedding day. What was it like standing opposite his fiancé, exchanging vows?

Suddenly, Pemberton cannot speak. His eyes fill. “Well…” he begins, only to stop again, breathing into the depths to control himself, “it was just me and him and…” He looks skywards – not at anything visible or ethereal, but as if at the highest of human experiences.

“I realised that I was doing absolutely the right thing for somebody I love.”

He pauses and smiles. “I knew it was going to cause trouble.” The problem was he could not be sure what kind – or even from where that trouble would come.

The Mail on Sunday had already turned up at his house the day before the wedding. The journalist, he says, paced up and down outside all afternoon before knocking at their door. Fearful that if they refused to cooperate the reporter would show up at the ceremony, Pemberton and Cunnington agreed to speak to him and have a picture taken, on the understanding there would be no unwanted guests the next day.

The Mail on Sunday / Associated Press

Jeremy Pemberton and Laurence Cunnington pose in their wedding attire

Pemberton characterises the interview as “stilted”, which certainly comes through in the resulting story – the reporter asks Pemberton how he expects to feel after marrying, and receives the reply: “We will feel married.”

Press intrusion was merely one concern, however. Because each bishop can decide how to punish transgressors in their own diocese, the situation now facing Pemberton was almost comically absurd. With one bishop wrapping him on the knuckles and another ripping off his dog collar, every morning he would wake up in Southwell not a priest, and then drive into Lincolnshire for his hospital chaplain job, where, suddenly, across the county border, he was a fully functional priest again. Thus, adds Pemberton, “Not only is my case about discrimination, but the inconsistency of the whole process.”

The compounding problem for Pemberton was that during the meeting with Inwood, he advised the acting bishop that he was applying for a new position – a promotion to senior hospital chaplain – this time in Southwell. “[Inwood] said, ‘It would be difficult to give you a licence if I’d removed your PTO.” And so, on 3 July, four weeks after Pemberton was offered the promotion, he received another letter from Inwood, this time informing him that he would not be granted the necessary licence to take up the position.

“I was furious,” says Pemberton.

Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

Pemberton’s new husband, meanwhile, was “incandescent with rage”. Cunnington, 52, detailed on his Facebook page what had happened and implored friends to write to the acting bishop and his archbishop, John Sentamu, to protest against the decisions.

“A tidal wave of post started heading towards them,” says Pemberton, adding that Sentamu “got his act together and arranged a pro forma letter to go out to everybody”. Inwood, he says, replied to no one.

With media coverage of the unfolding scandal intensifying and with his job offer looking imperilled – not to mention the removal of his PTO – Pemberton sought out lawyers to help him, despite having no funds to pay them.

He approached an ecclesiastical barrister, Justin Gau and two further barristers, Sean Jones QC, an employment specialist, and Helen Trotter, an equalities expert – all of whom offered their services for free. The case, after all, could make legal history.

“They said it would be something they would be prepared to do pro bono but would I go home and check my household contents insurance?” he says. “So we went home and discovered we had £100,000-worth of legal cover. I’ve not told anyone this, but thank you, Direct Line!” He laughs joyously: One of Britain’s most recognisable insurance companies, whose logo comprises an old red telephone on wheels, came to fund one of the country’s key equality lawsuits.

“The little telephones came good!” says Pemberton, before pointing out that even this cover wouldn’t have been sufficient without his legal team working at “extremely reduced rates” for him.

The Church of England hired Herbert Smith Freehills, a top international law firm – not the church’s usual choice in legal matters. And it wasn't the kind of case the firm is known for: Herbert Smith Freehills liberally sponsors LGBT charity events.

Pemberton estimates that the church’s legal fees will, by now, be several hundred thousand pounds. (When asked by BuzzFeed News to respond to this claim, the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham declined to comment.)

“It’s obscene,” says Pemberton. “I feel sick – we have a government determined to dismantle the welfare state, this is going to mean the voluntary sector is going to have to step in. That’s where the money should be going.” He stops for a moment and looks down.

Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

“It’s really sad to see an institution that does a lot of good but the good it does is overwhelmed by this incredible obsession [homosexuality], which gives it such dreadful negative publicity. I get people telling me, ‘I’m not taking my kids to a place where they teach people to be homophobic.’” He pauses again. “When I think about the message of Jesus, he was not one for sticking to the rules, he was for finding people others thought weren’t worth bothering with. Well, there’s a clue in there, guys.”

The tribunal itself was still months away. And before any legal preparation could begin, the NHS trust responsible for King’s Mill Hospital in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, withdrew the job offer because Inwood had refused the licence. Pemberton received the news while travelling to France for a break. He returned early. A few days later he was due to go back to work.

“I said to Laurence, ‘I can’t.’ I was very depressed.” He went to his doctor. “I got some antidepressants. Some days…” he begins before jolting himself. “Some days I would just get up and get dressed and go downstairs. That would be it. That was all I could manage. I’d be in bed sleeping a lot.” Was there a point where he did not know how to get through it – where he considered ending everything?

“Yes,” says Pemberton. “There was.” He had already had a breakdown eight years earlier.

But during this period, of late summer and autumn of 2014, Pemberton found something that helped: cross-stitching. “That was my therapy,” he says. “It was something I could hold on to and concentrate on. A cushion cover. It’s my wellness cushion, it helped me get better.”

There was something else that helped.

“Laurence,” he says. “He was wonderful, endlessly patient and supportive.” When Pemberton hid in bed or in the house all day, “Laurence would say, ‘Do you want to go down to the shop?’”

They met on a website for gay fathers in 2008. Both had been married for several decades to women – Pemberton with five grownup children. At 50, the priest finally stopped denying who he was.

“You carry on pretending until you can’t,” he says. “I came out to myself first – in the mirror. I looked at myself and said, ‘I’m a gay man.’” The shame he had lived with for half a century “drained, never to return”, he says. “For me, it was a profoundly spiritual moment.”

Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed
Lynzy Billing / BuzzFeed

Messages between Pemberton and Cunnington on the site led to daily phone calls and, finally, their first meeting.

“You know that thing about going weak at the knees?” he says. “I went weak at the knees.”


Pemberton returned to work in the hospital chaplaincy position in Lincolnshire and began to brace himself for the tribunal. In June 2015, before the proceedings started, he says, one of his barristers offered some advice: “Don’t believe everything you see on telly. There’s no drama.” The barrister was wrong.

The tribunal was packed – full, says Pemberton, with “suits from London”: a registrar of the London diocese, a “top London solicitor who was there apparently to take notes for the Archbishop of Canterbury”, a legal secretary from the General Synod, also there to take notes, and a representative from the legal division of the pensions board, as well as all the barristers and solicitors from both sides.

Pemberton was cross-examined for seven hours.

“I don’t think anybody realised quite how aggressive their silk [Tom Linden QC] was going to be with me,” he says. “He was trying to take my character apart.”

The transcription from the tribunal, obtained by BuzzFeed News, reveals Linden telling Pemberton, “You are an errant priest,” and “You are not in good standing,” and accusing him of being “disingenuous”.

Cunnington had to leave the room, unable to listen to his husband being described in this way.

The confrontation was formidable and fractious: two exceptionally well-educated men grappling over ecclesiastical, employment, and equality legislation, the first of which stretches back to the 16th century.

“You personally and in family relationships undertook that you would exemplify the teachings of the church. In marrying a man, you did not do that, did you?” Linden asked, before asserting that is a matter of “integrity” that “priests must fashion their lives” in accordance with church teaching. To which Pemberton responded: “As a matter of integrity, no one has the right to tell me who I can and cannot marry. It is unlawful for the bishops to say so.”

This was one of the warmer exchanges.

Lynzy Billing

Linden described Pemberton’s wedding as taking place amid a “storm of publicity” that Pemberton had “created”. In an exchange about whether he could have foreseen the precise consequences, during which Pemberton stated that he could not, Linden replied: “The Daily Mail was able to work out the consequences of your actions.” He added, “You know perfectly well you had plunged the church into crisis nationally,” before concluding: “You got yourself in this mess."

Several hours in, Linden questioned Pemberton over the decision to remove his PTO. Pemberton began to cry, humiliated by the memory. Linden responded, “Crying isn’t necessarily fair to the respondent.”

In the tribunal room, there was “quite a reaction” to this, says Pemberton – his own barristers were taken aback. Amid the unfriendly fire, Pemberton, however, remained resolute.

“There was something hugely satisfying about actually being there, getting evidence heard," he says. "That was a big win as far as I was concerned – somebody heard my story and quizzed the other side. Also very present in my mind was that this is a test case that could be influential for other people, that this could raise in the public mind, ‘What are the limits we want to put on the state church in its exemptions from the law of the land?’”

There were also moments of sheer absurdity.

After the final witness, Malcolm Brown, director of mission and public affairs for the Archbishops' Council of the Church of England, took to the stand, “He said the only thing that really mattered was not using the word marriage,” says Pemberton. “He said perhaps we could have called it ‘civil partnership max’."

At this point, according to the transcript of the hearing, Pemberton's barrister suggested the word "morriage" as an alternative. "And he [Brown] said, ‘That's a joke, isn't it?’” Pemberton roars with laughter.

Nevertheless, the four days in court, following all the events of the preceding year, proved bruising.

“I’m not in love with the Church of England any more,” he says, flatly. “I have a vocation to God, not the Church of England." To be in an institution that views the nature of your relationship as rendering you unfit to work is only one aspect of this: "They have this odd rhetoric about gay people. Take last year: [The church] produced some material about combatting homophobia in schools but still managed to make out [that gay people's] sexuality made them in some ways less good people."

The first part of the document in question contains the following passage: "The official Church of England teaching about the human sexual act is that 'it is an act of total commitment which belongs properly within a permanent married relationship and that homosexual acts fall short of this ideal.'"

Pemberton continues: "Then there was some pronouncement about homophobia, how we’ve failed to call on people to repent of their homophobia, and I think, ‘Hang on, it’s not about other people repenting their bloody homophobia, it’s you lot and your institutional homophobia!” Pemberton stops, aware his voice is raised. “That’s the problem, because actually, deep down, I think they’re still not convinced that we are ‘good as you’: G.A.Y.”

Such rhetoric, says Pemberton, is “seriously damaging”, and partly to blame for dwindling numbers in churches. The only way to rectify such absence in pews, he says, would be for the church to conduct research among church-leavers, to find out why they've left. Why doesn't the church do that?

“The Church of England still has establishment and bishops in the House of Lords – all sorts of privileges. It has entitlement, and entitled people don’t bother asking difficult questions about whether their business is working or not. That’s the problem.”

Jeremy Pemberton / Facebook
Jeremy Pemberton / Facebook

On 4 November, four months after the hearing, the 58-page judgment came in: Pemberton had lost on all counts. “The claimant would never have been in this position had he not defied the doctrine of the church,” said the ruling. “The claimant knowingly entered into that marriage and knew what the potential consequences could be for him. … In getting married to his partner, he was flying in the face of the clear restating of doctrine in relation to same-sex marriage.”

“I wasn’t surprised,” says Pemberton. Although the hearing had heartened him and his counsel, the summing up in September – in which several points they thought they had established suddenly appeared shaky – dampened their optimism. “I wasn’t expecting to win on this round.” After examining the ruling, however, Pemberton’s lawyers were “clear it is right to launch an appeal". And, he adds, "We will continue for as long as we can and for as long as they tell me it’s right to do so.”

In an intriguing twist of the law, if Pemberton wins the appeal it will have stronger legal implications than if he had won initially. “Employment tribunals are not courts of record but employment appeal tribunals are,” he explains – legal precedent will be cemented if the appeal succeeds.

If the Church of England were to appeal the appeal, the case would be kicked up to the Supreme Court and eventually the European Court of Human Rights. That could take years.

When BuzzFeed News asked the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham to respond to various assertions made by Pemberton, a spokesperson replied: “I do not wish to comment on the points outlined,” and instead furnished BuzzFeed News with the statement the diocese released following the judgment: “We are thankful to the tribunal for its work on this complex case and for its findings in favour of the former Acting Diocesan Bishop, the Rt Revd Richard Inwood, on all the claims made against him. We recognise that it has been a long and difficult process for all concerned, and we continue to hold them in our thoughts and prayers.”

The spokesperson also reiterated the statement the Church of England put out after the case, which included the line, “Clergy do not have the option of treating the teachings of the church as an a la carte menu.”

Despite the strain exerted by the case and the assaults on Pemberton’s mental health, on his capacity to sleep, and of course on his career, the canon remains determined. In part this seems informed not only by a belief in equality and justice but also by his history. He remembers himself as a teenager, the boy who ran to God, to the church, and married a woman: “I would have liked to say to him, ‘It’s fine to be you, whoever you are,” he says. But as the interview ends and he talks about the seemingly never-ending legal battle ahead, something stronger glimmers in his face again, a reminder of the fuel that has powered all of this: love.

ADVERTISEMENT