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CDM reform to be delayed for wider consultation

22 January 2021

Sheldon and CECA regard proposals as too soon and ‘unsafe’

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Lambeth Palace

Lambeth Palace

THE group working on reforming the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) is to delay proposing changes until the July General Synod meeting at the earliest.

The working group, chaired by the Bishop at Lambeth, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, was originally to produce recommendations to be debated at the end of February in the Synod sessions that have now been postponed. Two influential bodies, Sheldon, the charity that supports clergy well-being and runs the Sheldon Hub, a forum often used by clergy who have fallen foul of the CDM process, and the Church of England Clergy Advocates (CECA), part of the faith workers branch of the Unite union, criticised this timetable as too hasty.

Bishop Thornton said on Wednesday: “It is clear to me that we are not in a position to bring any recommendations or proposals to Synod in February, and so we are now planning to bring proposals forward to the July Synod.”

He continued: “I remain concerned . . . about the impact on people of the way the CDM is often apparently administered, and especially the delays. I am working closely with the Designated Officer and others to see if we can bring in some practical changes as soon as possible to try and help, and I believe this is already proving beneficial.”

In its formal response to the Lambeth consultation, Sheldon recommends a moratorium on “all new CDM cases which do not meet the threshold of ‘if proved would warrant prohibition’”.

In answer to the Lambeth working group’s request for comments (News, 11 December), Sheldon and the CECA describe the Lambeth proposals as variously confused, lacking in detail, premature, and “unsafe”.

Sheldon in particular is critical of the opacity of the working group. Sheldon acknowledges the need to reform the present system urgently, but condemns the “lack of transparency of the working group over the past 18 months”.

It goes on: “Considering that this is an attempt to replace a flawed, harmful, and widely discredited Measure, there has been remarkably little attempt to build trust and confidence through engagement and transparency.

“On an issue of this level of importance for the welfare of clergy and the whole Church, it is extraordinary that the development process is so poor. There has been no published scoping/overview, no clarity on the purpose(s) of the new Measure.”

Bishop Thornton, however, said that his working group was working closely with a parallel group set up by the Ecclesiastical Law Society (ELS), which has made its own recommendations about how the CDM process might be reformed. And he said that he was grateful for contributions from members of the Sheldon Hub. “From the consultations which we are still considering, there was much support expressed for the direction of travel as put forward in our interim paper.”

The need to separate minor cases from more serious ones is accepted by both Sheldon and CECA, and is generally referred to as “triaging”. But they query Lambeth’s proposals for doing this, and favour the ELS version instead. The handling of minor complaints should be a completely different system, they argue, and not the lower rungs of a process that escalates to the loss of the cleric’s post and home.

The two bodies differ when it comes to the proposal from the Lambeth working group for a national organisation to manage CDM cases. CECA suggests that this might provide consistency, if properly resourced. Sheldon aligns itself with the ELS proposals for diocesan and regional management of complaints, establishing “a smaller and more focused national function to ensure justice for those facing only the most serious allegations”.

Predictably, CECA is “very positive” about the suggestion that all clergy be encouraged to join a union as one of the means of ensuring professional standards and offering support, though it says that pastoral help for clergy should continue to be provided by dioceses.

Sheldon asks whether union membership will be made compulsory for the clergy, and if not, what protections there will be for non-union members. It says: “If we were to stray into cynicism we would suspect this proposal of being a way to avoid the issue of making adequate church-funded legal aid available to clergy.”

The CECA submission is also outspoken on the topic of false accusations, going as far as to suggest penalties for those who make them. It refers to the “damage done by malicious, misplaced, repetitive, frivolous, and otherwise vexatious complaints — which even if dismissed nonetheless can still cast an immense cloud over clergy lives to no obvious good.

“We believe the creation of some form of process which can minimise these, and where necessary impose penalty where there is clear responsibility for such to be allocated, is of great importance. It is not only clergy who should be held to standards of Christian behaviour, and at the very least there should be provision made such that lay office holders within the church can themselves be subject to sanction if found guilty of damaging behaviour of this sort.”

The need to create a better system for the handling of complaints is reinforced at the end of the Sheldon submission, whose writing, it says, was “interrupted to respond to yet another near-miss CDM suicide”.

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