Clergy discipline: will bishops wear a mitre or a judge’s wig?

15 July 2009

Concerns: Prebendary Hould­ing, who presented the motion

Concerns: Prebendary Hould­ing, who presented the motion

CONCERNS in the dioceses about the efficient working of the recently intro­duced Clergy Discipline Measure, parti­cularly its code of practice, were voiced in the Synod on Monday after­noon. It was agreed that, after further scrutiny, legislative amend­ments could be brought if deemed necessary.

Introducing the debate on a London diocesan motion, Prebendary David Houlding (London) said that the London diocesan synod wanted to make sure that the outworkings of the law, as it was applied in the code of practice, would bring about confidence in the Clergy Discipline Measure. “The last thing we want is for the new Measure to be derided or ridiculed because it doesn’t work in practice.” That had been the problem with the old Ecclesi­astical Jurisdiction Measure.

The diocese’s concern was that the law should be fair and transparent, easy to operate, and that the bishop’s role should be clarified. More guidance was required in the early stages of the process. “Our concerns can be sum­marised as follows: that the process can take too long; that the clergy themselves are fearful of the process, especially in its initial stages; questions arise at once over whether they are dealing with a pastor or lawyer in relation to their bishop, and, therefore, the pastoral role of the bishop is seen to be com­promised.”

Bishops had to decide which hat they wore, he said. “Are they to wear the mitre or the wig, or even, if the bishop is in a particularly bad frame of mind or angry with the cleric concerned (and the clergy can be so infuriating), the wig adorned with the black cap?” The world had changed, and pastor and judge no longer sat easily side by side.

They also needed to be clear that this was not a grievance procedure, for which there was provision elsewhere, and not a “complainant’s charter”. The Bishop of London’s concern had been sparked when he dismissed a complaint against a new incumbent, only to find the complainant willing to appeal at every stage until it was heard by the chairman of the tribunals — only for him, too, to uphold the Bishop’s original decision.

The terms-of-service Measure was about regulating the profession, and the discipline Measure was about wrong­doing. “How these two Measures relate to each other and in what ways are they distinct from one another is of paramount importance, lest they both fall into disrepute.”

The Revd David Waller (Chelms­ford) said that the very similar motion that had emerged from the Chelmsford diocesan synod was particularly con­cerned about what happened when the bishop felt that he could not be avail­able to a priest early in the dis­ciplinary process, or when a priest was under investigation as a result of a complaint from the parish.

The bishop was then in a position where he could relate neither to the priest nor to the parish, so that “what may have been a partial parochial break­down becomes almost total break­down because the chief pastor cannot be there.”

It should be possible for bishops to be arbiters in disciplinary matters and shepherds of the flock. Which was of greater importance? Could he be re­quired to be so impartial that he could not be a good shepherd? Could they have a good shepherd who met his sheep only at the abattoir?

The former Archdeacon of Bolton, the Ven. Dr John Applegate (Man­chester), said that when archdeacons moved in to clear up the mess in disciplinary proceedings, it was not always clear who had created it. Medi­ation was used too late and was in­effective. It was also used by bishops in a juridical sense rather than as a pastoral tool, which worked against its effective use. Clergy needed episcopal care as well as care given by other care-givers.

Judge John Bullimore (Wakefield) moved an amendment that asked the Synod to note the concerns about the disciplinary Measure, welcomed the consultation by the Clergy Discipline Commission, and invited the Arch­bishops’ Council to ask it to report on whether the measure needed amend­ing.

He said that the code of practice on its own would not meet all the diffi­culties, although the Commission be­lieved firmly that the Measure was fundamentally sound and “a frame­work that works”. Before this, there had been no system at all. Most of the complaints it had heard were about the role of bishops both as chief pastor and judge. But it was imperative for legis­lation to be demonstrably impartial.

Prebendary Houlding said that Judge Bullimore’s amendment brought the matter up to date, as his Commis­sion had been going around the dio­ceses to see how the procedures were working. It was better to get it right in anticipation rather than as an after­thought, and he encouraged people to vote for the amendment.

The Bishop in Europe, Dr Geoffrey Rowell, said that bishops must be like Christ in their pastoral care and be the incarnation of the pastoral presence. “This is about vocation and not about management.”

The Revd Paul Benfield (Blackburn) believed that the consultation was flawed, in that those consulted were all involved in running the discipline system. Where was any consultation with the complainants, and the clergy on the end of a complaint?

Clergy were still being allowed to “resign out of trouble” and later come back with a clean record. He was uneasy at the amendment.

The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Christopher Hill, supported the amendment. The Commission had begun to look at the difference between the pastoral and the disciplinary in­tention of the Measure. The bishop was pastor of the whole diocese, a ministry that he shared with the clergy, but he also had a pastoral ministry to all the laity. He could not be only pastor pastorum.

The biggest misconception about the Measure was that a bishop could have no contact with a priest in the middle of a process. “He can — but the priest must know which hat [the bishop] is wearing.”

The Archdeacon of Malmesbury, the Ven. Alan Hawker (Bristol), sup­ported the amendment as meeting what the dioceses were asking for. The Commission had travelled a long way since the times when a large percentage of complaints were never concluded, and clergy had clouds hanging over them for years. Bishops were still central to the disciplinary process, and it was human-rights-proofed.

Philip Ivey-Ray (Chelmsford) urged the Synod to reject the amendment. Bishops were managers. The Measure gave protection to the laity. Leaders should be held accountable and not mollycoddled, and bishops should take responsibility for their actions, he sug­gested.

The amendment was carried, and debate resumed on the main motion.

Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham) found pointers in the ways the General Medical Council and other bodies were handling the discipline issue. The clergy-discipline and terms-of-service Measures were running in parallel. What was conduct and what was be­haviour, what was competency and what was performance? These were all things to consider. He supported the motion as amended.

The Bishop of Ely, Dr Anthony Russell, said that in his episcopal ministry he had had 31 cases with clear disciplinary implications, all consum­ing huge amounts of time, energy, and consultations with lawyers. Initial informal complaints were a worry: “We can’t say we haven’t heard or don’t know.” Separate procedures were needed for these.

He was also troubled that a process based on competence had “a hole in the middle”: the breakdown of pastoral relations. This must be faced. The competency issue might be invoked, but was really all about breakdown in parish relations. “It’s a parallel to the early stages of divorce. We need a pro­cedure to address that.”

The Bishop was also very concerned at the collateral damage ensuing from cases. “We have fallen into the hands of lawyers. Legal outcomes may not serve us best in the community of God.”

The Bishop was also very concerned at the collateral damage ensuing from cases. “We have fallen into the hands of lawyers. Legal outcomes may not serve us best in the community of God.”

The Revd Peter Hobson (Leicester) spoke from first-hand experience as some­one who had “survived my ship­wreck”, a priest who had been sus­pended under the Measure and put under criminal investigation for a period in 2008 before the complaint was dismissed as having no substance by a Crown Court judge.

To go through all that he had en­dured with all support removed had been very hard. He would not have survived without a supportive family and loyal friends. Didn’t the Church owe a duty of care throughout such allegations? Any reviews of the Measure “must look long and hard at those who pay the price for the way it operates”.

Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities) wanted to “protest a little” about focusing discipline just on the law. Discipline involved judgment. The theology of discipline was about salvation and not just about the law.

The Bishop of Brixworth (Peter­borough), the Rt Revd Frank White, said that the amended motion brought attention to the work needed, but omitted key questions. Pastoral care included the administration of dis­cipline, and was evacuated of meaning if that was ignored. The proper exercise of discipline was not an optional extra, “not a fashion accessory”.

The Revd David Primrose (Glou­cester) had undergone allegations of emotional abuse. The Commission had a case to answer on how to establish innocence, he said. Procedural errors by the diocese in his case had unduly prolonged the time between the notification of the case and its final dismissal. It had been difficult to carry on his work during this time. He pleaded for support not just for dealing with complaints, but for a priest’s on­going ministry in this situation.

Canon Simon Bessant (Sheffield) also addressed the issue of false allega­tions and suspension. The clergy, unlike teachers or NHS workers, didn’t get to escape home while under sus­picion. They had to live with the situ­ation.

The Revd William Raines (Man­chester) said that bishops occasionally found their hands tied before the Measure kicked in, informally aware of something that might lead to a com­plaint.

It was “almost madness” for a bishop to be advised to withdraw and for mediation to be removed from the situation in such a case.

The motion as amended was carried overwhelmingly.

  It read:

That this Synod, whilst recognising the need for discipline in the exercise of ordained ministry:

(a) note the concerns that exist about aspects of the Clergy Discipline Meas­ure 2003 (especially as regards the perceived pastoral implications of the Code of Practice made under it);

(b) welcome the response by the Clergy Discipline Commission to its consulta­tion on aspects of the Measure (circulated as GS 1747B); and

(c) invite the Archbishops’ Council to seek a report from the Commission before the end of the quinquennium on whether there is a case for bringing forward, early in the lifetime of the next Synod, draft legislation to amend the Measure or amendments to the Code of Practice.

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