The culture wars over transgender issues have caused some notable casualties, notably the Harry Potter writer JK Rowling, but many others too who have fallen foul were just going about their everyday lives. “I’m clearly not in the same league of JK Rowling,” says the Rev Mr Bernard Randall. “She’s a proper person. I’m just me.”
But for the 48-year-old father of one, the personal cost of getting caught up in the battle has been just as traumatic. After provoking a furore in June 2019 when he delivered a sermon in the chapel of the Derbyshire private school where he was chaplain that invited – “rather instructed,” he points out – pupils to reflect on the Church’s teaching on sex and marriage, he has been sacked, barred from leading services anywhere in the Church of England, and referred to a range of official bodies from the local authority designated safeguarding officer (the “LADO”), national educational regulatory authorities, and the Government’s anti-radicalisation programme, Prevent.
All three saw no reason to take any action against him, to his relief, but still he faces the prospect of never being able work again or follow his religious vocation to ministry. “Who will give me a job when I have no references from a previous employer and when I bring with me all sorts of baggage?”
He tells me from his home in Nottinghamshire that he is “not angry, just disappointed. The support of my wife and daughter has literally kept me in one piece”.
It all began with a training day in September 2018. He had already done three years at Trent College at Long Eaton in Derbyshire, an independent boarding school set up as an explicitly Anglican foundation in the late 19th century.
Previously a university chaplain at Cambridge, the Rev Mr Randall had switched to schools because he wanted to instil in younger children some of the religious literacy he had found so sorely missing in undergraduates.
Before the pupils arrived back for the new term, the staff gathered to brush up their skills by attending a session from Educate & Celebrate, a charity that works with school communities to tackle and reduce homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.
It had been named in a list of useful resources by Valuing All God’s Children, a 2014 Church of England report on education, though it has no religious attachments itself.
“Elements of what they told us were fine,” he recalls, “that we should not tolerate bullying for example, and things around diversity, but I found that their references to ‘smashing heteronormativity’ [the assumption that most or all people are straight] did not sit well in a Christian school.”
A High Anglican by upbringing, but one who has become more “mainstream” in his ministry, the Rev Mr Randall is no Evangelical firebrand. Instead, he is gently insistent on making plain his own view that it is “absolutely right the Church is more relaxed about people being gay or same-sex-attracted, or whatever words you want to use, than it used to be, and that the vitriol that used to be poured out on gay people was abhorrent”.
Yet at the same time he points out that his Church’s “good and wholesome” teaching does not permit gay marriage, or allow those in sexual relationships with others of the same sex to be priests. And that is the point of view he sought to put forward in discussions with Trent College’s senior leadership on how far to go with implementing Educate & Celebrate programme in the school to combat transphobia.
He saw some – but not all – areas of what they advocated as “problematic”. Yet, he soon realised that, as chaplain, despite the stated ethos of the school, he was being excluded from the emerging plan, “because, as one person told me, you might disagree with it”.
The school, it should be noted, has subsequently disputed that anyone ever used those exact words – and other aspects of the case he lays against them. “I clearly remember them saying that,” he insists, and adds that he wasn’t the only member of staff who “wasn’t impressed” by Educate & Celebrate’s programme, “though some were very keen”.
So, was his concern that a kind of brainwashing was set to take place? Among the areas where he and trans activists would disagree are around biological sex as against gender, and what he would call gender reassignment and they would refer to as an intrinsic “gender identity”.
“I would be cautious of the word ‘brainwashing’,” he begins. “What a school can’t do is lie to children. You can’t change sex. That comes from a particular worldview that includes believing in this thing called gender identity without any question. Once you start lying to children, all sorts of bad things happen.”
No policy document was ever circulated at Trent College to give him a chance to raise a formal objection to the implementation of Educate & Celebrate’s scheme. So, he addressed the issues in the sermon that has cast such a cloud over his life these past four years.
“Each summer term I would ask the pupils to suggest topics for chapel services. One Year 10 lad (15-year-olds) asked me, ‘can you explain how come we are told that we have to accept all this LGBT stuff in a Christian school?’ That seemed to me a very good question and that was what I quoted in my sermon.”
He concedes, when I question it, that “have to accept” is “a very strong way of putting it”, but at the same time argues that his sermon “wasn’t saying which is right or wrong, or condemning all gay people”. Instead it “allowed a much more neutral, balanced debate: freedom of conscience, freedom to believe what you believe is important. I was fully aware that many LGBT activists were of the ‘no-debate’ school”.
He was, he maintains to this day, “a Church of England chaplain telling pupils in a Church of England school to think about the Church of England’s view”. Nothing to object to in that? Well, an employment tribunal more than three years later ruled that, by using phrases like “you may believe”, he was being “persuasive and inappropriate”. For his part, he feels that “all sermons are inherently meant to be a little bit persuasive”.
After he had delivered the sermon twice, complaints were raised, including that he was saying it was fine to be homophobic.
A meeting was called for the following week with the deputy head and safeguarding lead. “I knew there was no safeguarding element. So, I found it quite terrifying. Safeguarding can destroy people’s careers. I was not in a good state of mind at the meeting. I was angry. It wasn’t fair.”
The outcome saw him suspended immediately, pending an investigation and a disciplinary hearing which took place before school broke up for summer.
The verdict was delayed by the long vacation. That summer was “desperately hard” at his home three quarters of a mile from the school, he remembers with a grimace. In September 2019, days before he was due to return, a letter was hand-delivered to say he had been sacked by Trent College for “gross misconduct”.
“Part of me was absolutely distraught, and part wanted to laugh at the absurdity. How could this happen to me? How could it happen to anybody?”
He appealed the dismissal, and to his “huge surprise”, was reinstated in autumn 2019 by an internal panel. He was, instead, given a written warning, had his teaching timetable (delivering lessons in classics and religious education) axed, and had to agree that any sermon he gave was to be vetted before delivery.
When the Covid lockdown began, the school initially furloughed him but then restructured itself and made him redundant in December 2020. The ordeal, however, continued. Now safeguarding in his local diocese of Derby was involved, its investigation “is still ongoing” and has, he fears, reached an impasse, with the bishop’s advisors wanting an admission of safeguarding mistakes before moving forward, and him sticking to his guns that he did nothing wrong.
And while that stand-off remains, he cannot take his place at the altar. “I am deemed to be too dangerous.”
Some priests find ways to get round such a state of liturgical limbo in private. But not the Rev Mr Randall. “I still say my prayers on my own, but a service needs a congregation.”
The employment tribunal in September 2022, over unfair dismissal found against him. He believes it was flawed and biassed. He is appealing.
“It quoted all sorts of documents at length but only 20 words of my actual sermon, and without context. They didn’t engage with what I had said and I find it hard to see that as fair judgement.”
He is also, with the support of campaigning group Christian Concern, now taking legal action against Trent College and its headteacher, alleging victimisation, harassment and discrimination on religious grounds.
How is he making ends meet? “A secular appointment which is not what I want to be doing. I am teaching arts and humanities at a university. My wife works part time as a music administrator, but we have seen a significant drop in our income.”
That isn’t really the point, though, he continues. “The main thing is we can’t plan for the future because I don’t know what I will be allowed to do.” Or for that matter, allowed to say, either from the pulpit or as a teacher.
“After all that has happened, my confidence is very low.”