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General Synod digest: Clergy Discipline Measure replacement debated

16 July 2021
YouTube/Church of England

Canon Simon Talbott, tabling his following motion

Canon Simon Talbott, tabling his following motion

THE General Synod had its first opportunity on Sunday afternoon to debate the shape of a Clergy Conduct Measure, the proposed replacement for the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM), which has been drafted by the Lambeth working group chaired by the Bishop at Lambeth, also Bishop to the Forces, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton.

Introducing the debate, he drew attention to the five key principles of the new proposals: two separate tracks for complaints and misconduct; a statutory duty to support those involved in the process, both complainant and respondent; the early investigation of complaints; and the proper resourcing of diocesan and national structures.

He looked in particular at the method of distinguishing between types of complaint. This was to become the key point of contention in the debate that followed. The official working group proposes just two tracks: allegations judged by the bishop to be “complaints” would be referred to assessors who would seek a pastoral rather than punitive outcome; allegations of “misconduct” would be formally investigated with the possibility of a tribunal.

In order to separate the two tracks, Bishop Thornton accepted that it was important to define which types of conduct fell into which category. “The key work of the implementation group is precisely to do that work of definition.”

Both the Sheldon Hub, which has provided support for those caught up in the CDM process, and the working group of the Ecclesiastical Law Society (ELS) have advocated a third track, so that clergy accused of less serious misconduct are spared the anxiety of wondering whether their posts, housing, and careers are at stake.

Bishop Thornton addressed this in his introduction to the debate. “We have considered carefully proposals promulgated by others for a middle route for ‘less-than-serious misconduct’. We’re also acutely aware of the stress and anxiety, highlighted so well and clearly by the Sheldon Hub and others, that comes with being subject to a formal legal process.

“However, in most cases, we do not believe that there can be a proper distinction between different types of conduct prior to the investigation. The substance and seriousness of an allegation can change, and does change, throughout investigation, in either direction of seriousness.

“Furthermore, we must recognise that, at times, misconduct does take place that, although unlikely to result in a removal from office or prohibition, is none the less serious, and must be treated as such.

“In the realms of safeguarding in particular, any other action would be contrary to the public commitments that the Church has already given. As such, where there is misconduct, we do not think it’s appropriate that it be dealt with by the assessors, but is referred for formal investigation.”

The other area Bishop Thornton highlighted was training. Many of those who administer the CDM process — archdeacons, bishops, even diocesan safeguarding advisers — can handle only one or two cases a year. Continuous training and oversight needs to be embedded in the new system, the Bishop said.

In the debate, the Vicar General of York, Peter Collier, who had chaired the ELS work on the CDM, led the assault on the twin-track approach. It would be a mistake not to take note of the report, he said, since this would delay reform of existing measure. None the less, he repeated his criticism (Online Comment, 1 July) of the “confused” language of the working group. Both the ELS and Sheldon had highlighted that the problem lay not in the distinction between “complaints” and misconduct, but between serious misconduct and less-than-serious misconduct.

He mentioned that, despite praise from Bishop Thornton, the ELS and Sheldon work had not been integrated into the working group’s report. The Bishop suggested later that this would be remedied, as Judge Collier had accepted a place in the implementation group.

The Revd James Pitkin (Winchester) referred to the “awfulness” of the present system, as detailed by the ELS and Sheldon, who had not been properly listened to, he said. What was needed was a fair, just and timely system: “the right people working to the right timetable asking the right questions using . . . the right language”.

The three-track approach was not simple, however, the Archdeacon of Lincoln, the Ven. Gavin Kirk (Lincoln) argued, based on his experience of bringing complaints against clergy and supporting clergy against complaints brought by others. At what stage, he asked, was the complaint to be categorised, he asked, since this was very rarely clear at the outset.

He was one of the speakers who emphasised the necessity for speedy decisions. Canon Simon Butler (Southwark), spoke in support of the working group’s work, saying that attention must be paid to minimising the trauma of all concerned. He warned that the trauma of complainants must not be overlooked. Yes, the Church should be “just and caring of respondents; but must not replace it with something that comes to be seen as the Church looking after its own. The pendulum must not swing the other way.”

Three bishops spoke, to tell the Synod that they, too, found the present system “sometimes agonising”, a phrase used by the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson. The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, hoped that more attention would be given to a complainant’s hoped-for outcome. At present they were often not asked. The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, was worried about the workload heading the bishops’ way, and asked whether there could be an earlier assessment stage that would then make a recommendation to the bishop.

Bishop Watson also raised the difficulty of dealing with a cleric with an alleged addiction to drugs or alcohol. There may not be a specific allegation, but the individual concerned is “broadly risky. . . This is not a theoretical or technical point. It is very much born out of experience.”

The Dean of Arches, Morag Ellis, offered her strong support, as well as the services of the Ecclesiastical Judges Group for the training of tribunal chairs. She took issue, though, with the suggestion that decisions by the president of tribunals about whether to proceed with a case ought not to be confidential, “for reasons of fairness to the parties involved, next for reasons of transparency and openness, in line with further important commitments that the Church made to IICSA and others, and lastly for openly building up a library of decisions in order to help achieve consistency of decision-making and to inform all involved in the new shape of process”.

The need to draw on the experience of other professional bodies was mentioned by Mark Emerton (Portsmouth), an employment-tribunal judge. Others, such as the legal and medical professions, managed to operate a “properly constructed system that allows for no further action” in the majority of cases, and at the other end of the scale, “serious or gross misconduct, which may result in suspension or removal from office — then a whole range of matters in between, but which can be dealt with usually relatively informally, which acknowledges misconduct but without blighting somebody’s career or causing unnecessary distress.”

The Revd Elaine Chegwin-Hall (Chester), asked why only two members of 17-strong working party had come from the Northern Province. The Archdeacon of Leeds, the Ven. Paul Ayers, warned that people would “play the safeguarding card” where they could in order to escalate their complaint.

The Revd Andrew Cornes (Chichester) gave the example of a cleric who had made one misjudged remark in a sermon. Of those who ought to have supported him, the archdeacon took out a CDM, and the bishop was silent. The incumbent, having been suspended for 11 months, was exonerated, but resigned. He warned against “tinkering” with the present system.

The Synod voted by 299 votes to four to take note of report, with five abstentions.

Canon Simon Talbott (Ely) proposed a following motion that directly addressed the twin- or triple-track approach. A member of the ELS, and on the executive committee of the C of E Clergy Advocates, he was thus in receipt of many tragic stories of people involved in the CDM.

He feared that failure to distinguish early on between relatively minor misconduct and serious misconduct would perpetuate the central fault of the present system, and allow the new system to be weaponised against clergy in the same way.

After a short further debate, the Synod voted 238 to 32 in favour of his motion, with 20 abstentions. It read:

That this Synod: Believing the proposal in GS 2219 to categorise complaints against clergy as either “complaints” or “misconduct” is likely to perpetuate existing trauma of clergy being subjected to serious formal process for some conduct which does not justify prohibition from ministry and the loss of home or livelihood;

and also believing that the proposed timetable for tabling new legislation will add yet further lengthy delay to remedying the manifest defects of the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003;

a) urge the proposed implementation group to develop a system of initial assessment that distinguishes between: (i) complaints not involving misconduct (ii) misconduct that is less than serious, and (iii) serious misconduct, with only serious misconduct being subject to investigation by a national agency and a formal tribunal process; and

b) encourage the business committee to enable the implementation group to present its initial proposals on a proposed approach to Synod in November 2021 so progress can be made with serious intent through the Synod sessions of 2022.

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