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Letters to the Editor

14 February 2020


A remedy under ecclesiastical law for lay bullying? 

Sir, — I was very interested to read the letter of April Alexander with the proposal of a Laity Discipline Measure (7 February). I think that a full review in all matters of bad behaviour by clergy and laity is needed. It seems to be “all or nothing”.

The behaviour of a member of my last PCC was dogmatic, dictatorial, and dominating. With the vicar, he was the safeguarding officer for the parish. When, eventually, it was gently pointed out to him that his behaviour was bullying, albeit on the mild side, he went apoplectic. Clearly, no one had ever challenged him before. His subsequent emails and behaviour were threatening, endlessly demanding a recant. He completely blanked me in church, and refused to speak to me or acknowledge me publicly. He insisted I take him off all contact lists, etc. Pleas for reconciliation at Christmas and New Year fell on deaf ears. Finally, publicly threatening me after a Sunday communion service was too much.

And what did the vicar do? I had been to the Bishop years earlier about him because of his appalling behaviour to all the volunteers in our little daughter church where I ministered as Reader. The Bishop knew of this vicar’s problems, but there was nothing that he could do apart from a formal complaint. The vicar had refused to be involved in general parish support offered by the diocese. Finally, the vicar lost his temper with me publicly in church after a service. This, coupled with the behaviour of the above layman, made it clear that I should leave the parish.

The diocese was a great support emotionally, but there was nothing that could be done about either man. There was nothing they could actually do to help the cleric (who clearly had problems) and all they could offer all those who had been hurt and who had left the Church was to make a formal complaint with all the ramifications that this would incur — something that none of us could face.

But, surely, having those two men as safeguarding officers and no medium for giving support to them leaves a yawning gap in our care of both clergy and vulnerable people.



Sir, — I was drawn to April Alexander’s suggestion that the time was ripe for a Laity Discipline Measure, not least because I, too, have recently witnessed an incumbent being bullied by a few lay people, and have been bullied myself when trying to prevent them from getting their way.

There is already provision in the Incumbents (Vacation of Benefices) Measures 1977 and 1993 for bishops to rebuke parishioners who have contributed to pastoral breakdown, and to bar them from holding office for a period, but only after a tribunal has been held and has ruled against them. This is a very long-winded and expensive procedure, and a very blunt instrument for resolving conflict. I do not recall hearing of any case where it has been used to sanction lay people.

The problem is that, in my experience, the laity most likely to behave in a way requiring sanction are not office-holders, who may feel some sense of responsibility or duty not to rock the boat, but are longstanding members of the congregation with an over-developed sense of entitlement that they have the right to dictate how their clergy should behave or how the parish should be run, coupled with a misguided view of the parish as a business, in which they are contributing shareholders and the incumbent is an employee. Sanctioning them by depriving them of office is, therefore, not possible, and how else can one sanction voluntary members of an organisation that seeks to be inclusive?

Perhaps we Christians need to learn again how to love one another?



Sir, — I welcome April Alexander’s suggestion of a Laity Discipline Measure. From 2011 to 2016, I was subject to almost daily intense bullying and angry personal abuse by a member of my congregation whose opinions, demands, and accusations were beyond all possibility of reasoned discussion. As a result, I felt forced to resign from PCC membership and all official positions, including churchwarden and PCC treasurer, roles which I found enjoyable and in which I believe I made a useful contribution to the mission and ministry of my church.

My parish clergy’s response was to make as many concessions as they could to the person concerned in the hope that she would eventually feel that she had got her way and shut up. My pleas to them to involve someone from outside the parish, preferably the bishop, to try to resolve the situation were repeatedly brushed off on the grounds that there was nothing that he would be able to do. A Laity Discipline Measure would change this situation. What is the point of being part of a Church that is episcopally led if bishops cannot intervene in situations like this?



From Mr Alan Bartley

Sir, — Bringing the laity back under the ecclesiastical courts would require a redefinition of the laity and is incompatible with our current position as the national Church which generously extends its membership to all the baptised in England save those who exclude themselves, and the laity are such as are not in Holy Orders.

Because of this, Parliament saw fit to withdraw the laity from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts with the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act of 1860. In place of previous enactments, its section 2 covers the “Penalty on persons found guilty of making a disturbance in churches, chapels, churchyards, or burial grounds”.

This covers the most grievous situations in churches, churchyards, etc., where the clergy cannot avoid their parishioners. As currently amended, this relates to “Any person who shall be guilty of riotous, violent, or indecent behaviour in England or Ireland in any cathedral church, parish or district church or chapel of the Church of England . . ., or in any chapel of any religious denomination, or in England in any places of religious worship duly certified under the provisions of the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855”.

It continues: “whether during the celebration of divine service or at any other time, or in any churchyard or burial ground”. Then, importantly, it states: “or who shall molest, let, disturb, vex, or trouble, or by any other unlawful means disquiet or misuse any preacher duly authorized to preach therein, or any clergyman in holy orders ministering or celebrating any sacrament, or any divine service, rite, or office, in any cathedral, church, or chapel, or in any churchyard or burial ground, shall, on conviction thereof by a magistrates’ court, be liable to a fine not exceeding level 1 on the standard scale or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two months.”

Given that these words have covered the clergy berating or scolding individuals or their congregations from the pulpit, they clearly cover the bullying or verbal abuse of clergy in chapels, churchyards, etc. This, together with other more general laws regarding assault, stalking, harassment, etc., leaves little need for additional legislation.

17 Francis Road
Greenford UB6 7AD


Clergy Discipline Measure is not a robust procedure, but a blunt instrument

From Dr Peter Smith

Sir, — The Sheldon Hub is to be commended for undertaking an independent survey into the effect of the Church Discipline Measure (CDM) on the well-being and mental health of clergy, and an inquiry of the working party under the chairmanship of the Rt Revd Tim Thornton is greatly to be welcomed (News, 31 January).

In the light of appalling cases of abuse committed by clergy in the past, no one is questioning the need for a robust procedure for punishing those who commit such crimes and removing them entirely from any position in which they may pose further harm to others. Victims of such crimes are entitled to see that justice is done.

Nevertheless, the CDM is a blunt instrument in so far as it does not distinguish between the most serious offences and those that are comparatively minor in character. It is easy to make an accusation, but sometimes difficult to refute one, and even when it is established that the accusation is entirely without merit, there often remains a suspicion that doesn’t go away, and the innocent person is forced to leave his or her parish or even ministry.

It is not surprising, therefore, that when the General Synod was debating clergy well-being, the Archbishop of Canterbury said of the CDM that “the process has been a punishment, not the outcome” (Features, 18 October 2018).

The procedure itself is defective. It is protracted and overly complex, and, as the Sheldon survey shows, while proceedings are going on, those accused are under a huge amount of pressure that can make an impact on their mental health and that of their families. Pastoral support, it seems, may differ from diocese to diocese. The bishop’s part in the process is anomalous and not sufficiently transparent (see sections 11 and 12), which can lead to a mishandling of the case which is difficult to redress.

In submissions sent to the English Clergy Association (ECA) on which to formulate a response to the working party considering clergy care and well-being, a number felt that they were vulnerable to the possibility of false accusation, and their lack of confidence in the CDM was a significant factor in their well-being.

The working party has no easy task. It is very difficult to reconcile a process that is thorough and effective with a need to do justice and support those who are accused, sometimes wrongly. What is clear, however, is that the present CDM does not do this and is not fit for its purpose. I, therefore, wish the working party well in its deliberations, in the hope that the outcome will be a disciplinary procedure that is both effective and just for all the parties. The ECA would be very happy to support the working party in any way it can.

Chair, English Clergy Association
36 High Street, Silverton
Exeter EX5 4JD


Entering into rational debate with atheists

From the Revd Adrian Alker

Sir, — The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee reported on his involvement in a recent conference on religion and atheism (Comment, 7 February). Your readers can access the recordings of three lectures on this subject by Bishop Richard Holloway, the philosopher and atheist Julian Baggini, and the Revd Harriet Harris of Edinburgh University at a PCN conference held in London last year, arising from issues raised in the book Religion and Atheism: Beyond the divide. They should simply go to the resources page at www.pcnbritain.org.uk for more details.

Chair, Progressive Christianity Network Britain
23 Meadowhead, Sheffield S8 7UA


New FTSE stock index and the C of E Pensions Board 

From Mr James Buchanan

Sir, — I write in response to the report on the launch of the new FTSE TPI Climate Transition Index at the London Stock Exchange last month (News, 31 January).

You reported that the Church of England Pensions Board would continue to invest in Shell, since its emissions targets are aligned to the Paris Agreement. This is not the case.

According to Transition Pathway Initiative analysis, Shell has plans to align only with the Paris pledges (or Nationally Determined Contributions), which are the commitments made by governments before the UN climate talks in Paris. The Paris pledges are insufficient and would lead to global average temperature rises of 2.9°-3.4°C, which risks triggering feedback loops such as melting permafrost leading to further, potentially unstoppable, warming. This would have devastating consequences for humanity and the natural world on which we all depend.

There is a significant difference between the Paris pledges and the Paris Agreement targets, which seek to hold the increase in the global average temperature to “well below 2°C . . . and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”.

A Guardian report in October 2019 showed that Shell and Exxon are planning to increase oil and gas production by 35 per cent by 2030, when, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global carbon emissions need to fall by 45 per cent by 2030 in order to meet the 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement.

Carbon Tracker’s report Breaking the Habit, published last September, concluded that none of the large oil companies was Paris-aligned. The report highlights that Shell sanctioned multiple non-Paris-compliant projects in 2018, including a $13-billion (£10-billion) liquefied-natural-gas (LNG) project in Canada.

While the new index, and its exclusion of oil and gas companies such as Exxon, Chevron, and BP, is a welcome step forward, it is important not to overstate the steps taken by companies such as Shell, which continue to fall a long way short of alignment with the Paris Agreement targets.

Bright Now Campaign Manager
Operation Noah
40 Bermondsey Street
London SE1 3UD


Purification of the BVM 

From Ann Johnson

Sir, — I was horrified to read in Canon Angus Ritchie’s notes for Candlemas (Sunday’s Readings, 31 January) the statement that St Mary did not need to be purified because she was a virgin. It is not having sex with a man that makes a woman ritually unclean; it is the loss of blood in having periods that makes us spiritually taboo, and giving birth is the messiest and bloodiest job of all. So, of course, in Jewish tradition, she needed purifying, and getting herself signed off at her six-weeks’ check-up — fee/offering, a pair of pigeons; that is what the pigeons were for. To suggest they were an offering to redeem Jesus back from God is ridiculous.

And who said that Simeon was an old man (Diary, same issue)? Not St Luke.

9 Stanley Green Road, Poole
Dorset BA15 3AH

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