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Church of Ireland General Synod: tensions rise over Archdeacons’ tenure

19 May 2023

Church of Ireland

Belfast Cathedral, where a service of Choral Evensong was held on the eve of the Coronation

Belfast Cathedral, where a service of Choral Evensong was held on the eve of the Coronation

Archdeacons’ tenure

PROPOSALS to link the tenure of archdeacons to their appointing bishop were poorly received at the Synod, prompting the Church’s leadership to promise to rethink the issue before pressing ahead with any legislation.

A motion to test the mind of the Synod was introduced by the Archdeacon of Belfast, the Ven. Barry Forde (Connor). He said that the issue in question was whether the tenure of archdeacons should be tied to the bishop who appointed them. Currently, archdeacons remained in post until they resigned, retired, or reached the age of 70.

This question had come up for the Commission on Ministry, but it had been decided that it required a broader consultation. Bishops had been asked about a range of options, and now these same options were also being offered to the Synod. This would be an indicative non-binding debate to test the mind of the Synod, he explained. The bulk of response from bishops and archdeacons leaned towards allowing new bishops to appoint their own archdeacons when they took up office, he reported. But there were also those who believed that no change in archdeacon tenure was necessary.

Option A would link tenure of an archdeacon to that of the bishop who appointed them. New bishops could then appoint their own archdeacons when taking up office or after a prescribed settling in period. Option B would have archdeacons working a fixed term, perhaps of seven years. This meant that a bishop, existing or new, could reconsider the appointment at the end of the tenure, and decide whether to renew it. Option C would mean tenure would be agreed between the archdeacon and the appointing bishop, case by case.

Leaving the rules as they were was also on the table, Archdeacon Forde said, which found favour with those who thought that linking tenure to bishops would impose a lot of institutional pressure on smaller dioceses during handovers.

The Archdeacon of Killaloe, the Ven. John Godfrey (Tuam, Limerick & Killaloe), recalled the Archbishop of Armagh’s remarks about sacrifice and love during his presidential address. He said that the part played by an archdeacon was a vocation and call to sacrifice, making our gifts available to God for his glory. It was important that archdeacons worked well with the bishop, acting as “the crook at the end of their staff”, he said. Archdeacons do not get paid much more than the average rector, but their status in the Church did increase, he continued; so perhaps a fixed tenure for an archdeacon was a sensible middle ground to recognise gifts and calling, without turning it into a “life sentence”.

The Archdeacon of Derry, the Ven. Robert Miller (Derry & Raphoe), said that the job must always be both relational and contextual. The position was a responsibility, not a promotion, for priests, he argued. He thought that the Commission on Ministry should continue to explore tenure, but feared that it was an attempt to legislate for the difficult one-to-one conversations needed between each bishop and each archdeacon.

The Archdeacon of Armagh, the Ven. Dr Peter Thompson (Armagh), said that the position was one of being the bishop’s sidekick: “the one who sits beside the bishop and is kicked by them.” But, at times, the archdeacons needed to kick back, and limiting tenure would restrict their ability to “bring bishops back into line”, he said.

The Bishop of Derry & Raphoe, the Rt Revd Andrew Forster, said that archdeacons were the “unsung heroes” of each diocese. The relationship between bishop and archdeacon was key to a healthy diocese, he said, but he was wary of centralising legislation on this area. The Church should not make decisions about problems that happened very rarely, as most bishop-archdeacon relationships were strong. He argued that the Commission should park the discussion and move on with the rules unchanged.

The Bishop of Tuam, Limerick & Killaloe, the Rt Revd Michael Burrows, said that he had worked with 11 archdeacons in his career. He echoed descriptions of archdeacons as “unsung heroes” who did many bishops’ “dirty work” and deserved much gratitude.

Frank Dobbs (Connor) made a plea for flexibility, which was vital in relationships. He recalled how he had five-yearly appraisals when he taught medical students. Perhaps an initial five-year term for archdeacons, which was renewed each year, was a better way forward, he suggested.

The Dean of Belfast, the Very Revd Stephen Forde (Connor), said that the parish in which an archdeacon served gave up a lot to the diocese; so the fixed-term option may be worth considering, he said, not least if it allowed bishops to have that conversation without awkwardness, and it allowed people to move on without shame.

Summarising the debate, the Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd John McDowell, said that there was little enthusiasm for a formal Bill, but there was scope to explore a fixed term for archdeacons (or perhaps some even softer means of recommending some tenure reform) while emphasising the relational over the legislative approach.


Clergy tenure

A PROPOSAL to give bishops more powers to remove clerics from their posts was debated for the first time at the Synod.

The motion was proposed by the Bishop of Tuam, Limerick & Killaloe, the Rt Revd Michael Burrows, who said that he had never lived in a building not owned by the Representative Church Body. As a result, he had a deep understanding of the importance of security of tenure for clergy incumbents.

But he decried a myth that had pervaded the Church since its disestablishment: the idea that the Church of England’s freehold system had transferred over to the new Church and therefore a priest could never be removed from office unless they resigned, died, or retired, or was removed for severe misconduct or heresy. In fact, it had long been established by the Synod that it was that body that could legislate for clergy tenure, such as introducing compulsory retirement ages.

His motion would establish a select committee to reopen the discussion about clergy tenure and retirement. He noted that the retirement-age rules of the Church would today have ruled out the current Presidents of both Ireland and the United States, and would force King Charles to stand down in one year’s time.

Another problem was that there were situations of pastoral breakdown in parishes, but the cleric could not be moved on, because no formal offence had been committed. It would be unwise for the Synod to ignore warnings from eminent lawyers who had apparently identified problems with the tenure rules, he said.

He also felt that the recent request for a substantial increase in clergy stipends would be received better by parishioners, whose giving funded it, if tenure was re-examined, particularly where stipends were being paid out year after year when the work of the parish and priest were not happening.

“I would go to the stake to stop clergy being turned into pawns on an episcopal chessboard,” Bishop Burrows promised, trying to persuade the Synod that his motion was not a power grab by the Bench of Bishops. The motion did not seek to strip rights from the clergy, but to introduce more accountability.

Ken Gibson (Connor) asked whether the reference to pastoral breakdown in a parish should be extended to include clergy in non-parochial settings.

Canon Paul Arbuthnot (Cork, Cloyne & Ross) said that to change conditions of tenure with the justification of what was only an inflation-level stipend increase was “sad and unfortunate”. In any other profession, this would prompt a strike, he warned. Clergy gave a great deal to serve the people of the Church, and the Synod should respect and protect them as a result. The motion should be rejected, he said, because its logical conclusion would turn bishops into HR managers. If the motion was trying to address only a few sad cases, why change everything for 99 per cent of clergy, he asked.

The Revd Dr Thomas Woolford, a visiting priest from the Church of England, said that he understood the intent of the motion, and knew situations in England where it would be useful. But the English General Synod was about to introduce rules prohibiting lay people in parishes from bullying and harassing clergy, and he said that he worried how the motion’s plan to remove clergy without an offence could be “weaponised” in personality clashes.

Eric Driver (Cashel, Ferns & Ossory) supported the motion, reporting that his diocese had already conducted a wide consultation on the issue. Please allow us to explore this issue further, he urged the Synod.

Bishop Burrows responded to the debate by insisting that he was aware of the sensitivities around the question of tenure. Most priests worked superbly in their parishes, he said; but, if all of them did, then this motion would not be necessary; clearly that was not the case. Bullying from laity was already being addressed by separate policies by the Church of Ireland, he reminded the Synod. But, to assuage concerns, he and his fellow bishops should “all put our necks on the blocks and any recommendations from this group concerning clergy should equally apply to bishops”.

The motion was carried. 

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