Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Preventing Clergy Bullying (of and by)

Ruth Gledhill’s Times article on the Mark Sharpe case in Worcester has raised fresh allegations about bullying behavour in the Church. I know absolutely nothing except what’s in the papers about its particular details, which need to be worked out and made public by the tribunal. Bullying behaviour goes on, of course, in all working contexts, including the Church — in my experience less so in the Church than in other contexts in which I’ve worked, education and prisons, but any incidence is shameful and wrong.

As a jobbing bishop I've taken a particular interest in the problem, and blogged about it more than once over the past two years. It’s very good to have full and open public discussion. Some of the things that will be said may be offbeam, but many won’t, and the general effect is to raise awarenss of the possibllity of bullying. This, in itself is the best preventative against it.

Whether it’s laypeople bullying clergy or clergy bullying clergy or clergy bullying laypeople, any whiff of bullying needs to be explored and discussed, preferably with area dean or bishop's staff, or someone, fully and accurately as early as possible.

Whoever is allegedly bullying whom, the best response is early awareness. The most problematic cases (of which there is only a very tiny number) are usually situations that have stewed for ages. early investigation shows up anomalies for what they are, and protects everyone. If bullying is not happening, it can be excluded, and if it is, it can be exposed for what it is. Like domestic violence, the key thing is to break the cycle producing it as soon as possible.

The involvement of Rachael Maskell’s union, Unite, has always, in my limited experience of it, been extremely helpful. A good union rep can normalise the whole situation by setting the various anecdotes around it in a broader context, whilst ensuring that their member is well protected. Even more than unions, one organisation has worked long and hard to help in practical as well as awareness-raising ways — the Society of Martha and Mary. Their report Affirmation and Accountability has, since 2002, defined the gold standard to which I have aimed to work on clergy HR. Rachael is absolutely right about the key role of law in protecting laypeople and clergy — sometimes people speak of ecclesiastical law as an anomalous by-product of establishment designed to annoy free spirits. It is actually their baseline protection, and everyone else’s — a key part of the infrastructure.

The successful extension of section 23 rights to all C of E clergy by Common Tenure, a legislative job that began almost 10 years ago and goes live at the beginning of 2011, is absolutely necessary. I have a particular interest, formally, in the implementation group for this change in this diocese, and we all have a part to play. Stories like this demonstrate to any who might have wondered about it, why this piece of work, which has been going on over almost 10 years, is so important to complete effectively. I strongly recommend all clergy to take up the option of common tenure when they’re offered it later this year. Even if they don’t think they need it, the universal takeup of the protection it offers is good for the culture of the whole Church.

When Common Tenure is implemented, this time next year, more legislation could be desirable. I don't think anyone will actually know until the new system has been operating for long enough to assess its impact. In the meanwhile, unions (who have had a battering themselves in the past thirty years) need to work hard to recruit in all sectors, and I support them in doing this.

I’ve worked on this problem with colleagues for years, both as a regular part of my job, and particularly learning about it with Anne Lee, a psychologist from Oxford University. Two particular issues strike me about addressing Bullying:

  1. Definitions:
    The term “bullying” itself always needs careful definition according to the context. It's not a simple phenomenon, but there is a big difference between situations where one person perceives it to be going on, and the sort of situation where everybody is alleging it of everyone else.
  2. Human nature:
    There is a tremendous variety of person in the Church (as everywhere else): everything from people with personality disorders to serial litigants, with the vast, vast majority well near the centre of the normal scale. Everyone, however, has their own personal needs, personal formation issues, and vulnerabilities. The doctrine of universal original sin is actually a sober fact of life which shows itself particularly in this area — that’s not a reason to ignore it, but to engage with it! A luta continua!
This subject does matter. In general, most of the time, the Church is a healing place, but this should be worked for not assumed. It is not always the case, and the best way to make it more so is constant vigilance and public awareness. The Church is a very open organisation — as it should be. Anglicans talk publicly about anything — and this helps with the problem. But the work goes on continuously!
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The Church Mouse said...

Bishop Alan

It is reassuring in itself to hear that you have been working on this issue for a long time. Whilst not a representative sample, the accusation that Bishops are becoming 'nastier' is clearly just a jibe.

It strikes Mouse that the only effective way to deal with the issue, however, is to develop more effective support mechanisms for clergy.

The autonomy of the role is great in many respects, but you rightly point to the rigours of the role and human nature as fundamentals which will not change whatever the rules on tenure or union membership.

It is innevitable that clergy will feel under great stress at times, as is the case with many jobs, but it is criminal that the Church of England too often leaves its clergy to fend for themselves.

As for bullying by clergy (whilst I suspect that is far less common) closer oversight would also be one way of detecting these issues.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately the union involvement would not help non-stipendiary clergy and Readers (LLMs) who are not in any sense employed.

In my experience in parishes, and in drawing up a report on pastoral care for Readers in my own diocese, they are frequently bullied, mainly by stipendiary clergy, and with little or no solution apart from to change parishes ( if they can) give up their ministry all together.

As you say, Bishop Alan, the problem is human nature, and the fact that the church is composed of fallible people. But it is compounded by the culture of parochial independence, with little effective supervision. And, in my perception, by the observation that some damaged people seem to be drawn to working in the church and some of them are in positions of authority.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Mouse, I suspect you're right that the support needs of clergy, like toher occupational groups, are different from what they have been ineven the recent past. When I was first ordained there was a culture of not seeing senior staff from year's end to year's end, and working the job out for yourself, usually guided by a senior colleague in a plum living. Seems silly now, and I'm not recommending it, but it's how thigns were often done.

We are also now in a society where every casualty department has to comtain bloodcurdling warnings against taking swings at the staff. It's not easy being in a caring profession, which brings particular vulnerability.

There's also a fine line between leaving people to fend for themselves and interfering with the freedom clergy of the C of E have. They do, however, deserve to be able to look to their leaders for protection and loyalty. but s do the public, and it's hard to come up with an autopilot solution, particularly for clergy on clergy and clergy on laypeople bullying.

On the plus side, where a culture is built up built on justice and fairness, most parishioners are very loyal and supportive of their clergy most of the time. People like me have to work intentionally to develop the better ways of supporting people you're talking about.

P/woman, I think the way readers are treated can be a cause of real concern. Where there is a genuinely collaborative ministry team everyone is engaging the giftedness of everyone else on the basis of respect, not just dumping the jobs they don't want to do on juniors. We need therefore to increase our alignment with our values of servant ministry all the time in an intentional way, or we'll be stuck where we used to be on this one.

When I was first ordained there was a considerable culture of every incumbent being their own Pope — forunately that is changing, but we need to keep up the pressure towards constructive chage in line with our values.

Thanks for taking this discussion in some really important directions.

Sarah Horsman said...

Thanks for raising the subject again. We're still seeing too much of this issue at Society of Mary and Martha at Sheldon. Hence running for the second time a really useful workshop for anyone in ministry being bullied or supporting someone else "Constructing Co-operation : reducing bullying and its impact". We still have spaces and it will be run 7th - 9th March.

MadPriest said...

I have found that the main problem is that all the nice bishops and archdeacons really don't want to believe in nasty bishops, conspiracy theories and bigotry within their ranks. "It's the Church of England" they say. honesty "We're Christians, we don't behave like that."

I believe your point about bullying being worse in education than in the Church as most of the bullying of clergy is done by schoolteachers in the congregations and bishops who used to be schoolteachers.

Lesley said...

I haven't experienced anything approaching bullying as a clergy person (so far) but have by clergy, and I would think this is more common as the power balance is in favour of the clergy. I read an article on the nakedpastor blog that said 'I have received the cruelest treatment at the hands of church leaders, so I am very suspicious of religious authorities' and I imagine that is true for many.
I think the problem is that sometimes clergy do not understand or respect boundaries.. so if a clergy person believes that your child is going to hell unless it is baptised, or that abortion is always wrong or that divorce is always wrong and that God agrees with them then that can be a powerful stance at a time when people are vulnerable.

Pam Smith said...

Thanks Alan for opening up this issue beyond the rights and wrongs of a particular case.

I've been involved in the C of E for 20 years now and I've seen and heard about bullying in all directions, in parishes and at Diocesan level. I think in many cases the people who are doing the 'bullying' would be astonished to know that's how their behaviour looked.

Bullying is, in the end, all about power, so a culture where people are listened to and supported is essential, there also needs to be support and intervention in situations where the normal work of a church or individual is allegedly being affected by toxic relationships.

On a practical note, I think non-judgemental 'exit interviews' are absolutely essential so people who are leaving get a chance to air any problems, and also that any process of appointing a new incumbent should start off with a consideration of why the previous one left, rather than putting someone new into post as soon as possible to sort out any problems.

It's good to know that some Dioceses take their responsibilities as employers seriously, I believe the fruit of that cannot fail to be visible in terms of greater missional effectiveness.

Anonymous said...

I think that a big problem faced by clergy is not so much bullying, as much as congregations being callous and exploitative toward their clergy. At one affluent church, after someone was electrocuted by the dodgy wiring, the PCC decided to get an electrician in to check the electrics, but only in the areas open to the public. They didn't view the few hundred pounds to make a clergy and staff offices safe a worthy use of their money. It's very hard to maintain good pastoral relationships with people who clearly value your physical safety so little.

MadPriest said...

as the power balance is in favour of the clergy.

Where? Please send me a full list of such parishes (that aren't rabidly Anglo Catholic or rabidly evangelical).

Lesley said...

Where? Please send me a full list of such parishes (that aren't rabidly Anglo Catholic or rabidly evangelical).

That made me laugh. Yes guilty as charged - spent too much time in both of those camps.

Anonymous said...

How interesting to read these comments. The good Bishop's well meaning comments remind me of one comprehensive headmaster who said to me, "There's no bullying in my school - we have an anti bullying policy!" Has it crossed your mind dear Bishop, that in your exalted position you wouldn't come across the many, yes many, cases of bullying. As for your assertion that "The church is mainly a place of healing" why has the C of E lost so many adherents?
The world is full of hurting people who hurt people.
Producing compulsory courses and pages of anti bullying documents is a very poor substitution, for the love of Christ and a heart felt desire to prefer the needs of others rather than your own.

Lesley said...

Could you post a bit more about how Common Tenure is beneficial? I am feeling a bit confused...

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Dear Lesley,

Common Tenure is a tool for relating clergy to their work as office holders. It gives protections, rights and responsiblities:

Protections: apart from qualified CT posts (training, project based, maternity leave cover etc) full timers get a right to remain int heir jobs until 70, in place of the present system of freehold (for about half the clergy) and time-based licences for everyone else. They also get open access to employment tribunals in exactly the same way as employees.

Rights: To be treated at work with the same level of care as a contracted employee. This affects training, occupational health and safety, and a variety of other areas of working life. Although most dioceses have tried to the decent thing, this has not, pre CT, been a right for the office holder. In addition, clergy will get a right to clear job descriptions and other clarifications that may help them know what is expected of them.

Responsibiities: Clergy work becomes subject to concepts of "capability" (not being up to the job) and, potentially redundancy, in the same way as employees. In practice employees find this not to be that terrible a threat most of the time, because terms and conditions of service that define problem areas are probably less abusive than leaving everything up to personal discretion and indiscretion. This doesn't affect Disciplinary matters, which remain subject to the CDM2003, or matters of ritual or doctrine (EJM1963).

There's a website ( that explains more. For most clergy they will be more protected in work than they have been, and the whole context of their work will approximate more closely to contracted employment. All clergy from the AB of C outward will be offered it.

Whether this is beneficial is for them to decide! Also, the details of exactly what is meant by "capability" will partly have to be established through tribunals — not a comfortable thought, perhaps, but that's how these things are done. Once established, I believe they will generally vindicate the hard woprking dedication of 99% of clergy, who have nothing to fear, and a fair amount to look forward to if they are treated more fairly by people who are accountable in a new way to them for what they do. That's the intention of the legislation, anyway.

Anonymous said...

What a shame it is taking so long to make these changes. it is a sin that htese things take so long.

It is also a great shame that these measures are necessary - surely the church should be striving to equal and beat the best practices of ordinary life not cath up with it.

More worrying is that at least one Bishop/dioceses is using the peiod before the measures are fully in play to get rid of clergy without proper compensation. io am sure if I know of one casre there are bound to be many more. Oh what a sinful, one could almost say evil, lot we are.

No wonder I have given up attendance at church as it has so little to do with God's love.

Anonymous said...

Bullying by clergy is a complex issue with many shades of grey.

However people have been and are being damaged and that can take a long time to get over and to be able to trust again.

There is little acknowldgement of the problem. If the recommendation is to speak to another member of clergy then the implications of this for the individual concerned need to be considered. They may be feeling vulnerable, hurt, guilty and not easily able to trust another member of clergy.

I can only pray for all those involved and hope that people will not abandon God and will find healing and wholeness.

Anonymous said...

anonymous where do you turn when two vergers are being bullied by the actual dean himself .who do you tell ,making life at work unbearable?

LouLouBelle said...

It is very important that, to reduce the level of bullying, both clergy and laity are fully aware of the policies and procedures to combat such behaviour. This is simply not the case in many churches.

Unfortunately, there are bullies in the higher echelons of the Church of England who are protected by the deference which certain church wardens and P.C.C. members show to their clergy.

I personally know several people who have ceased attending church due to threatening and bullying clergy and urge anybody affected to ask Church House for a copy of the anti-bullying procedure. If you are fobbed off, write to the relevant bishop, highlighted the words "FORMAL COMPLAINT" on your letter.

Chris said...

An increasingly important subject. Thanks for airing it.

Re: "Human nature:
There is a tremendous variety of person in the Church (as everywhere else): everything from people with personality disorders to serial litigants, with the vast, vast majority well near the centre of the normal scale. Everyone, however, has their own personal needs, personal formation issues, and vulnerabilities. The doctrine of universal original sin is actually a sober fact of life which shows itself particularly in this area — that’s not a reason to ignore it, but to engage with it! A luta continua!"

Rarely does the possibility of mental illness become discussed as part of the problem. Thanks for grasping that particular nettle.

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