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General Synod digest: Synod requests legislation to address bullying by lay officers

01 March 2024
Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Archdeacon of Blackburn, the Ven. Mark Ireland (Blackburn)

The Archdeacon of Blackburn, the Ven. Mark Ireland (Blackburn)

THE General Synod voted on Sunday afternoon in favour of a private members’ motion on sanctioning lay officers for bullying (News, 9 February). It was brought by the Archdeacon of Blackburn, the Ven. Mark Ireland (Blackburn), and asks the Synod to recognise “the serious pastoral problems and unfairness that arise while clergy can be subject to penalties for bullying that include prohibition and removal from office but there is no means of disqualifying a churchwarden, PCC member, or other lay officer who is guilty of bullying from holding office.”

Introducing his motion, Archdeacon Ireland said that clergy were subject to penalties for bullying, but there was no equivalent power to remove from office a churchwarden or other lay officer. Those who experienced bullying were always made to think that it was their fault, he said. “A wolf can always find in a lamb’s discourse a reason to eat it.” Bullying in a church context was a sin, he said.

The Archdeacon had been “inundated” by stories from victims of bullying since he first raised the issue, he said. A recurring theme was when a bully harming other members of the congregation was confronted by a priest, only for the bully to turn their fire upon the cleric. Archdeacon Ireland quoted one victim of bullying who had told him that their experience had ruined their life and squashed their faith. “Without a fantastic GP, I would not be a vicar today,” the victim had concluded.

Priests were highly visible figures in their communities, and paid a huge toll in having to meet their bullies at every service. Bullying could also affect the rest of the PCC or a wider benefice, Archdeacon Ireland said. The Synod had been “ducking” the issue for years, he suggested, but this was not good enough. Codes of conduct were helpful, but they needed the teeth of penalties, he continued. This motion was about levelling the playing field: when clergy bullyed lay people, there was the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM); but when lay officers bullied, there was nothing to be done. “This situation is unjust, and it must be remedied.”

Some had suggested waiting until the new Clergy Conduct Measure was in place before creating an equivalent system for lay officers, but this, Archdeacon Ireland said, amounted to “kicking it into the long grass”. Others feared that a Lay Conduct Measure would put off applicants to already hard-to-fill PCC or churchwarden positions, but this was backwards, he said. More “good people” would come forward if they were confident bullying lay officers were being rooted out.

Angus Goudie (Durham) said that bullying could destroy lives. As a GP, he had seen many whose careers had been seriously harmed by it, too. He had seen head teachers forced off work for more than a year because of bullying by another member of staff. He welcomed the motion, but said that it should go even further, as bullying also happened among lay people who held no office in a church.

Rosemary Wilson (Southwark) said that her mind “boggled” to hear stories of clergy being bullied in church. She said that she had been shocked at how few people “called out” this bad behaviour, but questioned whether a legislative approach was necessary when the biblical guidance in Matthew 8 was a better approach. She backed the motion in spirit, but was unsure whether legislation was wise.

The Revd Joshua Askwith (Chester) said that bullying was prevalent among his friends and colleagues. “Moulding” by churchwardens often strayed into bullying, he said. Clergy should feel safe from intimidation, abuse, and harassment in their own churches; so effective sanctions were necessary. Strong disciplinary measures were needed to send a message that bullying would not be tolerated, he said — but punitive steps alone were not enough; more reconciliatory conversations and honest dialogue without fear of reprisal were also needed.

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesThe Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller (London)

Canon Lisa Battye (Manchester) was opposed to the motion, despite having being bullied herself. Removing those who had been elected concerned her; she suggested that the clergy already had tools at their disposal to address the sin of bullying. A code of conduct would be a better approach, she argued, and give the bullies a chance to “grow in grace and become more Christian”.

The Revd Sonia Barron (Lincoln) recalled experiences of lay churchgoers who felt that they “owned the church” and so could openly undermine or intimidate the incumbent. She had clerical friends whose emotional and physical health had been affected by such behaviour. She “wholeheartedly” supported the motion.

The Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller (London), said that he was ambivalent about the means of the motion, not the end, but that it should be carried nevertheless, so that a discussion could begin on the best way to sanction lay officers for bullying. Archdeacons could use only two tools, he said: charm or menace. Sometimes, neither worked: “Sometimes, you have to be able to say ‘You need to leave the room.’” Codes of practice were a good idea, but other tools were needed, he suggested, although perhaps ones not as complicated and legalistic as a Laity Discipline Measure.

The Revd Alice Kemp (Bristol) said that sometimes behaviour that was perceived as bullying came from those with mental-health problems, which stopped them building healthy relationships with others, and that this was often a response to trauma. So, alongside processes to protect people being bullied, she suggested that training should also be offered.

The Revd Kevin Goss (St Albans) said that the motion was long overdue. But enabling the removal of bullying officers was not enough; he agreed that more training was also required in parishes.

Carol Bates (Southwark) said that PCCs were supposed to cooperate with the minister; but unchallenged, inappropriate behaviour over many years had entrenched a culture of bullying, in which priests were expected simply to do what the PCC told them to. Effective penalties for lay officers were required to deter bullying and also address it after it happened, she agreed. Without these sanctions, the Church could die out, he said: who wanted to worship alongside bullies?

Clive Billenness (Europe) spoke of his experience running an anti-bullying faith network. Victims described their experiences in the same terms as rape victims did, he said. Legislation was not a blunt instrument, as the Secretary General had argued in his paper, he suggested, but helpful in this case.

Ros Clarke (Lichfield) said that there were already pastoral routes for dealing with “ongoing unrepentant pastoral sin”, such as examining consciences before holy communion. When someone persisted in their sinful behaviour, the biblical and Anglican response was to exclude them from fellowship at the eucharist. That was restorative justice, she argued. “Please can we approach this issue using the means which God has provided.”

Debbie Buggs (London) echoed this argument, quoting from the rubric in the Book of Common Prayer. The diocesan bishop could excommunicate that person with the aim of bringing about “sorrow and repentance”, she said. This was the remedy for dealing with bullies. “Bishops, let it not be said you are spineless or toothless. Use the powers afforded to you.”

The motion was carried by 273-15, with 22 recorded abstentions. It read:


That this Synod, recognising:

(a) that bullying is unacceptable behaviour within the Church of God, whether by clergy or lay people, and where it exists needs to be addressed; and

(b) the serious pastoral problems and unfairness that arise while clergy can be subject to penalties for bullying that include prohibition and removal from office but there is no means of disqualifying a churchwarden, PCC member or other lay officer who is guilty of bullying from holding office;

(c) request the Archbishops’ Council to bring forward legislative proposals which would enable a churchwarden, PCC member or other lay officer who was found to have conducted him- or her-self in such a manner to be disqualified from holding office.

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