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Synod: Duty to penitents and the vulnerable

21 November 2014

clergy guidelines


Expressing concern for the abused: the Bishop of Durham

Expressing concern for the abused: the Bishop of Durham

THE seal of the confessional came under discussion when the General Synod debated the revised guidelines for clergy conduct from the Convocations of Canterbury and York (the House of Bishops and Clergy convoked as the upper and lower houses of each province).

Chairing the debate, Geoffrey Tattersall QC (Manchester) explained that the guidelines were not a General Synod document. The Synod's role, he said, was to debate the guidelines and give feedback to the joint committee of the Convocations which had drawn up the guidelines.

The Prolocutor of Canterbury Convocation, the Ven. Christine Hardman (Southwark), said that the draft Guidelines were a revision of the 2003 version, and had been prepared by a working party established in January 2010. The working party "was clear about the desire to preserve and honour the principles undergirding the original Guidelines," Archdeacon Hardman said. "In particular, there was a determination to keep the essential essence of the Guidelines as being based not on canon or ecclesiastical law, but on the Ordinal itself."

She said that a theological reflection in the Guidelines by Dr Francis Bridger "shows us the need to have a theology of professionalism which is rooted in vocation"; but she said that the use of the word "professional" "should not . . . be hijacked by those who would see it as managerialism or a list of competencies"; and spoke of the meaning "to profess".

"These Guidelines are rooting the understanding of what it is to be a deacon, priest, or bishop in a theology of vocation. The Guidelines are not a rule book, but express an aspiration for the very highest standards to be expected of those who serve as deacons, priests, and bishops in the Church of God."

The draft Guidelines included changes in the area of safeguarding. "As a Church, we are having to learn from past failures and commit [ourselves] to doing our very best to ensure that our safeguarding policies and systems are as robust as they can be."

When the working party next discussed the Guidelines, it would invite representatives of Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors to attend. The working party was "well aware of the tensions" between the "sensitive area of the absolute confidentiality of the confessional" and "the responsibility of the Church to protect children and vulnerable adults from harm". But, Archdeacon Hardman said, "it's really important to remember that the Guidelines can only express the law as it currently stands."

She said that the working group would "take account of comments made in this debate" before taking the Guidelines back to the Convocations for final approval next year.

The Revd Mark Ireland (Lichfield) said that he was uncomfortable about the guideline that said that the clergy should not take sides in disputes when called on for pastoral care. "Sometimes it is the gospel thing to do, to take sides," he said; and priests should look out for the vulnerable.

He recounted how he felt compelled to take the side of one of his elderly and ill parishioners who had been taken to court by a "vexatious and bullying" parishioner. "If we leave this wording unamended, then it gives an opportunity for such a vexatious person in the future to take out a complaint under the Clergy Discipline Measure against a minister who may actually be speaking out for the weak against the strong."

Fr Philip North CMP (London) spoke against proposals that would weaken the seal of the confessional in the case of child abuse. He said that, in the thousands of confessions he had read and heard, never did anyone confess to child abuse or any serious crime. "But I have heard that the utter secrecy can allow survivors to speak about their abuse for the first time. It's often the place where a journey to healing can begin."

He urged the Synod not to undermine the confidentiality of the confessional, because "once it has gone in one area, it is gone for good." He also said that there was a danger that an "invaluable pastoral tool" would be destroyed by lawyers and those who, because of their particular ecclesiastical background, found the confessional difficult to understand.

Mary Johnston (London), a member of the working group that has been contemplating the revision of the Guidelines, said that there would be a specific review of confidentiality and confession. The clergy also needed to be reminded, however, about the importance of discretion after informal conversations about the personal troubles of parishioners.

"In our contemporary culture, social media encourage a breathtaking lack of privacy and a careless lack of discretion," she said. "It may become necessary to teach ordinands not just the need of confidentiality, but actually what it means to be discreet." Mrs Johnston also said that instances of clerics' being unkind or ostracising other priests, however rare, had a dreadful impact on lay people.

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, said that he was able to be "fully supportive" of the Synod's taking notice of the guidelines, but might not have been, had the note and GSMisc not been included at the end. There were, however, adjustments that could be made "without too much difficulty".

There was a need to address the concern about clergy colluding with one another for mutual protection. The duty to report abuse should also be clarified further. There was a need to make it clear that the responsibility for safeguarding lay not only with the clergy, but with the PCC and congregation. He also questioned whether the guidelines adequately addressed the issue when clergy were abused.

Anne Martin (Guildford) noted that the guidelines called on clergy to "recognise, affirm, and encourage" the ministry of lay people "in their workplace and communities". He would like this latter phrase to be amended so that all ministry of lay people was recognised, not just that which took place in these specific areas.

Tim Hind (Bath & Wells) wanted to affirm the guidelines, but suggested that they referred to "what clergy do to laity". He argued that the Church was now "moving into different times . . . where we will be expecting a large amount of collaborative ministry". There was thus a need for a "subtle" change in language, "so we can talk about how the laity support and affirm clergy, and how the work that the laity and clergy do together forms a whole".

The Revd Paul Benfield (Blackburn) called for better drafting of the section suggesting that clergy facing marriage breakdown contact their bishop: was this in a pastoral or legal/disciplinary context?

Anne Foreman (Exeter) spoke as someone involved in ministerial development. She questioned whether the guidelines would "feel either weighty, and hence another task for hard-working clergy, or have content so obvious as to be put to one side". She suggested that "no amount of guidelines will make incompetent people competent, or make those with unsafe motives safe."

The laity had "a responsibility to step up" and support the clergy. She was pleased to see the word "appropriate" used in 2.7: "Sometimes the only appropriate response is an arm around a shoulder or hug, and it would be a sorry state of affairs if anxiety about guidelines prevents that simple human response."

Martin Sewell (Rochester) spoke as someone with 30 years' experience in child protection. He spoke of how, in other professions, "we keep on making the same basic errors." He noted that "strength lies in the weakest link, and that is the most inexperienced." Priests with concerns who felt that they might have to breach a confidence must take advice from a safeguarding adviser, he said, not "should".

Canon Christopher Sugden (Oxford) emphasised that "we stand against cover-ups," but asked: "If the absolute confidentiality of the confessional is breached, then to whom else will a burdened soul turn?" If such a person knew that the priest was legally bound to disclose information to the authorities, then they would not, he suggested, turn to the priest for help. "If they want to give themselves up, they will.

"If the confidentiality of the priest is breached, then there is literally no one to whom such a person, hopefully on the road to repentance, can turn." It would "deny vital pastoral support as the Spirit of God works to bring people to repentance."

Instead, the priest should make absolution conditional on the penitent's going to the authorities. He warned that ending the seal of confession was "very likely to decrease the number of child-abusers whose crimes come to the notice of the police".

Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities) asked for an expansion on the section on prayer. He said that it focused on teaching rather than prayer. "Prayer matters, and prayer changes things," he said, and quoted Archbishop Welby: "Prayer is missional. It is putting us in the presence of God, his mission and his purpose."

Gavin Oldham (Oxford) said that the Guidelines provided "measurement" to ensure that the values of love, expressed in the document, were carried out. In his business, the organisation Investors in People measured whether their five stated values were carried out. "Why don't we do this in the Church of England?" he asked. It was not even mentioned in the Guidelines.

Penny Allen (Lichfield) brought "the voice of abused children" to the debate, having worked as a teacher to whom abuse had been disclosed. She said that those preparing the Code of Conduct for the clergy should look at the similar code for teachers. She was looking for "some deep thinking" about how the Church protected children and abused people.

She raised the use of pornography. She also spoke about the place of other staff in churches, apart from clergy, and "some acknowledgment of the serious impact on [the] lives" of people who had been abused. She asked the working party to "please have a careful think about the confidentiality issues".

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) said that the Guidelines didn't include proper guidance about how discipline should be applied as well as received by the clergy. "There is a definite connection between discipline and discipling. When exercised in Christian compassion and love, discipline is salvific."

The Archdeacon of Rochdale, the Ven. Cherry Vann (Manchester), said that "guidelines in the making are better than no guidelines at all," and welcomed the work done by the working group.

Dr Philip Giddings (Oxford), who chairs the House of Laity, said that he knew too many clergy who suffered from stress but who didn't admit it. "There are very many injunctions in this document that seek to invite clergy to do yet more with the time available to them. But those who have responsibility for the care of the clergy need to ensure that clergy are given appropriate help with managing their time and managing their stress."

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said that he wanted to "address the issue of the confessional". It wasn't a question of tradition, but about doing what the Church of England, both Catholic and reformed, was about. "However sacred this thing may be, if you listen to those who have been abused, you come away simply saying, 'Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.'" If the Church was not prepared even to think about the issue of confidentiality of confession, it would "find it very, very difficult to bring healing".

The take-note motion was clearly carried.

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