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Disturbed by the discernment process

06 March 2020

It is not just the clergy who are affected by the discernment process, but partners. Rachel White tells of her experience


OVER the past year or so, I have been ex­­peri­­­­encing the Church of England’s discern­­­ment process: that is, my husband is the one discerning a calling to ordained ministry, while I have observed the process from the sidelines.

The intrusive nature of questioning during the process has been discussed in recent years (Feature, 20 March 2017). But, in my husband’s case, the questions asked have not only been intrusive (there is no way that he could answer some without giving an insight into our sex life, to which I have not consented, for ex­­ample), but also inappro­priate.

Consider the question “Have you ever used pornography?” I have yet to meet anyone not directly involved in the selec­tion process, either secular or or­­­dained, who thinks that that is appropriate or relevant. Other questions ranged from asking for details about previous romantic relationships to ones aimed at soliciting disclosure about sexual abuse — either as a perpetrator or as a survivor. And all these following a clear DBS check and a confidential declaration to the bishop.

Add to this the fact that these questions were asked during a one-on-one discus­sion in the interviewer’s vicarage, and the situation becomes even more question­able. Colleagues with safeguarding re­­sponsibilities in secular employment audibly gasped at this detail, and my husband raised concerns with the diocese based on his own safeguarding experience in secular employment (his concerns were dismissed, incidentally).

While delicate pastoral meetings do often take place in vicarages, this partic­ular discussion — during what is, in effect, a job interview — was wide open to misinterpreta­tion and, ironically, abuse: wouldn’t a sex abuser just lie, anyway? Could a one-to-one discussion like this come across as an invitation? How quali­fied are DDOs or assistant DDOs to judge the answers? Surely inde­pendent psychologists should be em­­ployed to undertake this aspect of the discern­ment process in an appropriate space.

In my experience, there is no spousal or family support in the current system of discernment, either. Given the nature of pos­­sible questions, painful past events could be recalled that may affect the situa­tion at home. The process is emo­tionally draining for candidates, and a heads-up to a person’s spouse or partner — as well as the offer of pastoral support, should it be needed — wouldn’t go amiss.

I felt that there was a subtext: my husband should not have discussed his concerns with me about the process. But having a vocation in the Church affects us both immensely. We are in a marriage of equals, and, when appropriate, we will dis­cuss mutual concerns as they arise.

While difficulties in the discernment pro­cess have seemed to strengthen my husband’s faith in God (even if they have taken a toll on his well-being), they have done nothing but shake my own confidence in the Church of England — both in its processes, and in the people carrying them out.

Our experience leaves me fearing for those who feel called to ministry, but who might not be chosen because of past be­­haviour which, while legal, becomes question­able in the light of their more recent calling.

I fear for the families who will have their lives discussed in situations in which they are not present. I fear that unqualified inter­­­viewers will not stop those with predatory tendencies getting through. And I fear that survivors on a journey of healing may be left feeling vulnerable.

Without better practices, pastoral sup­port, and experts involved, I fear that this aspect of the discernment process may mean that those with real gifts are turned away from the Church, or them­selves decide to give up on the process.

Adopting more of the professional standards found in secular employment would be of benefit. But there still seems to be an attitude that the Church of England is different, and a resistance to what is re­­garded as best practice in secular employment.

Dr Rachel White is a Research Associate at Newcastle University.

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