Synod approves ban on clerics in racist parties

09 February 2011

Clergy discipline

THE proscription of racist political parties, so far as membership by the clergy and others holding church office is concerned, came a step nearer on Tuesday morning, when the General Synod considered various amendments to the 2003 Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM).

The Draft Clergy Discipline (Amendment) Measure was given first consideration.

Introducing the debate, the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Christopher Hill, reminded new members that this was the middle of a necessarily complex process, and that at this stage they were voting on the whole package.

Proposed changes included pro­po­sals to bring the Measure into line with the Safeguarding and Vulner­able Groups Act. There had been a government statement of intention to modify the Act, but the Synod had to work with it in its present form.

The most controversial part of the Measure would be the membership or involvement of the clergy in organisations incompatible with the Church’s teaching on racial equality (Clause 1). The Synod had requested this proposal, he reminded the members.

Some streamlining was proposed in cases where a priest-respondent changed his or her mind during proceedings (Clause 2). Clause 3 provided for scrutiny of an appeal before leave to appeal was given.

Clauses 4 and 5 concerned pen­alties after conviction in the criminal courts. The Church, and especially a bishop, was in the “impossible position” at present of not being able to move at reasonable speed to a disciplinary determination on some­one found guilty by due process in a criminal court. A conviction or seri­ous offence would not necessarily lead to removal of office or prohibi­tion, but in the “thankfully very rare bad cases”, such as downloading obscene material concerning chil­dren, the bishop would be able to move immediately.

Clauses 6 and 7 dealt with suspen­sions. The present Measure was arguably defective here. The Sched­ule, or technical changes to the Measure, concerned the flexibility of Vicars-General to disqualify them­selves for particular cases; the requirement of a priest not only to inform his or her bishop of a decree absolute or separation, but to state the grounds; and, finally, the Clergy Discipline Commission would have a chance to look at the Code of Prac­tice and propose further changes.

Next to speak was Vasantha Gnanadoss (Southwark), the author of the successful private member’s motion asking the House of Bishops for a policy banning clergy, ordinands, and lay office-holders who represent or speak for the Church from being members of the British National Party and similar organisations (Synod, 13 February 2009).

She thanked the Bishops for dealing with the matter promptly, and for their associated theological statement, which put the Church’s mission to “resist racism and all related forms of prejudice on a firm footing”. This was particularly important at a time when the English Defence League was posing a “fresh threat to the well-being of our society”. She commended its use for teaching in the parishes.

The Revd Paul Benfield (Black­burn) expressed concern about the removal of the automatic right of appeal after a disciplinary tribunal. As there had been only one appeal so far, and there was one pending, he questioned whether there was enough experience to justify the change. There was a financial motivation for this change, as a five-member appeal was des­cribed as not an appropriate use of the Church’s resources. This was a very dangerous argument: why not just let the archdeacon issue sum­mary justice? He urged the Synod to drop the clause removing the automatic right of appeal.

Jennifer Dunlop (Chester) voiced concerns over the Vetting and Barring Scheme, particularly that some might overdo the protection, with the result that clergy lost the right to be heard. False allegations could be made against clergy without any corroborative evidence, leaving them without any means of challenging allegations. There were “risks of grave injustice”.

The Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, Dr Geoffrey Rowell, said that Clause 1, regarding the Inde­pendent Safeguarding Authority (ISA), could not apply easily to the diocese in Europe. Although the ISA was a matter of law in the UK, there was a problem in his diocese.

He gave the example of an Austra­lian priest working in a chaplaincy in Switzerland. The law of the Church of England applied, but in Switzerland there were no equivalent procedures for the protection of children. There must be monitoring, but he questioned how this could be done.

The Dean of the Arches, the Rt Worshipful Charles George, paid tribute to his predecessor but one, the Hon. Sir John Owen, who had died since the last Synod meeting. Sir John had been Dean of the Arches for 20 years.

Appeals came to the Dean of the Arches in the Southern Province, and the Dean wanted to address Clause 3 of the Measure. It was sensible to have the requirement for leave to appeal, even though the number of appeals was small, as that was what happened in civil juris­diction and in the faculty jurisdic­tion.

In the first instance, it was not just an archdeacon on his own: there was a Bishop’s Panel, a senior qualified lawyer, two senior lay people, and two clerics. There could be some sort of provision for a bishop’s tribunal to give leave to appeal itself.

The second significant change to the CDM was in Clause 3. Those appointed to an appeals panel would sit only ad hoc, for those proceed­ings, rather than until they were aged 75 or found unfit. That was plainly unsatisfactory. The Synod should note Clause 3(4), which allowed a respondent to make representations on the make-up of the tribunal. That applied only to the full appeal. Similar representations might be allowed if leave was required. He commended the Measure.

Clive Scowen (London) was concerned about Clause 1(4), which gave the House of Bishops absolute power to make it a sacking offence for a priest to be involved in a political party whose views were not compatible with the Church of England’s teaching on racial equality. Although this Measure was designed to deal with membership of that particularly odious party which few Synod members would have any difficulty in saying was incompatible with Christian ministry, the clause as it was drafted could apply to other cases that were not as clear-cut. Such decisions should be subject to ratification by the Houses of Clergy and Laity.

Professor Jenny Tann (Glou­cester), in a maiden speech, com­mended the Measure for bringing the Church into line with secular practice, and for establishing rights and responsibilities. But the Measure could sometimes be a “heavy instrument”. This could result in public damage to relationships and reputations. Gloucester diocese had introduced an informal, six-step process involving mediation and creative ways of solving problems before they got out of hand. She urged dioceses to use the capabil­ity, grievance, and CDM procedures with a light touch, and the CDM only for the most serious issues.

Jacqueline Humphreys (Bristol) invited the revision committee to look further at section 30, where there was the possibility of auto­matic penalties in certain matters of matrimonial order. She wanted to see a proper no-fault system. She invited the Synod to look again at a better way of determining clergy marital breakdown rather than relying on a petition.

Canon David Felix (Chester) supported the stance of the Dean of the Arches over better consideration of whether cases should go to appeal.

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) sought to address the question of parity. The Synod had voted on the pensions rights of civil partners, a move that he welcomed. With rights came responsibilities. He wanted to include those who ended a civil partnership alongside those divorced or separated.

Dr Philip Giddings (Oxford) was unconvinced that the proposals over clergy membership of incompatible organisations were a safe way of proceeding. They had the potential of creating martyrs and doing more damage. “We appear to be reining in the right of the free speech, a very important human right,” he said. Dr Giddings also believed that the House of Bishops’ theological statement needed careful scrutiny. The question of racial equality could be extended to other claims of equality, “some of which we might want to question”.

The Synod must consider whether it had boxed itself into a tight pro­cess that it could regret.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, disagreed. Dr Giddings’s anxiety was unfounded, he said.

The Bishop of Dudley, the Rt Revd David Walker (Southern Suffragans), also challenged Dr Giddings. The proposals did not create martyrs, he said.

The motion that the Draft Measure be considered for revision in committee was carried.

THE Synod went on to amend and approve the Amending Code of Practice under the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003.

Introducing the debate, Bishop Hill emphasised that “a complaint should only be about potentially serious misconduct”, not “because someone disagrees with the Vicar’s policy on moving the font”, nor for “airing grievances”. Paragraph 71 of the Code stated that the bishop “should explain personally why he cannot personally offer direct care for the time being” (to the priest), and who would offer it on his behalf. The letter from the registrar informing the priest of a complaint should be received at the same time as the bishop’s letter.

Great care had been given to the question of pastoral care of the priest in mid-disciplinary process. Prebendary Houlding’s question in the July 2009 sessions — “Judge’s wig or bishop’s mitre?” — came to mind. “Whether we like it or not, we do have a distinction between roles,” Bishop Hill said.

If the bishop gave pastoral care to the priest, “the complainant will perceive this to be unfair — and justice has to be seen to be done, as well as done.” This did not, however, mean that the bishop and priest could have no contact. “There can be a proper meeting with appropriate safeguards.”

In the case of minor misconduct by a priest, Bishop Hill said that the bishop “may give advice and an informal written warning — a shot across the bows . . . but this is emphatically not a disciplinary penalty.”

The proposals also clarified that capability procedures were to be used where “skills, aptitude, attitude, or health-care” were in question. Disciplinary proceedings could be applied “when failings are serious, deliberate, or wilful.”

Prebendary David Houlding (London), who brought the original motion to the Synod on behalf of the diocese of London, said that he had done so “to express concern about how the disciplinary Measure is working out in practice”. The diocese had, therefore, asked for a review of the Code of Practice.

The other concern was “to clarify the relationship between discipline and capability”. It was, indeed, “a question about wigs and mitres. . . They go together, but the two hats cannot be worn at the same time. The distinction of how bishops do operate is crucial, and that distinction has been addressed.”

He thanked the Commission.

Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham) welcomed the amendments to the Code of Practice. He was glad to see paragraph 100, which “seeks to find ways of supporting a person in difficulty”.

Peter Bruinvels (Guildford), who had chaired tribunals in the NHS, education, and social services, said that the proposals had “got it right”. He believed that, if the draft Code was taken to Parliament, “they will be happy with it. . . It is even-handed, offering guaranteed pastoral care.” He would like more to be said about mediation, however.

Prebendary Stephen Lynas (Bath & Wells) moved an amendment that sought to recognise new responsi­bilities concerning “protection” and “safeguarding”. The inclusion of “vulnerable adult” alongside “children” would give bishops a mandate for immediate action. The addition of “safe­guarding” alongside “diocesan child protection” recognised that the person the bishop asked to investi­gate should not be the diocesan child-protection officer, but the safeguarding adviser.

His amendment was carried.

Canon Robert Cotton (Guildford) moved an amendment intended to avoid the double jeopardy of being tried under two different Measures for the same thing. The two Measures, for the capability procedure and for disciplinary proceedings, should not operate at the same time: this must be “seen and known to be avoided”. His amendment recognised that it was not always clear which Measure would ultimately be used.

The Archdeacon of Lewisham, the Ven. Christine Hardman (South­wark), said that the amended Code of Practice had highlighted diffi­culties over “neglect” and “inef­ficiency”. When was inefficiency wilful, for instance? She suggested that the inefficiency clause could be removed from the CDM and transferred to the Terms of Service regulations.

Canon Cotton’s amendment was also carried, and the approval of the amended Code followed.

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