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Plan to rein in PCC ‘table-thumpers’ passes first stage

24 February 2024

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

Dr Sarah Batts-Neale (Chelmsford) who moved the motion

Dr Sarah Batts-Neale (Chelmsford) who moved the motion

MEMBERS of parochial church councils (PCCs) who persistently misbehave could be removed from their positions if a code of conduct requested by the diocese of Chelmsford is put in place.

A motion asking the Archbishops’ Council to consider implementing such a code received overwhelming backing by the General Synod on Saturday morning, despite a warning note from the secretary-general that it would be difficult to frame and hard to enforce (News, 9 February).

Synod members heard that an “imbalance of accountability” meant that PCC members currently face no significant consequences for aggressive behaviour, exemplified in a background paper as “slamming fists on tables and continually interrupting while others speak; or, outside meetings, emailing repeatedly — and when blocked on email, printing and delivering copies of a message.”

PCC meetings, the paper said, could become “psychologically unsafe environments for all participants, lay or ordained”. The Chelmsford motion before the Synod came from two churchwardens who found themselves powerless to remove a PCC member “whose behaviour repeatedly fell far short of acceptable standards”.

The imperative to forgiveness can sometimes normalise bad behaviour, the paper said. “We may hold to an ideal that we forgive seventy-seven times, but Matthew 18 also suggests there is a precedent for a church effectively removing people from fellowship. . .

“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.”

This was “not about a one-off loss of temper, one parish individual, one clash of personalities,” said Dr Sara Batts-Neale (Chelmsford), who moved the motion. “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 they were harassing. The motion was intended to “encourage healthy cultures,” she said.

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.

And Prudence Dailey (Oxford) reflected: “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 unsuccessfully 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?“

Clive Scowen (London) also sought unsuccessfully to amend the motion by removing 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.”

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. She observed: “One person’s definition of poor behaviour is another person’s principled stand.”

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 who were behaving badly could be muted or transferred to the waiting room. Liverpool diocese already had a code of conduct in place which all PCCs had been asked to adopt, based on the Nolan Principles and others.

Richard Brown (Chelmsford) highlighted the many layers of governance already relating to PCCs, including the Church Representation Rules and the PCC Handbook. There were already many sample codes of conduct, he said.

In a vote by houses requested by Debbie Buggs (London), the motion was carried:

Bishops: 30-1, one abstention; Clergy: 128-23, four abstentions; Laity: 105-52, eight abstentions.

The motion, unamended, 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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