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Sheldon hands on its lobbying for clergy discipline reform to Synod

25 May 2021

Campaigning for replacement CDM has been ‘expensive and time-consuming’


Dr Sarah Horsman at Sheldon, in Devon

Dr Sarah Horsman at Sheldon, in Devon

THOSE who care about reform of the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) must engage with the General Synod’s scrutiny of it, because Sheldon cannot continue its campaigning efforts, the charity’s Warden has said.

“I learned my pastoring from the C of E”

Sheldon, a community in Devon dedicated to supporting those in ministry, runs the online Sheldon Hub. It launched its CDM project in 2017, in response to significant pastoral concerns about the effects of the Measure (Features, 19 October 2018). It commissioned a survey, conducted by the University of Aston, which secured responses from one third of the Church’s clergy. The report concluded that the CDM was part of a “toxic management culture” in the Church of England and so flawed that it required complete replacement (News, 17 July 2020).

The House of Bishops was persuaded that a root-and-branch reform was necessary, and a working group, chaired by the Bishop at Lambeth, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, is formulating proposals to be brought before the General Synod in July (News, 11 December 2020). But Sheldon has been highly critical of the workings of the group, seeing “remarkably little attempt to build trust and confidence through engagement and transparency”, and a lack of a published scoping/overview paper. In February, it published its own proposed ground rules for a replacement for the Measure (News, 12 February 2021).

Sheldon could no longer afford to champion reform through campaigning, its Warden, Dr Sarah Horsman, said this week. “We have to protect the viability of ‘real-world’ Sheldon. . . To use an analogy, our primary job at Sheldon is pulling the bodies out of the river. It was exceptional for us to go upriver and find out what was going on, but it’s been a very expensive and time-consuming process.

“We can’t afford for people to be thinking: ‘We don’t need to worry about it, Sheldon’s got it covered.’ It’s very clear that this now needs everybody to be on board rather than continuing to muddle along on inadequate resources.” It was now a synodical process: “Anybody who cares about it must focus their attention there.”

The House of Bishops discussed the Thornton group’s proposals in its meeting last week. A note said that the Bishops had discussed “the wider work needed to develop an appropriate ‘framework’ for ordained ministry in the Church of England, covering such areas as fitness to practise, ‘supervision’, ministerial development review, grievance procedures, and capability procedures”. The House had agreed to support in principle the outline of the proposed Clergy Conduct Measure.

Dr Horsman said this week that it was hard to trust that a “full-fledged, really good replacement” was ready, given the opacity surrounding the process, and the CDM’s having been allowed to exist in its current form for so long.

Other than the Thornton working group, the Ecclesiastical Law Society formed a group to propose a CDM replacement. Its final report, published in February (News, 26 February), proposed an online triage process, and the recruitment and training of regional assessors to make a decision on the facts of each case. Under its proposals, matters of serious misconduct would be referred to a central office for tribunal proceedings, and tribunals would be held within six months.

Dr Horsman said that Sheldon regarded these proposals as “the strongest available framework for going forward”, but that there remained work to be done. From the beginning of its campaign, Sheldon had argued that “the respondent should never be in a system where home and livelihood are on the line, unless the allegation if proved would warrant prohibition.” It was one of the causes of the “devastating” impact of the Measure, she said.

On Tuesday, Sheldon published its report “I Was Handed Over to the Dogs”, containing extracts from the testimonies that it has received from clergy on the receiving end of a CDM or safeguarding complaint.

The accounts report a consistent pattern of concerns about mishandling and misinformation. Typical entries are:

“How can anybody be accused of anything and not know what the accuser is saying? I had no idea whether, what I was talking about in my defence, was actually hitting the subject!”

“I subsequently discovered, via my Lambeth file, that although I had been told there was no appeal against the decision of the disciplinary committee . . . that the decision was open to appeal, but no one told me.”

“I had a phone call from the [diocesan officer] telling me it was urgent that I attend for a chat the next day. I asked why and was not told. I rang later asking the same question, but no answer given. I presumed it was about a third party but it turned out at the meeting that it was about me.”

“I thought I was going for a pastoral chat. The bishop concerned . . . just read these complaints to me as if they were gospel truth, tackling them one by one, like twisting a knife into an open wound.”

“I was given undertakings that after an initial inquiry the matter was closed and no record would be kept. The bishop who said this lied, because it went into my blue file.”

The report concludes with a challenge to the Church of England at large: “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know.”


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