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General Synod digest: PCC code of conduct agreed to prevent ‘psychologically unsafe environments

01 March 2024
Geoff Crawford/Church Times

Fiona MacMillan (London)

Fiona MacMillan (London)

THE General Synod voted by a large majority on Saturday in favour of a motion from Chelmsford diocesan synod requesting a review to consider drawing up a code of conduct for PCC members and lay volunteers. This would include consideration of a disciplinary process for the removal of PCC members who showed “persistent departures from acceptable standards of behaviour”.

Currently, there are no significant consequences for poor behaviour on PCCs: an imbalance of accountability which can render PCC meetings as “psychologically unsafe environments for all participants, lay and ordained,” the background paper from Chelmsford says. The imperative to forgive can sometimes normalise bad behaviour, it suggests.

The motion was proposed by two churchwardens in a rural deanery who found themselves unable to remove a PCC member. “It is important to note that the motivation for this motion came not from clergy, but lay members wanting to care for their benefice, and for their incumbent,” it says.

“Collective decision-making does not work in an environment where one individual consistently dominates the discussion or threatens consequences if their preferred outcome is voted down.”

The paper, which sets out the legal and ecclesiastical context for seeking a review, the impact on mission, continues: “Repeatedly poor behaviours sidetrack meetings, waste the time and energy of all participants, and detract from the church’s ability to share the gospel and nurture disciples” — besides detracting from safeguarding.

“Guidance on acceptable conduct which transparently translated the fruits of the spirit into a working document would begin to provide a safety net for all involved in the service of Christ,” it suggests.

A response from the Secretary General, William Nye, advises that the issues raised “will not be straightforward to address. . . Such a review would have to form a view as to what appetite there is among PCCs for an enforceable Code of Conduct.”

Introducing the debate, the Revd Dr Sara Batts-Neale (Chelmsford) said that, when a PCC met, it was holy ground. It was “not about a one-off loss of temper, a one-parish incident, a one clash of personalities”, she said. “Sometimes, when things go wrong, they go wrong badly. . . Too many people are getting hurt. Good people are leaving the Church.” Harassers shared meeting space with those whom they were harassing.

The motion was intended to “encourage healthy cultures”, she said, acknowledging that a review would take time, but did not have to be started from scratch: “The building blocks are already there.”

Fiona MacMillan (London) was concerned for those who, like herself, were neuro-divergent, whose manner of communication might be open to misinterpretation. A recent study had found that 91 per cent of people with autism had been been accused of being aggressive or bullying, she said.

Prudence Dailey (Oxford) said: “It isn’t always clear who is the bully. . . We need to be mindful that whatever bar we might put in place is no lower than the equivalent bar for clergy.”

Adrian Greenwood (Southwark) sought to amend the motion by putting the onus on individual PCCs to set standards of behaviour and discipline for their members. “Do we really need to ask the Archbishops’ Council for a review when we know what the problem is?”

Caroline Herbert (Norwich) feared that a review would extend into the next quinquennium. The Revd Carol Bates (Southwark) suggested that it should begin in parishes “known to be difficult”. Peter Adams (St Albans) wanted to “big up” the part played by lay chairs; the Revd Christopher Blunt (Chester) favoured a model code of conduct; and the Revd Robert Thorpe (London) raised the dimension of social media.

The amendment was lost.

Clive Scowen (London) then proposed an amendment to remove the call for a disciplinary process. “To make it legally binding and enforceable is a weapon for disaster,” he suggested. “At PCC level, where is the expertise to come from? How will fairness be achieved? Let’s not create a mechanism for enforcement which will make things ten times worse in an already divided PCC.” Registrars would be “swamped” with requests for help, he suggested.

Sandra Turner (Chelmsford) was concerned about the inclusion of lay volunteers in the code of conduct; it was hard enough already to find volunteers in rural parishes.

The Revd Christopher Johnson (Leicester), in a maiden speech, spoke of the “lawful versus the beneficial”, and said that parish governance had “changed beyond recognition.” Simon Friend (Exeter) reflected on the “complex web of relationships with a church, particularly in rural communities”.

The Archdeacon of Knowsley and Sefton, the Ven. Pete Spiers (Liverpool, speaking via Zoom), observed that some people had resorted to Zoom for PCC meetings as “a safer way to deal with disruptive behaviour”: members behaving badly could be muted or transferred to the waiting room. Liverpool had already put in place a code of conduct in place that all PCCs had been asked to adopt, based on the Nolan Principles, and others.

The amendment was lost.

Returning to the main motion unamended, Richard Brown (Chelmsford) spoke of the many layers of governance already relating to PCCs, including the Church Representation Rules and the PCC handbook. The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, drew attention to the “careful wording” of the motion: a review “to consider” the possibilities.

The motion was carried in a vote by Houses requested by Debbie Buggs (London): Bishops 30-1, with one recorded abstention; Clergy: 128-23,with four recorded abstentions. Laity 105-52, with eight recorded abstentions.

It read:

That this Synod request that the Archbishops’ Council carry out a review to consider:

  1. the possibility of drawing up a Code of Conduct for PCC members and lay volunteers,
  2. the issues required to put in place a disciplinary process for their removal from the PCC in cases where this is not followed,
  3. the resources required at national, diocesan and parish level to bring this about.

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