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General Synod digest: Outline of clergy discipline reforms approved

15 July 2022
Sam Atkins/Church Times

The Archdeacon of London, the Ven Luke Miller

The Archdeacon of London, the Ven Luke Miller

PROPOSALS for the reform of clergy discipline have been welcomed, and draft legislation requested, by the General Synod. During its debate on Tuesday, the problems with the existing Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) were aired again.

Introducing the debate on the Clergy Conduct Measure [CCM] Implementation Group’s report, the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, explained that they were not debating a finished system, simply legislative proposals (News, 24 June). Many details not included fully would be considered during the next stage in the process. Clergy were not superhuman, he said, but sinful and reliant on the grace of God. The Church must respond to this with a system of discipline which was flexible, proportionate, and pastoral.

The main issue with the CDM was its inability to handle different levels of conduct and grievances; the new CCM must correct this, protect clergy from frivolous and vexatious accusations, provide swifter justice, and be visibly fair, he said.

Dr Inge went on to highlight particular reforms, including a diminished role for bishops who currently received complaints, supported the parties involved, and implemented the outcome. Under the CCM, clergy would be able to self-refer to prevent the weaponising of complaints.

The proposals also separated conduct into three categories: minor grievances, misconduct, and serious misconduct, which would call into question the fitness of the respondent to exercise public ministry. Each of the three tracks would have different forms of investigation and determination, he explained. Deposition from Holy Orders had been reintroduced as highest penalty, as recommended by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). While the proposals being presented were not the final system, the time for change was overdue, Dr Inge said.

The Dean of Southwell, the Very Revd Nicola Sullivan (Northern Deans), had worked in every area of clergy discipline as a priest, archdeacon, and now a dean, she said. The CDM had caused great conflict, harm, and expense, contrary to the expectations of its drafters. She especially welcomed the new minor-grievance track, which did not need legal support, but would be handled by means of mediation. She urged the Synod to back the report.

Kathryn Hubbard (Southwell & Nottingham) also praised the proposals, but said that the respondent must be given adequate support. This included access to their bishop or archdeacon for guidance if necessary during the disciplinary procedure.

The Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller (London), said that the House of Clergy in both Convocations was happy to work to redraft standards of behaviour for the clergy. “Is a cleric an independent office-holder, or are they employees with rights and duties?” Priests were neither of those and both, he said, and this would shape how discipline worked. He asked whether there was a need for a professional association, similar to those of doctors, lawyers, and police officers, who were also office-holders. Could this body rather than the dioceses hold accreditation and discipline?

Lynn Nichol (Worcester) welcomed the report because “process matters”. Everyone involved needed to be able to trust the new CCM, recognising that both the complainant and respondent were children of God. She praised the distinction between grievance and misconduct, and provision of support for both parties.

Siân Kellogg (Derby) also backed the proposals, but asked whether the new level of offences and penalties outlined in the report could be taken into consideration under the existing CDM before it was replaced by the CCM.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesThe Revd Sam Maginnis (Chelsmford), chair of the C of E Employees and Clergy Advocates

The Vicar General of York, the Rt Worshipful Peter Collier QC, said that there had been overwhelming support for the current direction of travel in clergy-discipline reform. It was important to keep up the pace, he said, as the proposals had already slipped behind the timetable.

The Revd Dr Sean Doherty (Universities and TEIs), supporting the motion, raised the role of the assessors and the qualifications, training, and support for that position. He questioned the suggestion in the report they may not require a legal background.

Amanda Robbie (Lichfield) said that her husband had had to answer a double CDM complaint in recent years, with an “excruciating legal process”, long delays, and much misery. Before any finding of fact, priests were already punished by the process. She warmly welcomed the new proposals, and that the plight of clergy, caught between vexatious complaints from disordered individuals and the power of bishops, be considered. She also spoke of the importance of practical support for respondents.

Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities) praised the reframing of the part played by the bishop, so that bishops were pastors again, and this was not a source of conflict. He asked, however, whether this had gone far enough, or been made clear enough, given that the Bishops would still be imposing a penalty, while also being pastors.

Canon Joyce Jones (Leeds) said that self-supporting and retired clergy were still subject to discipline; so moving towards making clergy employees would not resolve that issue.

The Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Martin Seeley, also responding to Archdeacon Miller’s comments, spoke of wider work in the Ministry Council on the ordained ministry. The instinctive understanding in wider culture about what the clergy were for had broken down over the 40 years of his ministry, he argued.

The Revd Andrew Cornes (Chichester), backing the motion, echoed the praise for differentiating between grievances and misconduct. He also asked that clergy be told from the outset what range of penalties might be likely, to prevent “wild ideas racing through their heads” about the potentially drastic consequences of a complaint. He was also concerned that the bishop could communicate both the complaint and the outcome in writing rather than in person. “What father disciplines their son or daughter by sending them a written note?”

Michaela Suckling (Sheffield) said that the voice of the survivor or complainant must be central. She was concerned about questions of transparency and the publication of penalties, especially in cases of adultery. Would publishing on a website help the reconciliation and rebuilding of a marriage, she asked.

Jayne Ozanne (Oxford), speaking as a survivor of church-based sexual abuse, said that the Church had a long way to go in understanding the position of victims. She welcomed the removal of time limits, noting that it took years to come to terms with abuse and process shame. She recalled her own experiences of being raped by a cleric and suffering a sexual assault. The whole system at present protected the cleric at the expense of the victim, she said.

The Revd Sam Maginnis (Chelmsford), chair of the C of E Employees and Clergy Advocates, praised the report and urged that the new framework be brought in as quickly as possible. Processes shaped culture, but culture also shaped process, he said.

The Revd Neil Patterson (Hereford) was worried about how to recruit enough assessors, but supported the report overall. Division and conflict within the Church was unavoidable, but the danger was being tempted to use disciplinary processes to fight our battles, he said. The drafting of the new CCM must “steer us away” from this by being limitied to matters of professional conduct, not controversy, he said, with a clearly define scope.

The Archdeacon of Blackburn, the Ven. Mark Ireland (Blackburn), said that part of his work was to defend clergy from bullying. The current system was unfair and one-sided, because it allowed only the clergy to be disciplined, not lay officers in cases when clergy had been bullied. As a result, some parishes had a reputation for “breaking clergy”, and their vacancies became impossible to fill, he warned. This imbalance of accountability had to be addressed, to give clergy confidence in the reforms.

Penny Allen (Lichfield) asked the working party to explore the Teaching Regulation Agency, and in particular the advice on its website about how its complaints system worked, which, she suggested, might be a useful comparison.

The motion was carried. It read:

That this Synod

a) welcome the report from the Clergy Conduct Measure Implementation Group (GS 2277); and

b) request that the Archbishops’ Council introduce legislation to give effect to the report’s recommendations for first consideration by this Synod at the next available opportunity.

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