The Right Reverend Jonathan Clive Blake v Associated Newspapers Ltd

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtQueen's Bench Division
JudgeThe Hon. Mr Justice Gray,Mr Justice Gray
Judgment Date31 Jul 2003
Neutral Citation[2003] EWHC 1960 (QB)
Docket NumberCase No: 02/TLQJ/1760

[2003] EWHC 1960 (QB)

IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE

QUEENS BENCH DIVISION

Royal Courts of Justice

Strand, London, WC2A 2LL

Before:

The Honourable Mr Justice Gray

Case No: 02/TLQJ/1760

Between
The Right Reverend Jonathan Clive Blake
Claimant
and
Associated Newspapers Limited
Defendant

The Claimant in person

Miss Adrienne Page QC and Adam Speker

(instructed by Reynolds Porter Chamberlain) for the Defendant

Hearing dates: 28–29 July 2003

I direct that pursuant to CPR PD 39A para 6.1 no official shorthand note shall be taken of this Judgment and that copies of this version as handed down may be treated as authentic.

Approved Judgment

The Hon. Mr Justice Gray Mr Justice Gray

The issue

1

The question which I have to decide at the present hearing is whether, given that it is common ground that the defence advanced in this libel action by the Defendant raises issues which are non-justiciable, it is necessary that the action as a whole be stayed with the consequence that the Claimant would be denied the opportunity to vindicate his reputation.

2

That question arises procedurally in the form of two preliminary issues directed by me on 22 November 2002. Those issues are:

i) whether and, if so, to what extent, in order to determine the issues in this action, it is necessary to determine matters which are non-justiciable; and

ii) if the answer to question (i) is "yes", whether the action should be stayed.

The parties

3

The Claimant, who has represented himself at this hearing in a dignified and persuasive manner, describes himself in the title to the action as "The Right Reverend Jonathan Clive Blake". His history is in summary that he was ordained into the Anglican Church in 1981 and in due course became vicar of a parish in southeast London. He reigned his incumbency in 1993 following the breakdown of his marriage involving adultery on his part. In 1994 he relinquished his status as a priest within the Church of England. Thereafter he continued to describe himself as "Reverend Jonathan Blake" and to wear clerical robes similar to those worn by clergymen in the Church of England. The Claimant asserts that he remained a clergyman and that his robes were not designed to imitate those worn within the Church of England.

4

In January 2000 the Claimant and Richard Palmer co-founded "The Society for Independent Christian Ministry" ("SICM"). The documents in the case do not reveal how many others were involved. Subsequently "The Province for Open Episcopal Ministry and Jurisdiction" ("POEM") was brought into existence following lengthy discussions between the Claimant and Richard Palmer. The Claimant told me that the impetus for the foundation of POEM was the wish of a particular clergyman to be ordained by the laying on of hands by a bishop which SICM was unable to provide. I was further told that, being a "province" within the one Church of God, POEM was in a position through Richard Palmer, himself a former bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church, to consecrate bishops.

5

On 9 December 2000 the Claimant was ordained a priest by Richard Palmer. The following day, 10 December 2000, the Claimant was consecrated a bishop, again by Richard Palmer. An announcement of the forthcoming consecration of the Claimant had been placed in the issue of The Times for 11 October 2000. Included in the papers is an Order of Service; there are also a video and still photographs of the ceremony. At the time of the consecration of the Claimant POEM was not, as I understand it, part of or attached to any particular church or denomination. But the Claimant informed me that POEM was a diocese or province within The Open Episcopal Church, whose canons were promulgated on 18 November 2001.

6

The Defendant is the publisher of the Daily Mail.

The newspaper articles

7

The articles published in the Daily Mail which are the subject of the Claimant's complaint followed an appearance by the Claimant on a nationwide daytime television programme in the course of which the Claimant officiated in a ceremony which was described as the marriage of two homosexual men. The Claimant was dressed throughout in robes similar to those worn by bishops of the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church. He was described by the presenters as "a real bishop". Reference was made in an interview with the Claimant before the ceremony to the fact that he had been ordained a priest and had "worked traditionally in the Church of England for 12 years". No reference was made to SICM or POEM.

8

On the following day, 15 February 2001, the first article complained of appeared in the Daily Mail. It was headed:

"A gay 'wedding' conducted by a self-styled bishop, with Richard and Judy as witnesses. How daytime TV celebrated Valentine's Day."

9

The relevant part of the text of the article read:

"…Jonathan Blake, a self-styled bishop in costume mitre and cloak, led the ten-minute segment in which he gave the union his blessing.

The divorced father-of-two and former vicar left the Church of England after questions over his private life in September 1994. He was embroiled in an acrimonious divorce battle after confessing to his wife that he had an affair with a parishioner.

He now practices with The Society for Independent Christian Ministry, an organisation he helped to establish. It operates outside the conventional church. His previous wedding 'blessings' have been conducted on a speed boat and the Internet".

Two days later, on 17 February 2001, there appeared in a comment column the second article of which the Claimant complains:

"Rites and wrongs

This week's most repulsive stunt —shown on TV when elderly ladies and small children were almost certainly watching —was the Valentine Day 'marriage' of two particularly cheesy homosexuals on the Richard and Judy show. Officiating was an imitation bishop who was a once-divorced former clergyman. The only thing that surprised me about this disgusting event was that the producers couldn't find a real bishop to do it. Given the appalling moral confusion of the Church of England these days, I'd have thought its bishops would have been queuing up. It's at times like this I thank God I'm an atheist".

10

In his letter and e-mail of complaint about these two articles, the Claimant stressed that he was a validly consecrated bishop of the Christian church. He insisted that his proper title is the Right Reverend Jonathan Blake or Bishop Jonathan Blake.

The parties' statements of case

11

In due course these proceedings were commenced. It is important to note how at the outset the Claimant put his case. The defamatory meanings attributed to the two articles in the Particulars of Claim, as foreshadowed in the letter before action, are:

i) that the first article meant that the Claimant, though not a validly consecrated bishop and not entitled to be called a bishop, publicly styles himself as a bishop and publicly masquerades as a bishop in bishop's costume

ii) that the second article meant that the Claimant, though not even a clergyman, publicly and dishonestly imitates a bishop, an office for which he has no qualification whatsoever, and thereby sets out to deceive the public.

12

The Amended Defence puts in issue the claim of the Claimant to have been consecrated a bishop within the Province for Open Episcopal Ministry and Jurisdiction and his claim to apostolic succession going back to Vatican Records. There are pleas of justification and fair comment. The primary meaning sought to be justified as true is:-

"that the Claimant is a self-styled bishop in that he calls himself a bishop and presents himself as such in the costume of a bishop, in circumstances where he has created himself, or caused himself to be created a bishop of an organisation created by him, and of a diocese also created by him; and in circumstances where, by ordinary standards of this society, he is not a bishop and would not merit appointment as one".

13

In the alternative the newspaper contends that the articles were true in the meanings put upon them by the Claimant which I have set out at paragraph 11 above. In the further alternative the Defendant pleads that it is true that the Claimant is in all the circumstances an imitation bishop. This last meaning is also sought to be defended as being a fair comment on a matter of public interest.

14

The supporting particulars set out in some detail from paragraph 6.41 to 6.54 the events leading up to the ceremony which took place on 10 December 2000. It is asserted that, having left the Liberal Catholic Church, Richard Palmer had no authority to ordain the Claimant as a priest beyond the authority he assumed upon the founding of SICM which was founded by Palmer and the Claimant. As to the consecration of the Claimant as a bishop within POEM, the Defendant alleges that Richard Palmer purported by self-appointment to be a bishop within POEM. It is further alleged that the consecration did not take place within, or in conformity with the rules of, any established Christian denomination or according to any rules or criteria established independently of SICM or POEM. Accordingly it is the Defendant's case that the Claimant's claim to the status of a bishop was without any validity, save as accorded to it by the Claimant and Palmer by agreement between themselves.

15

The Defendant alleges that the Claimant caused and/or instigated his own appointment as a bishop in an organisation founded by him and in circumstances where he did not have the seniority or good standing required for such an appointment. So, it is alleged, the Claimant is rightly described as a "self-styled" bishop: by publicly styling himself a bishop and dressing up in the costume of a bishop of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, he is masquerading as an independently appointed religious leader of high rank who attained such...

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