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Flaws in disciplinary process harm clergy, survey suggests

31 January 2020

C of E’s disciplinary process is causing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

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THE C of E’s disciplinary process is causing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in clergy, a new survey suggests.

The survey, which elicited more than 6000 responses, was organised by the Sheldon Hub, a secure forum for people in Christian ministry run by the Society of Mary and Martha, an independent charity in Devon.

A briefing paper from the charity, produced for a meeting of academic researchers this month, calls for the “fundamentally flawed” Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) to be replaced by a new process with two tracks: one for gross misconduct, taken out of the hands of bishops, and another for grievances.

Sheldon began researching the impact of the Measure last year, after hearing from clergy and their families who were struggling to cope with the effects of the process, sometimes years after their case had been concluded (Features, 19 October 2018). The survey was part of independent research commissioned from the University of Aston (News, 1 November 2019).

In addition to PTSD, it suggests that an investigation is needed into the prevalence of “moral injury” and “the operation by bishops of ‘irregular discipline’ which is even less accountable than CDM”.

It highlights the “significant debt” accumulated through legal costs, notes the inadequacy of professional indemnity provision for clergy, and calls for a “mandatory and comprehensive insurance system for legal costs”.

It also lists “significant mental-health impacts”, including suicide, harm caused to spouses and congregations, and long-term effects on employment prospects in the Church. Clergy are “structurally exposed to a high risk of vexatious and unfounded complaints”, it says, while there are no sanctions against those who bring such complaints.

“The bruising clerical sexual-abuse scandals of the past decade take up the whole field of vision of church hierarchy, and promote a zero-risk defensive posture where a high degree of ‘collateral damage’ among clergy is tolerated as ‘the price that has to be paid’,” the charity states. There is “no provision for scrutiny of process. If a bishop is mishandling a case, the only possible redress is to appeal at tribunal against the determination.” Attachment to the primacy of bishops in the discipline of clergy is “no longer tenable”.

The briefing by the charity notes that clergy are “relatively non-unionised and professionally isolated”, and that this mitigates against collective action.

This week, the Revd Pete Hobson, the chairman of Church of England Clergy Advocates (CECA), a professional association within the faith-workers’ branch of the Unite union, said that the CECA committee “allies itself with the work done by Sheldon Hub, and endorses its proposed approach to reforming CDM”.

The Bishop at Lambeth, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, is chairing the working group that is investigating the CDM. A briefing for it produced by CECA says that the CDM is “an example of structural sin with a life of its own and no longer under the control of the Church”, and reports that it has had a “major deleterious impact” on the ministry of its members with experience of it.

It also argues that “sexual indiscretion was not the major focus of the ministry of Jesus, and the normative CDM penalties relating to these matters do not reflect the biblical evidence of his concerns.”

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