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Clergy discipline is not about taking sides

05 March 2021

It is right to address the injustices of the existing system, says Neil Patterson — but be aware of the difficulties

THE social-media response to the recent return to ministry of the Bishop of Lincoln, the Rt Revd Christopher Lowson (News, 5 February), revealed division between relief at the end of an ordeal for the Bishop, and disgust among some who perceived it as a whitewash. This characterises the reaction to many disciplinary situations in the Church, strangely considered fair game for comment by many without access to the confidential details.

It is little surprise, then, that there is a widespread desire to reform the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM). It is equally unsurprising, though, that the group convened under the Bishop at Lambeth has delayed bringing proposals forward, as they discover that it is harder to see the way forward than they first thought (News, 22 January).

Many of the complex issues are explored by a thorough, 167-page report by the Ecclesiastical Law Society (ELS) (News, 26 February), and it is impossible to engage with them all here. There is much good in the report, but the encouragement for bishops to make more use of informal rebuke outside the formal system shows surprising disregard of the plea from the Sheldon Hub for transparency (News, 12 February), and the distrust created by such rebukes in response to clergy same-sex marriages.

Both the interim Lambeth report and the ELS report, however, suggest broadly agreed progress in some areas: need for greater speed, an immediate opportunity for clergy to respond to the complaint, and a triage system at the outset to determine which cases need to follow which processes. My plea is that, in a Church somewhat afflicted by “solutionitis”, we need to recognise that even the most careful plan will not resolve the inherent difficulty of clergy discipline.


THE underlying issue, which I have written about (Books, 29 January), is that the organisation, worship, and doctrine of the Church of England have been contested for centuries, and enforcement by law has been a weak tool to steer firm consciences.

We also wrestle with divergence about what clergy are, reflecting the long evolution of the part we play. Are we amateur social workers seeking to heal the wounds of society, executive administrators of an evangelistic organisation, or people of prayer pointing beyond this grubby passing age?

All definitions of priesthood are versions of the calling to discipleship common to all Christians. And, like them, they are about our whole life, not a defined area of professional activity. In our calling, we discover the weaknesses that lead us to fuller dependence on God. In the breadth of our humanity, and despite the best efforts of diocesan directors of ordinands (DDOs) like me, there will always be some ordained whose weaknesses are so pronounced that they conflict with the demands of ministry.

Against this, clergy are called (as both working parties agree) to the standards of the Ordinal. We had a clergy day in Hereford just over a year ago, and reflected together on that text. There was widespread agreement that the expectations of the Declarations and vows were impossible to fulfil. This is right. They are not a job description or a set of targets; for that would be a travesty of our calling. They are a call to imitate Christ, the call of every Christian, which none of us can live up to in our own strength. And the only rational response is what happens in the ordination liturgy: we kneel down and pray.


WHAT does this mean for reform of the CDM? It means that those responsible need to remember that they are regulating a calling that is inherently difficult, and whose failings arise from those difficulties.

At the heart of the current tribunal system is a wise provision, which has endured through various revisions, that the serious cases should be heard by a panel of ordinary clergy and laity, to judge whether misconduct has occurred.

These judgments stand as a body of case law about what has been found serious misconduct, determined by ordinary churchpeople under legal guidance, with the facts of each varied case before them. They form a public resource for education of bishops, their chaplains, and others responsible for the CDM system. To this, the ELS proposes the excellent addition of regional assessors of a similar nature to lead the triage process, who can be informed by these real cases and not by a rule book.

And it is, as the ELS argues, right that the bishops do play a central part in this, as they have since the time of the apostles. Confusion has been created by the distortion of the “pastoral” to mean “looking after me and telling me everything is all right”. If bishops are fathers- and mothers-in-God, then, like ordinary parents, they should be able to combine love and discipline, which are not in conflict. They imitate Christ who is both Saviour and Judge.

During my training as DDO, I recall someone asking, “Whose side are we on: the candidate’s, or the Church’s?” The answer came, “God’s.” That is the daunting responsibility of a bishop. It is tough, and toughening; pray for our bishops.


The Revd Neil Patterson is the Director of Vocations and Director of Ordinands in the diocese of Hereford.

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