Saturday, 4 October 2008

Clergy bullying: Trouble at Mill?

I can’t comment on the Mark Sharpe case, currently in progress, in another diocese, but the Church Times and Thinking Anglicans have commented on harrassment, working conditions and employment rights of the clergy — issues somebody suggested to me the other day are something of my pet subject. The union says:
Should Revd. Sharpe’s case be upheld after any appeal, it will mean that ministers across the UK will be subject to legislation covering: health & safety, the national minimum wage, paid holidays, ‘whistle-blowing’, anti-discrimination, paid holidays, family-friendly flexible working policies, the working time directive, and unlawful deduction of wages
I can understand the union dramatizing, but Philip Petchey’s article in the Ecclesiastical Law Journal 33 (not free online but you can buy it here) gives a much more sober, accurate account of how employment law has viewed ministers of religion since Victorian times and why, as well as where we really are now.

It’s been a rapidly evolving field for clergy, like everybody else, but current legislation will mean that, in principle, clergy will soon have terms and conditions that largely reflect the general workplace. It’s important to remember that as well as giving rights, this legislation also lays on clergy newly explicit responsibilities about capability and accountablility which most clergy traditionally discharged in our own, characteristically less explicit and formal, ways.

As a clergyman for the past 29 years, including almost 5 as a bishop, I rather work on the basis that as far as possible, church ministers should have at least as good working rights and responsibilities as everyone else — preferably better.
“As far as possible” because we clergy have extra freedoms, vulnerabilities and burdens that arise from the fact that we ourselves, as well as the church and the public, see our calling as a way of life more than a nine to five job. Some of our best satisfactions, as well as worst frustrations come from this simple fact.

We often work from home in a voluntary organisation within a broader community that can bless or curse us, sometimes both at once. Many expectations are implicit. This doesn’t justify abuse, but it inevitably means a far more complex and subtle working context than simple industrial or commercial workplaces. We do have enormous freedom about our hours and lines of approach to our work, but most of us care very much about our calling and tend to overwork. Most of the difficulties we experience arise from vicious circles driven by dysfunctional relationships, rather than simple operational or logistical failures. The clergy workforce is so radically “flat” and dispersed that we have had to take more responsibility for our own work than in more bureacratically supervised professions. There just isn’t a large HR department, although some would say it’s on its way.

The Union statement helpfully draws attention to 2 other big issues:

Health and Safety is a complex and fast evolving field of its own. In basic ways legislation aready applies, but as with all small (sub 5) workplaces, in patchy and variable ways which have to be constantly reviewed locally. H&S is a complex and rapidly evolving field, some even say industry, of its own. Historically, clergy have often scored very high in job satisfaction surveys, but many of us find the increasing bureaucratization of their working practice in this and other areas a genuine stress inducer.

Minimum Wage, family flexibility and working time — because clergy working time is largely deployed at our own discretion (apart perhaps from Sunday service times), the story here is theoretically perfectly clear. This doesn’t mean things always work out ideally. Clergy are not hourly paid, so I can’t really see paid holidays and unlawful deductions as issues for us.

I am most interested in two other HR issues:
  1. Whistle-blowing
    Here practice is variable. The positive is that the strong but minimal legal framework within which the Church operates does confer basic protection all round. Historically, the beneficed majority of clergy have held one of the safest jobs in the country. The force of new legislation will, rightly, extend similar protection to their colleagues. The negative is that subtle implicit workplaces with high community engagement (like the police, health and social services) are the hardest places to identify and correct subtle and coded abuse.
  2. Anti-Dscrimination
    This touches a murky area of human nature where if we are not intentionally working towards a solution, we are part of the problem. I believe that the best way to secure the end of disability, gender and other forms of discrimination is to grow a positive and itentional diversity policy among ourselves. Awareness is the key, and the only way to make real progress is to follow compliance procedures across the whole range of operations doggedly over many years. I don’t believe this is about being dragged kicking and screaming into compliance by outside law. Rather, Jesus teaches us that God is bringing in a kingdom founded on justice, where every race, people, kindred, contribute their particularity to a glorious whole which we are called to realise insofar as in us lies, now. Therefore a discriminatory church which isn’t trying to do anything about being discriminatory is a lousy church. Therefore, our diocesan committee for racial justice is working out what we call a rigorous diversity agenda for our diocese, based on the Wood-Sheppard principles for race equality...
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