Bullying in the Church of England – Personal or Institutional?

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Definition of bullying: The abuse and mistreatment of someone vulnerable by someone stronger, more powerful, etc. It is prone to or characterized by overbearing mistreatment and domination of others.

The clergy of the Church of England, if asked directly, would probably be able to identify instances of personal bullying by the hierarchy, either of themselves or of others. Most however, would accept that this is not too common. However, it would seem that the identifiable mechanisms for direct one on one bullying have been embedded as part of the structures and systems of the Church. In that way they do not need to be personalised in any hierarchical figure as they become the normal practice of the management of the institution. Also, while resenting this ever encroaching managerialism, we find it hard to resist it, and to identify it in a way which reveals it for what is it. The hierarchy are engaged in bullying even without their activity being identified as such by them or others. Finally, when clergy suffer from bullying in this embedded form, it is difficult to pinpoint and identify a practice which is diffuse and permeates a whole system, and it is the nature of such a system that it is far from easy or safe for an individual to make a stand when isolated.

Below are some examples of the way bullying has become embedded, and is, in fragmented and generalised ways, experienced by most clergy.

  • The removal of freehold. This paved the way for creating weaker and less protected clergy, making them easier targets. Employment rights were undercut severely through this process. The checks and balances built into the system were removed and a poor substitute, from the point of view of the clergy, was introduced: Common Tenure.
  • The Clergy Discipline Measure is a fine example of what happens when the protection of freehold renders clergy vulnerable. Its destructive weaknesses have been identified but whether the Church has the will or the way to redeem the situation remains to be seen. The practice of being suspended and cut off from support and the exercise of one’s vocation, is a definition of being guilty until being proved innocent. The process feels like being bullied by clergy who have had to go through it, and it hangs, like Cicero’s sword of Damocles, over the heads of all priests going about their parish duties.
  • The constant demand for responses to questionnaires from the “centre”, over and above what used to be the usual documents, seem like a deliberate checking up process to make sure the clergy are doing what they should. This is demeaning.
  • The proliferation of initiatives cascading from the “centre” remind clergy that they are not really doing all they could to fulfil their vocation, and their practice of ministry needs remodelling. Belittling the vulnerable, persistently reminding them of their inadequacies, is an act of bullying.
  • The devising of Diocesan strategies and plans into which parishes are expected to fit has the same effect, and reminds clergy that their traditional and faithful activities are inadequate. There’s a comic/tragic exercise watching clergy persuade their PCCs to produce a mission statement that fits in with the latest alliterative straplines from the Diocese and its elaborately illustrated and verbose Mission Plan. Again, the message is to do it the Diocesan way, not the way of your parish and people. This undermines those in weaker positions.
  • The constant money pressure through Parish Share could be described whimsically as stealing the parishes’ dinner money, which is an old, traditional and established form of bullying. That aside, clergy are often made to feel as failures when they can’t up the giving to fund the extra staff, initiatives, and programmes of the Dioceses.
  • The pressure to put bums on pews reflects a contempt for low numbers. Two or three gathered together represents a failure by the clergy. The message of failing is persistent and insidious. (See: Attitudes to, and funding for, rural parish ministry – Church Times Letters 11th February 2022.) Numerical growth is the key to “success” and the only indicator of “success”. There are instances of Church House seizing on apparent growth from the statistics and asking to learn how the church managed it. Demographic changes such as immigration from predominantly Anglican countries, or two or three Christian families moving in do not count as “techniques”. Neither do proper pastoral care, or good funeral practices.
  • The emphasis on the demography of the church is a criticism about the failure of clergy to fill the pews with younger people. However, when has the dominant age group been under 30, and for how many decades has the church been singing the same song about bringing in young people, without effect? That history doesn’t matter when it comes to bullying today’s clergy. Ironically, those who “failed” in the past are now in a position to criticise those who “fail” in the same ways now. Younger people have other things to do – visiting family, caring for elderly relatives, or taking the only opportunity for leisure together. Make sure they know we are there if they need us.
  • The pressure to “reinvent” liturgy, to make it more “relevant”, “attractive”, or even inane, undermines clergy who are competent in doing what they have been doing well for years. Parish priests know as a rule what feeds their people and sustains them in Christian hope, if they listen attentively. Yet it would seem, according to the deluge of ideas from the “centre”, that they don’t.
  • Persistent pastoral reorganisation, or the threat of it, disturbs, threatens and worries clergy who have no way to resist, especially those without Freehold. It creates and sustains anxiety, increasing vulnerability and the desire to comply with the demands of the bullies. Some rural Parishes seem to be reorganised in their groups almost annually or every time someone locally moves on. One rural churchwarden told me recently, “I’m not sure what there is to reorganise. We are down to one service monthly usually taken by a Lay Reader. There are 12 churches and one half-time priest.” The pressure to take on more is hard to resist because refuse and “even that which you have will be taken away”. (A standard line of one Northern Archdeacon.)
  • The constant widening and increasing of responsibilities takes away the focus of clergy on the essentials of ministry. The administration, the returns, the courses, meetings, the three line whips to attend episcopally organised events. The essential Calling is reduced to the side-lines.
  • Appraisals and Reviews often insult clergy in their approach to questioning their work, competence, and faithfulness. Done in the name of support they have been experienced as quite the opposite.
  • There are increasingly rigid frameworks of safeguarding, health and safety, etc. which constrict initiative, have resulted in injustices to victims and alleged perpetrators, and create fear of sensitive practices and pastoral action.
  • The recently stated aim to have lay-led churches is saying to priests, “Your calling is outdated and not needed. It doesn’t work.“ It completely misses the point that the vocations of the laity are in their families, communities and workplaces. The church’s role is to serve them and think with them theologically about that task. They are not to be co-opted as free labour to sustain an institution for the sake of its hierarchy.

All the above, in effect, outlines institutionalised bullying. It suggests that we have developed management practices designed to manipulate a weakened clergy in order to force them to do what the hierarchy wants through the structures the hierarchy controls. It is the practice of the powerful dominating weaker and more vulnerable people.

What is to be done? Many clergy quite rightly sit lightly to the above where they can, dismissing it out of frustration. This is still possible for those who have managed to hold on to their freehold. For others I would argue that a quiet resistance is required. A collective stance which allows such bullying to pass by or wither in the in-box. Alongside that, listen to our people and reassert the fact that those we serve have a different view and we are necessarily heeding their needs. Treat intrusive questions in questionnaires and assessments with quiet dignity, while indicating their irrelevance to your situation; a simple “N/A” works well. Use appraisals creatively to rediscover the excitement and hope of your vocation rather than follow a hierarchical agenda.

For the hierarchy, stop undermining your clergy in the name of “Ministerial Support”. Have a moratorium on initiatives. Visit and affirm small churches without judging; just enjoy them. There are some wonderful clergy and people out there. Do more theology (or even some theology) on ministry, priesthood and the place of ordinary lay people in the world. Meet one to one with the clergy and listen, don’t try and “lead”. Reconsider the size and financial burden of the large bureaucracies now deemed essential to manage the church.

Much is spoken of bullying and the Church of England has policies and training programmes about how to deal with it. The church knows there is a problem and seeks to prevent it from becoming a greater problem at one level. That is good. However, essential though the prevention of direct one on one bullying is, we need to see how we have integrated bullying into the culture and management of the church over the past two or more decades. If the analysis above has some basis in fact then we need to rethink. We seek to serve God and God’s people. We will never manage that with systems that allow the motives and practices of the powerful to dominate the servants. That’s the way of the world and not the way of God and the Kingdom.

Paul Skirrow is a priest in retirement with experience spanning Urban and Industrial Mission, Parishes, a Retreat Centre, and international networking.