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Synod asked to tackle bullying behaviour by lay people in church

09 February 2024

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LEGAL sanction, including the possibility of disqualification from holding office, is necessary to address bullying by lay officer-holders, a motion set to be debated by General Synod this month argues.

The private members’ motion, brought by the Archdeacon of Blackburn, the Ven. Mark Ireland, 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”.

It asks 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 herself in such a manner to be disqualified from holding office”.

At the meeting of Synod in July 2022, during a debate on replacing the Church Discipline Measure, Archdeacon Ireland warned of a lacuna in the law regarding lay church officers. Churchwardens and others who bullied priests could use the CDM to harass their victims, but were immune to any comparable disciplinary measure (News, 15 July). Some parishes had a reputation for “breaking clergy”, and their vacancies became impossible to fill.

He writes in the paper accompanying his PMM that he has since been “inundated with distressing correspondence from clergy and clergy spouses who have been subjected to bullying and harassment”. There were also “many disturbing examples of lay officers bullying other lay members of the congregation”. There were some parishes, he said, that bishops were “reluctant to recommend to prospective applicants, knowing that a series of previous incumbents have been hounded out of office”.

While noting that bullying is “not defined by law”, he writes that it “may be characterised as offensive, intimidating, malicious, or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power, through means intended to undermine, humiliate, or injure the recipient”. The lives of clergy and lay people are “scarred by bullying behaviour in church which would not be tolerated in other contexts”.

The motion is scheduled to be heard on the Sunday of the February meeting, the day after another motion, which comes from the diocese of Chelmsford. This requests that the Archbishops’ Council conduct a review to consider the possibility of drawing up a code of conduct for PCC members and lay volunteers. The review would also consider the possibility of a disciplinary process for removal from the PCC in the case of non-adherence.

An accompanying paper by the Revd Dr Sara Batts-Neale, covers similar ground to that of Archdeacon Ireland, referring to “the imbalance of accountability in relationships where lay volunteers face no significant consequences for persistent departures from acceptable standards of behaviour”. It warns that PCC meetings can become “psychologically unsafe environments for all participants, lay and ordained. The imperative to forgiveness can sometimes normalise bad behaviour when it is seen to be consequence free.”

The paper provides an insight into the extent to which behaviour in some parishes has deteriorated, observing that a PCC meeting “should not be a psychologically damaging or physically threatening environment for any participant. Aggressive behaviour in meetings (slamming fists on tables and continually interrupting when others speak) or outside meetings (emailing repeatedly, and when blocked on email, printing and delivering copies of a message).”

In one parish cited as an example, a PCC member refused to share the keys to the cupboard that stored all the resources for children’s work. “Thus, whilst the dispute was ongoing, no children’s work was able to happen”.

In another instance, a PCC had voted to exclude specific issues in the wider parish during its meeting, but one member “repeatedly attempted to force a discussion by bringing it as AOB, including contacting the diocesan bishop to request them to require the PCC to put the item on the agenda.”

It goes on: “If a PCC member is acting in a way that leads to police intervention for harassment of a churchwarden, but no mechanism exists for the PCC member to be removed, current rules force the churchwarden to meet their harasser on a regular basis. Likewise, when a PCC member makes vexatious complaints about others —who are the required to either resign, or continue working with that individual — an unsafe situation is created.”

It continues: “PCC members who persistently refuse to undertake safeguarding training — putting themselves and others at risk — are able to continue to serve as a trustee.” It described how “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”.

Anticipating objections to the proposal, it states that “an effective and proportionate code of conduct” would not create an “environment where the minister can shut down disagreement and effectively silence criticism. That is not a healthy environment for good decision-making. Collective decision-making requires that disagreement is aired and considered thoughtfully and prayerfully. PCC members must be able to ask for more information on proposals, for example, in order to be able to act in best interests.”

The code would “recognise the difference between a one-off disagreement or conflict over a specific matter, which will happen from time to time, and repeated patterns of damaging behaviour”.

While acknowledging that clergy are “often in positions of power over church members, particularly in pastoral relationships”, it asserts that “PCC members do hold power and that needs to be acknowledged.

“It may not be positional power, but there is a great deal of relational power held —especially within small communities. In many parishes, the shortage of enthusiastic and able volunteers means that one individual may have multiple responsibilities.

”Specific officers’ withdrawal of co-operation can have devastating effects on a parish’s ability to function, and the willingness of other volunteers to step forward.” For an incumbent, “resignation is an option, but at the cost of having to leave the parish completely”.

The motion originated in Braintree deanery synod, and was proposed by churchwardens rather than clergy. They had “found themselves unable to remove a PCC member whose behaviour repeatedly fell far short of acceptable standards”.

It suggests Matthew 18 (“If your brother or sister sins. . .”) as a biblical precedent for a church “effectively removing people from fellowship”.

The motion does not require specific legislation or implementation mechanisms but hopes that “progress can be made towards provision of a safety net for both laity and clergy, honouring and empowering all participants in the life of our churches”. It envisages a range of possible outcomes to disciplinary process, “in extreme cases, the Bishop should have the power to disqualify a person from being elected to office again as a churchwarden or PCC member, or holding office as a lay officer”.

While Dr Ireland’s paper welcomes the Chelmsford motion, he warns that a code in itself would be “insufficient to deal with the issue of bullying. . . Without any effective legal sanction (such as disqualification) there would remain a fundamental imbalance between the treatment of clergy, who can be removed from office after due process, and lay officers who, at present, cannot.”

Both papers cite the inadequacy of current legislation and regulation and the impasse that can arise when a lay officer cannot be removed.

Lay people can be disqualified (by the Churchwardens Measure and the Church Representation Rules) from holding office as churchwarden or being a member of a PCC if they are included in a barred list; or have been convicted of an offence mentioned in Schedule 1 to the Children and Young Persons Act 1933; or if they are disqualified from being a charity trustee.

The only way a churchwarden or PCC member can be removed from office is where, in proceedings under the Incumbents (Vacation of Benefices) Measure 1977, a tribunal has found that the conduct of that person has contributed to a breakdown of pastoral relations in the parish over a substantial period. This is “not regarded as being easy to use and only applies to cases where clergy hold office on historic freehold rather than common tenure”, the secretary-general, William Nye, writes in an accompanying note.

Mr Nye has provided a note on both proposals, in which he sets out some of the complexities of moving forward with the recommendations. His response to Archdeacon Ireland’s motion warns that: “Legislation is a blunt instrument and may have unintended consequences, resulting in situations being inflamed and escalated, and affected people resorting to counter-claims of bullying.

“Use of a formal process needs to be a last resort, as any process would be time-consuming and emotionally draining for all those involved. A punitive approach is not conducive to giving individuals opportunity to become aware of the effect of their behaviour, reflect on it, and learn to modify it. If the motion is passed, it may be worth establishing a group to consider the options for addressing bullying effectively, rather than only the legislation option of a discipline process akin to the Clergy Conduct Measure.”

When it comes to the code of conduct, he cautions that “the issues raised will not be straightforward to address”. There would need to be discussion about “who would issue such a code; who would consider and determine allegations that the code had been breached; what the available penalties would be, and who would impose them; what (if any) rights of appeal would be available; and how the costs of providing such a system would be met”.

In a response to Dr Ireland’s proposal, he acknowledges the limitations of existing legislation and regulations. Clergy are “unlikely to make use of the formal grievance procedure, as it cannot guarantee that it will resolve the issue, especially as there is no legal requirement for lay people to engage with it”, he writes. Parliament is “sometimes reluctant to agree legislation affecting lay members of the Church”. While there is evidence that bullying occurs in the Church, there is “not agreement about how bullying is best tackled”, he writes.

It would be possible to add bullying as grounds for disqualification to the Church Representation Rules, he writes, but a definition would need to be agreed. It would also be necessary to have in place “a fair and transparent process (including a right of appeal) for investigating whether bullying and harassment had taken place” and “properly trained and qualified investigators to carry out the process”.

He suggests that there is a case for waiting until the Clergy Conduct Measure has come into effect and is functioning effectively before attempting to produce a comparable process for lay people. The draft Measure includes steps to protect clergy from malicious complaints, allowing for restraint orders to be applied against vexatious complainants (News, 14 July 2023).

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