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:
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.
- 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!