I have been lucky — very blessed, on the whole — about the people I served during 24 years as an urban and suburban parish priest. They trusted me and supported me, way beyond my deserving or the call of duty; coped with my immaturity and uncertainty, my blundering attempts to understand what the job was about, my occasional depressions, fits and starts. These were the people who comforted me when my father died, and left meals on the doorstep when our children were born. But among them were, I reckon, three Prize Bullies. I felt it was somehow my fault that they were so overbearing. I felt trapped by my role in a place where I could do little or nothing about them.
I don’t buy “Pure Church” fantasy, and I believe that Rachael is drawing attention to a serious issue. Every area of human endeavour can become a toxic working environment, including this one, which has its own particular risk factors.
- Pretty much all other professionals live far away from their work these days. Not vicars. Everybody knows where to find them.
- Most Vicars are at heart altruistic, caring people, and this brings its own vulnerabilities. People have a tremendous longing to believe all is well in Church, sometimes in the face of what they know to be the truth. There are even people who behave in Church much worse than they would in daily work, where some of their antics would simply not be tolerated. Vicars, who often believe sincerely in going the second mile go to tremendous lengths to believe the best of people, some of whom may not have their best interests at heart. Vicars sometimes feel that if everybody is not happy it’s their fault.
- For many vicars, their life is their work. Drawing boundaries between the two doesn’t always come easily to them, and in many instances wouldn't be appropriate. Anyway their job is also tied to their home. If they have to be off work, they can’t get away from it in the way that they could from a conventional workplace.
- Being a Vicar means radical availability to all comers, and can involve unanticipated bouts of harrowing work — children’s funerals, personal disputes and tragedies. When our Occupational health physicians ask if someone can be given light duties in the post room, as it were, the honest answer is probably not, because there isn't really a vicar job that can be guaranteed not to involve unexpected painful encounter with people in need.
- At one time Casualty departments and underground stations didn’t need to be festooned with notices warning the punters off punching the staff. In earlier and kinder times people were more deferential, and this relieved some strain on clergy to establish themselves as leaders. Large numbers of able and articulate people enrich the life of the church, but when things go wrong can make clergy feel desperately anxious and exposed, not always intentionally.
How could things improve?
- Anyone who believes a member of the clergy may either be being bullied or, indeed, be bullying, owes it to themselves and everyone else, including the perpetrator, to draw hard evidence to someone’s attention — bishop, archdeacon, area dean. Ditto gender or racial discrimination. Of course they will have at some stage to give evidence for what they are alleging in a form that can be communicated to the other person involved. I once was bombarded (bullied?) by over 100 emails from an angry person who wanted to complain about a vicar but refused to be accountable by providing evidence in writing I could lay before them at the preliminary stage. Clergy have a right to protection from malicious gossip. I did not give in on this point and would not. Measured natural justice all round is the only conceivable way to protect the human beings involved when feelings are running high.
- This is a desperately unfashionable thing to say, but law and due process, sometimes an ass, no doubt, are there to protect everyone from abuse. Ditto working guidelines for clergy. We all, of course, want to live in a low deference informal society. The flip side of this desire is that anger will often out in intimidating and radically disrespectful ways. The advent of emails speeds the process up, discourages reflection, spreads pain and gossip round networks instantaneously, and enables people to say, for good or ill, things they would never dream of saying face to face.
- Irresponsibility about hitting the send button sometimes spills over into letter-writing, and I receive letters that are Anonymous or from “a concerned parishioner.” The best way I can help these people is by giving them the opportunity to write a letter to which they could put their name. That means popping their letters straight into the shredder, where they could themselves have popped them the night before, if only they had had their wits about them. After many years of hearing confessions, the contents of their letters are in one ear and out the other, and I look forward to hearing from them in a less shameful way that shows higher character and accountability.
- One simple fact is that clergy work in a much more open unsupervised environment than pretty much any other occupational group. On a good day, that gives us enormous historic independence, discretion and liberty about how we work, compared to others. On a bad day it can create an isolated, toxic working environment. In most contexts, most of the time, there is a strong community of loyalty and support for working clergy. We need to think through better ways of helping when that community is divided or non-existent. The involvement of a union is usually a good and positive thing if it brings any church based dispute within the ambit of good working practice in other areas of life. The Church of England is moving towards Common Tenure, for which legislation has gone through and should be implemented by 2010. Bishops and senior staff are receiving active HR training to help this happen well. CT will give licensed clergy access to tribunals and better HR support. With it, however, comes more responsibility about capability. Like everyone else, probably, I'd love to preserve the best of the historic freedom of the clergy, whilst attaching to it the best protection and support from more closely supervised working environments. This is going to be quite a difficult thing to achieve, though, especially in a workforce as “flat” as that of the Church of England.
- Most people are better learners than they think. I am often deeply impressed by their grace and ability to reinvent themselves if they don’t feel trapped where they are, or in other contexts that suit them and their gifts better. The Bloody Fool theory is almost always wrong. We need to invest significantly in training and independent career counseling for clergy. In this diocese we have also developed the Developing Servant Leaders programme for all clergy to help them develop positive skills and attitudes that may help. We also have a network of work consultants, and are experimenting with developments in the role of area dean in places, to have more time to support colleagues. I also take professional HR advice in a variety of situations. All these things are moves in a good direction, but I would say we’ve a way to go yet...