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Go back to basics on what we ask of clergy, Bishop Thornton pleads

16 July 2021

YouTube/Church of England

The Bishop at Lambeth, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, addresses the Synod on Sunday afternoon

The Bishop at Lambeth, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, addresses the Synod on Sunday afternoon

TWO years spent looking at what to do when clergy are accused of misbehaving have prompted the Bishop at Lambeth, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, to ask how they should behave, he told the General Synod on Sunday afternoon.

Before the debate on plans to replace the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM: “those initials feel like nails being hammered in”, the Bishop said), he spoke about his short discussion paper, The Nature of Ordained Public Ministry.

There was a need, he said, for much greater clarity about what was demanded of ordained ministers. Introducing a new disciplinary structure would make “no difference at all, unless we go back to basics”, looking at what was expected of the clergy, how they might be supported, and how they might work together to build up the body of Christ.

In his four years as Bishop at Lambeth, much of his time had been spent dealing with disciplinary matters, Bishop Thornton said. “In fact, I believe the real issue is a lack of clarity and definition, and that, whilst we have a sense implicitly of how things are meant to work, we need to be much clearer and explicit.”

Bishop Thornton affirmed the call to ordained ministry, which was “limitless, not limiting”. “Those who are ordained are signs of hope and signs, symbols, and walking sacraments of God at work in the world.”

But the demands were great, he said. “We are in danger of losing the joy, and the trust, and the ministry of Christ himself, and the sacramental reality of being with people and for God.”

Why? “I believe because we are not explicit in the way we support each other and understanding the frame of reference that is around us.”

Clergy, he accepted, were “fallible, frail, sinful, and full of mistakes”; but how were they supported as the public representatives of the Church of England, he asked. A framework was common in other walks of life, “but not in one that, above all, understands the need for accountability. . .

“How ridiculous would it be for the Church of God . . . to be the body that appears to hold up the clergy — as the dominant model — [as] that of the hero leader, who can often appear to be unaccountable? That cannot be the model that we want our clergy to live out. . .

“Yet, whatever the underlying model or models, even if we can make that or them clear, then, having held them up, surely we need to ensure that there is the proper support, accountability, and understanding of responsibility.”

First, it was necessary to ensure that those chosen were fit to practise; then, throughout their ministry, they should be provided with necessary tools to do the work. “We are not being fair to people we ordain.”

In his presentation, and in answer to members’ questions, Bishop Thornton agreed that a separate piece of work needed to be done on how to support lay people. The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, asked for this work to be done concurrently.

Other issued raised by members included bullying by lay people, especially of women clergy; what form of supervision clergy should have; the value of mutual accountability through cell groups; the use of language, such as the term “professional”; and existing models for a clergy code of conduct — for example, those used by theological-education institutions and various dioceses, such as Norwich.

There was no formal vote on Bishop Thornton’s presentation.

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