Clergy Discipline Measure – the need for total change

Today has been fascinating. In the Education team in the Diocese of Liverpool we use our lawyers, LBMW (Lee Bolton Monier-Williams) a good deal. They are excellent. In my work supporting clergy and as a Spiritual Director I often find myself working with clergy on the receiving end of Clergy Discipline Measures (CDMs), or feeling at least that they have been, or could be, threatened with CDM. When I saw that LBMW were offering a day today on Clergy Well Being and the CDM process I was very glad to sign up. I was very pleased too to see that my diocesan bishop was with me.

My own experience as a Headteacher and now as a Diocesan Director of Education gives me a very different position to observe this process from, just on the sidelines and a little on the outside.

I was not disappointed. It was an excellent day. The first presentation was from Simon Butler, an old friend from my days in the diocese of Southwark and one of the main framers of the current Clergy Well Being Covenant about to make its way (we hope) through General Synod. Simon’s was the most theological input of the day and he was able to speak from his own experience as a parish priest and in supporting clergy involved in the CDM process.

Ian Blaney and Ed Henderson followed, both from the LBMW team and very helpful on some of the legal and structural issues. Definitely on the side of the angels. Dr Gary Bell a clinical psychologist followed in the afternoon. Clearly an expert in his subject this was just not the presentation I am sure we needed.

So, some thoughts from me. Not just on today but from my knowledge of how clergy discipline works in practice and in this week in which the Anglican church is being examined at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and which fills me with rage.

Timing

For me this is the worst thing about our current processes. The length of time that the process takes at the moment is wicked and horrifying.

As we all know, justice delayed is justice denied. I cannot conceive of why these timeframes are given. The reasons given, at the meeting today, for a bishop needing 28 days to make a decision included “Time in the House of Lords” and “trips to link dioceses”. I only wish this was a joke. Have the people who said this not read the gospels? Jesus wept. A human being is accused of something and a bishop needs 28 days to reply because she or he spends a few hours a day in the Lords or is on a trip around the world. I was in New Zealand a couple of years ago and maintained my discipline of replying to emails in 24 hours. If you think the House of Lords is more important than someone accused of something, you have lost the plot. In fact the LBMW lawyers admitted that if given 28 days they wouldn’t begin work until day 26. I can report that when I ask LMBW’s advice it would be very unusual to have to wait until the next day.

These timescales are so at variance from the norm in secular employment that I cannot think of strong enough words to describe them. This is pure wickedness. As Ian said the norm in secular employment would be 2 – 3 weeks for the whole process. As a Head I believed that the well being of my staff was a priority, I cannot begin to think how a bishop would consider a 28 day response period as humane. In fact, as a Head, when a serious accusation was made against staff the advice from HR was that we should try and resolve it before the following weekend, even if the complaint was received on a Friday. This might involve working late into the night. But that was worth it. We understood that an accusation could destroy someone’s life.

Support For Clergy

There is a real problem with the support offered for clergy. Too often it is not independent, too often it is not pro-active. In education independent support means someone with no connection with the school or Local Authority. I am horrified when I hear that independent mediation has been sourced and it turns out to be a retired priest, or a priest with counselling training. Independent means proper professional training and no other connection. The support is monitored and if not taken up followed through. Simply not wanting to engage is not good enough, an employer has a right and duty to know that an employee off work is being cared for.

Communication

An almost constant complaint from clergy in CDM processes is the means of communication. I am horrified that the first form of communication at each stage is often email or letter. As a Head at every stage I or someone else would ring or speak in person before any follow up electronic or paper communication. Perhaps the bishops are too busy in the House of Lords? A good enough reason for dis-establishment. I cannot think of anything more important than communicating with an employee face to face in these situations.

Suspension

Ian was very clear that suspension is “not neutral”. No one in education would claim that it was. In schools we suspend only when there is real and actual danger to children. Suspension is a violent act that is likely to cause enormous stress. It is very hard to return from suspension, especially after the sort of timescales that the church is operating in.

Alternatives

National

A significant discussion today was about the benefits of a national system. My own bishop made the point that this might lead to collusion at a local level against a national system perceived as the enemy. I did not find this convincing. Given that the level of CDMs is about 100 a year no diocese can build sufficient expertise to deal with the process, this would be better dealt with centrally.

Unions

The absence of a professional association for clergy is a huge deficit. At the beginning of the day the question was asked who belongs to a union, I was the only person present who did (ASCL). Unions are our friends. As an employer I have never experienced unions as anything other than helpful. They provide a voice on the ‘side’ of the employee to speak to the employee and the employer. They can speak ‘truth’ to an employee that no employer ever can.

[UPDATE 6 July, 2019

Several people have asked for more on this. I belong to the Association of School and College Leaders, the first piece of advice I gave as a Head to Newly Qualified Teachers was to join a union. One of the issues facing clergy, including bishops, caught in the CDM process is significant legal costs. Ecclesiastical legal aid does exist but grants do not meet full costs. There was talk on the day that EIG will top up insurance yo cover legal costs but I am not sure which insurance was being referred to. Belonging to a union/professional association will normally include legal costs and advice.

The union Unite has a faith workers section and seems to be the one that clergy are joining, I would recommend that all clergy join so that Unite can build up its own strength and expertise in this area.]

Office holders or employees?

There was brief discussion about this but it is really the fundamental question. I simply cannot understand why anyone would want to be an ‘office holder’ and not have all the rights that go with being an employee.

The only reason given was ‘independence’. As a Head, as Director of Education, my position is protected in law, I have more opportunity to be independent than I could ever need. If people want to be prophets they have to face the consequences of being John the Baptist or Jeremiah. In fact we know that parish clergy tend to be deeply conformist. Being office holders is a form of protectionism not a permission to prophecy.

Grievances

There was some discussion of this. Grievances are used relatively frequently in schools. There is a grievance process for clergy. This needs to be much more widely publicised than it is. People need to be able to complain. That is good. Having separate processes reduces the stress. We need a culture in which it is OK to complain, but which is not totally destructive. I hope none of my Heads would lose sleep over a Grievance.

***

I am grateful to LBMW for a stimulating day. In the breaking down of the church as institution that God is so clearly calling us to, it seems to me that almost everything that distinguishes us from ‘secular’ employers will have to go. And we will be better for it when it does.

What would Jesus do?

It wouldn’t look anything like what we have now.

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6 Comments

  1. Thank you. When there was a complaint against me I was treated as a problem to be solved that led to the archdeacon writing a letter of apology from me that was then read out in public. I broke, the bishop attended a confirmation service in the church next door to my home and a) I was not allowed to attend and b) he did not visit me. Later same archdeacon in my MDR warned me that I needed to succeed in my then post. I am no longer in that diocese and the support is much better, but I continue to live in fear of the consequences of any of my actions.

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  2. Good article and many excellent points, particularly about the timescale. I too am fairly mystified by the post holder vs employee argument: it seems to me that the church always deploys that one when seeking to avoid the obligations of being an employer

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  3. Fr Richard, I was at the same seminar, which I agree was excellent and thought-provoking. I would just query a couple of your memories of it as I remember those parts entirely differently.

    Firstly, I saw at least five people put up their hands when we were asked who was in a Union (often quickly retracted as a lawyer present pointed out that nobody had to answer). I kept mine up. So that’s at least one other. Perhaps where you were seated you missed this.

    Secondly, the point about bishops often visiting link dioceses/being in the House of Lords was made in response to a specific issue being raised: why don’t Bishops more often meet with respondents as part of the process? If they are the other side of the world, they can’t.

    Thirdly, I disagree that grievances are a simple matter that don’t cause harm. In my experience in the secular world they did; having a grievance taken out against me by someone in my team remains a traumatic memory. I believe the point was made in the seminar that grievance procedures will not solve the problem of clergy wellbeing in the context of discipline, though clearly there’s a strong case for looking at them afresh.

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    1. Thanks for this Jane. As you say I may have had an unhelpful view. My notes suggest that the House of Lords was mentioned twice, once, as you say, when meeting face to face was discussed but also when Ian suggested shaving time off the days suggested, and this was challenged by some of those present which exacerbated my sense of disease.

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  4. Thank you, Richard. A very timely, and extremely coherent article.

    You do not (unless I missed it) anything about sanctions subsequent to the CDM decision. For those who are indeed ‘guilty’ of whatever ‘crime’ the CDM was brought against them for, it is quite a mystery as to the level of sanction that might be imposed, and also the rationale behind any such implementation. As I see it there is a putative scale of ‘tariffs’ that a Diocesan Bishop can invoke, but there is apparently no obvious structure that co-ordinates such sanctions across dioceses. If the CDM is to be seen to be humane (indeed, Christian!), then the rationales need to be made a lot clearer and tighter.

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  5. I’m in two minds about the question of timescale. Certainly the officials involved ought to be able to get their acts together more quickly than is prescribed, but respondents, I feel, may well need time to recover from the shock, take advice, consider their response, and develop a strategy. Another cruel flaw in the CDM process as it stands is that respondents may only answer the specific accusations made: context not considered, and there is no opportunity to tell their story from their perspective, but only through the lens of the complaint.

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