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Scottish Episcopal Synod rejects rejects ‘distrustful’ policies that suggest clergy are employees, not office-holders

15 June 2018

Church Times

Members of the General Synod in session at St Paul and St George, Edinburgh, last week

Members of the General Synod in session at St Paul and St George, Edinburgh, last week

Administration board: Personnel committee.

A SERIES of HR policies on clergy leave, retirement, housing, and expenses were withdrawn in their entirety by a committee of the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church, after clerics objected that they had not been consulted.

Only one out of five motions was proposed by the personnel committee before a heated debate led the convener of the administration board, which heads the committee, Dr John Ferguson-Smith, to withdraw all five unmoved.

Motion five, that the Synod might ratify a policy update on the paid leave of clergy to meet current employment regulations in the UK, was introduced by the Revd Sarah Shaw (Edinburgh) on behalf of the convener of the personnel committee, Maureen McKellen, who was unwell.

The handbook for stipendiary clergy had been updated as a series of policy documents, which were available online, and which could be updated individually, she said. The purpose was “not to alter the framework of ministry, but to give greater clarity, transparency, and certainty of rights and procedures within that framework” in line with current employment practices.

While she understood that clerics were not employees, and did not work set hours, HMRC had classed clerics as employees, and therefore the Church would be expected to meet good employment standards. She urged the Synod to ratify motions five to nine, on clergy leave, parental leave, housing, retirement, and expenses.

The Revd Amanda Fairclough (Argyll & The Isles) said that the policy on leave was “too prescriptive”, since it was not always practical for clerics to take a minimum or maximum number of days off at certain times of the year: for example, after Christmas or Easter. “In an ideal world, you would take the policy back to the bare minimum,” she said.

The Revd David Paton-Williams (Edinburgh) welcomed the vision of the policies. “But I am concerned about a cultural shift that may take place in the life of the Church with the overuse of the language of entitlement,” he said. He would have preferred “recommended” types of leave.

The proposed procedure, that clerics should report all annual leave to their bishops, was “possibly a burden too far” for bishops and their PAs, he said. “That is an unworkable procedure, and would be a big shift in the culture that we are office-holders.”

The Bishop of Glasgow & Galloway, Dr Gregor Duncan, said that the policy potentially undermined the relevance of ministry. “It treats clergy as employees and bishops as managers,” he said. “The desire for clarity does not take into account the theological underpinning of what this is about: I find it depressing as a bishop to face dealing with clergy in this way.”

The Revd Peter Mead (Brechin) said that there was no mention of clergy well-being in any of the policies, except expenses. “The work of clerics is becoming more and more difficult,” he said. He agreed that it was too prescriptive to indicate how many hours clerics should work: but more than 39 hours a week was a risk to well-being.

The Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, the Very Revd Kelvin Holdsworth, said that he had protested against attempts by the personnel committee at the previous Synod to pass a set of policies without synodical permission. This was concerning, he said, since the ones being presented now were “not yet fit for purpose”. Why had the clergy not been consulted, he asked. “Was it discourtesy?” The points being made in the debate could have been made at a much earlier stage, he said.

Victoria Stock (Edinburgh), an NHS content designer in Edinburgh, said that she had had to request two days of leave to attend the Synod, under NHS employment policies, which, she said, “protected” her and her colleagues. While this was not comparable to clergy office-holders, such policies did protect people, if written well, she said.

The Very Revd Andrew Swift (Argyll & The Isles) said that, while the Church needed good HR policies, he was disappointed to see an “incomplete draft” on the table. “If we do not ratify these policies, we need to consult those affected so that we can ratify it next year, because we need them.”

The leave policy read as if it was aimed at clergy who could not be trusted, Dr Beth Routledge (Glasgow & Galloway), said. “It does not tell us how to protect our working hours. It does not prescribe the maximum hours that clergy can work.”

She agreed that robust policies were needed, but that these were not the ones. “In churches in general, we treat our clergy very badly: we expect a lot from them, and don’t give much back. It leads to dissatisfaction and a sense that the organisation of which you are apart are against you.”

Dr Ferguson-Smith’s proposal, that all the motions be withdrawn, was received with applause from the Synod. The disputes were not in the details, he said, but the approach as a whole, and had to be rewritten. “Our motives were of the best intentions: there is a need for the Church to have a process that meets employment law. But, in terms of process, it is clear that the committee has to go back to the drawing board.”

A separate, earlier motion from the administration board to scrap resettlement grants for the clergy, motion four, was carried. Dr Ferguson-Smith explained that, in 15 years, the grants of about £1000 had been allocated on only 17 occasions to cover moving costs. This was not what the grants had been created for, he said.

Motions five to nine were withdrawn from the vote. Motion four was carried.

Buildings committee. A proposed alteration to Canon 35 on church buildings was carried by the Synod last Friday afternoon.

The convener of the buildings committee, Rebecca Cadie, said that the change ensured that any changes made to the outside of churches that did not require planning permission did not spoil the overall look or feel of the building, such as the removal or planting of trees, or tarmacking surrounding land.

“We want to show that we care about our buildings, to protect the image that we have, and the history of our churches.” She encouraged churches to create gardens and green spaces, taking care not to plant trees that might do damage to buildings.

Motion nine was carried in all three houses by a show of hands.

Read further coverage of the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church here.

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