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Sheldon has shown the C of E to be all at sea over clergy care

by
26 May 2021

As the Sheldon Hub pulls out of its campaign for a reform of clergy discipline, David Brown reflects on the evidence it uncovered

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REPUTATION-protection is a theme that is sometimes visible in our national institutions, but it stems from an ignorance of how the world works.

Every institution that has ever existed will experience difficulties, embarrassing to its leaders. While such difficulties need addressing, those leaders will be judged not for having the problems but on the way they handle them. A well-handled crisis will affirm the leader and strengthen the body’s life. Reputation-protection benefits no one.

My understanding of institutional wellbeing was shaped mainly by my years in the Royal Navy. I then crossed from sea to see: joining a bishop’s staff as lay assistant for 12 years.

The Navy had a strong inheritance of pastoral care of sailors, developed from the 18th century onwards after many lessons from war and occasional mutiny, influenced by a few admirals of Christian conviction. On joining in 1958, I was given a Divisional Officer’s Handbook explaining the Navy’s system of pastoral care, into which its disciplinary approach was folded.

The frontispiece was a photograph of a sailor in best uniform, over the caption “The Greatest Single Factor.” Part of the historic background was the Navy’s resolve to avoid the possibility of mutiny that would always disable any warship.

 

ALTHOUGH naval and church life are barely comparable, beyond each having care of disparate communities, and each resting on a strong system of ranking, it has made me wonder. Were the Church to produce a Bishop’s Handbook, what photograph would appear in the frontispiece?

I would hope that a parish priest would be shown — for one clear, theological reason. If the priest has been well trained, their ministry will be enhanced by confidence that their bishop approves of them, and stands closely behind them should they need support.

Their licence conveys episcopal approval, and the bishop and priest in partnership should develop a load-bearing relationship of profound, godly potential. The apostles never went solo, it seems, apart from necessary travel by land and sea.

Thoughts about institutional wellbeing make me wonder whether bishops, in the extreme complexity of episcopal culture, have received a manageable governing purpose beyond following God and doing their best? Who can criticise any of them for receiving a tradition which they assumed had been purposefully developed over decades and road-tested conclusively — yet proved worryingly deficient?

 

I RAISE these points because, since final retirement, I have been privileged to hear from a number of godly clergy who tell stories of acute, unaddressed pain. Some have been severely traumatised and are dealing with resultant health problems. Some have lost their ministries, house, income, and future prospects. In some cases, the trauma upon families has contributed to mental illness in their children. I know of two priests whose trauma was delivered neatly at Christmas time.

I am writing about the Church of England, looking into its face.

My attention was aroused late in 2018 when three priests — unconnected with each other — told me of their acute distress after being removed from post irregularly, in three different dioceses.

Back in the early 2000s, while working for a bishop, I became aware of the substantial work of the Society of Mary and Martha at Sheldon in Devon, in supporting distressed clergy and their families. I became an associate member of the Sheldon Hub, and the scale of the problem became clear.

I met the Warden, Dr Sarah Horsman, and discovered from her the remarkable scope of Sheldon’s ministry and its burden of care for the Church. I contacted some of the Hub’s ministry members, hearing their stories as well as others that came my way — some 20 in all.

Many had been harmed by mishandling of the discredited Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM), when elements of its code of practice were ignored. Others were pressed to resign by bullying and gaslighting. They were made non-persons by their diocese; all denied pastoral care, becoming utterly hopeless.

Whilst a few admitted a misdemeanour at the minor end of the scale, most claimed innocence, being victims of malicious complaints by plausible (mainly professional) laity who seemingly wanted to be rid of them. That is my opinion, of course, but as valid as the opinion of their superiors, for I heard no mention of rigorous, professional investigation, seeking independent witness evidence. Most of the complainants’ animosities seemed to stem from issues of churchmanship.

Some of the accused clergy were able to challenge their bishop, despite considerable cost. Financial settlements were reached — some large — conditional on the signing of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Questions on the scale of such settlements and NDAs were tabled at the April General Synod; unanswered.

I and a few others have tried to bring such needs to direct archi-episcopal and episcopal attention by a variety of initiatives, without observable effect. Yet this silence pales into insignificance compared with the silence that met the major Sheldon research initiative (News, 17 July 2020).

 

THE Church’s parochial system means that organisational distress is broadcast far and wide: through local communities, and through friends and relations across the nation. Parish boundaries are not watertight. So, action must surely now to be taken for the Church to secure credibility in the nation. Why should any unchurched person be remotely interested in coming to church if the stories they have heard are true?

For those who have seen the system at work, other, more specific questions emerge such as:

  • What training do bishops and archdeacons need in crisis management and investigation of complaints?
  • Do diocesan secretaries and registrars work for bishops or their dioceses? In other words, are they expected to challenge bishops appropriately when leaning towards challengeable decisions?
  • What synodical approvals supported those large financial settlements?

The way forward assuredly rests in episcopal hands. The evidence suggests that bishops no longer see the same landscape as their front-line clergy and laity. And thus the relationships that should inform their own ministry are broken.

If they are too busy to spend time on such relationships, secondary commitments in their diaries should be culled decisively, and appetites aroused to invest quality time with their clergy.

What the bishops’ clergy see, hear, and feel should shape their own core understanding. It is possible that some of this “intelligence” can emerge through synods, councils, and the advice of their senior clergy, but there is no substitute for time spent with individual priests and lay people.

I have thought that nothing resembling mutiny would have been imaginable in the Church, although events in Winchester diocese now make me wonder. Valuable lessons can be gleaned from the history of naval mutiny. Richard Woodman, in A Brief History of Mutiny (Robinson, 2005), described the “root cause of all mutinies being a detachment of the captain of any vessel, irrespective of size, from the mood of his crew, all of his crew, not just those with whom he has most in common or sees most frequently”.


David Brown served for 12 years as lay assistant to the Bishop of Lichfield. He is the author of
Leaven: The hidden power of culture in the Church (RoperPenberthy, 2016).

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