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Clergy discipline

13 July 2012

BEFORE the Clergy Discipline (Amendment) Measure came to the Synod for final approval, members were able to debate a take-note motion on a report from the steering committee.

Opening the debate, the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Christopher Hill, said that "important lessons have been learned and a number of improvements put into place" since the original Measure, which came into force in 2006. The amendment Measure would also fulfil the request made by the Synod in 2009 to "bring back proposals to the effect that clergy in membership or support of racist organisations should be cognisant of discipline".

The Measure would make it a disciplinary offence for clergy to be a member of, promote, or solicit support for an organisation if the House of Bishops declared that the organisation's "constitution, policies, objectives, activities, or public statements" were "incompatible with the teaching of the Church of England in relation to the equality of persons or groups of different races". The House of Bishops would need a two-thirds majority to proscribe any organisation.

Bishop Hill said: "The Synod itself would have the opportunity to endorse or otherwise a decision by the House of Bishops to proscribe membership or support of a racist organisation in relation to the clergy."

He said that the revision committee had "also had to deal with changes in government policy with regard to safeguarding".

The Dean of the Arches and Auditor, the Rt Worshipful Charles George, who chairs the appeal tribunal under the Clergy Discipline Measure, wanted to record his entire support for the Measure "as it now stands". While acknowledging that the Clergy Discipline Measure was "little loved" by parish clergy, and "perhaps even less loved" by diocesan bishops, he was "satisfied that the Measure has settled down", and that "the system is working reasonably well."

In 2011, only one case had come before a provincial tribunal, and only one to the Court of Arches. The fear that there was going to be "very extensive litigation" as result of the Measure had proved to be "totally unfounded". The low number of referrals was "largely because of the strong action taken by diocesan bishops when they have played their part under the Measure", and also the "rigorous approach" taken by the president of tribunals in ensuring that only serious ones came before it. The Synod owed a "huge debt" to Lord Justice Mummery (the president).

The amendments tabled were "relatively small", with the exception of the addition to categories of misconduct of participation in certain proscribed political parties and organisations, which had got "very general Synod support".

The new requirement for leave to appeal contained important safeguards, in that he was not to sit alone (as chairman of the appeal tribunal), and the criteria for granting leave meant that it was likely to be granted. He commended the Measure to the Synod.

The Revd Stephen Coles (London) suggested that the amendment indicated "something very healthy about what we are prepared to do": the Synod was prepared to revise a Measure when problems arose. He raised a concern about clergy who were suspended, particularly those who lived in the parish. The suspension could often be prolonged, and in itself could look like a form of discipline.

He thus made a request that was "not a matter for legislation but for the outworking of it". Was it possible to speed up the process without jeopardising a proper investigation? Or to provide or offer other accommodation for the duration of the investigation? He would like to hear about the experiences of those who had experienced "this sharp end of the Discipline Measure", and make sure that "we share best practice and improve it as much as we can."

Bishop Hill acknowledged that the Measure "would restrict the political options of clergy", but noted that "Synod has overwhelmingly supported this principle in the case of extreme parties and organisations." An amendment to Clause 1(3) was carried.

Bishop Hill then moved a "technical special amendment" to address the fact that the definition of a summary offence - for which a bishop has the power to impose a penalty after a conviction - differs in different jurisdictions.

The amendment was carried.

Bishop Hill, seeking final approval for the Measure, said that, while it was "necessarily technical", it was "still about something of vital importance to the Body of Christ: our care and concern for the equality of all human beings as created and redeemed in Christ; our care and protection of the innocent and the victim; [and] our care and concern for the integrity and reputation of the Church".

The Measure received final approval in all three Houses: Bishops: 22-0; Clergy: 90-0; and Laity: 100-2 with one recorded abstention.

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