When I started OCICBW..., nearly four years ago, my aim was to make it a place English Christians with mental health issues could talk to each other and exchange information. I believed this to be necessary as, through my own lengthy and severe bout of mental illness five years previously, I had discovered that there was massive bigotry towards and misinformation about the mentally ill at all levels of the church but especially, and most destructively, at the top.
My blog did not remain so narrowly defined for long as it became apparent to me that there were many other groups of people who were marginalised by the churches. Because my illness had already rendered me worth little to my church I was able to allow my blog to become a place for all these people to congregate knowing they would, at least, be understood and valued. It wasn't bravery or even stupidity on my part - I simply had nothing much to lose.
Over the years I have campaigned for the better treatment of all Christians, lay and clerical, by church authorities throughout the world. But, as it is the group with which I have the most empathy, I have been particularly interested in the plight of Anglican parish clergy in England and Wales (Scotland is a different world). There were few of us addressing this issue because it was a taboo subject in the two churches. There is a macho, "I can cope with anything" attitude in the churches and if a minister complains about being bullied, not being able to cope with the workload or develops mental health problems, they will often be regarded as weak and a troublemaker (boat rocker) by those in authority over them. Very often a minister will lose their job and career rather than being helped by those who could actually help them. Most clergy chose to keep quiet and put up with all sorts of crap rather than risk the stigma attached to being less than superhuman in todays Church of England and Church in Wales.
But, hopefully, things are now changing. There are strong signs that the union, UNITE, has managed to break the taboo by getting the media to take up the issue. And, my goodness, the media certainly has recently and big time. I have been posting some of the recent articles published in the press, all of which have treated this matter with a seriousness not always there when the media talk about "vicars."
I think it was THE TIMES that broke this story first (well, after me, of course) and they are continuing to put pressure on the church hierarchy to accept that this problem exists by publishing accounts of abuse suffered by parish clergy. The latest, "There is no one to fight for us" is by celebrity vicar's wife, Anne Atkins (but don't be put off by that - it is a very good article, in deed).
After all, (my husband, a Church of England priest) had given up all that graduates took for granted: decent income, chance of promotion and career structure, mortgage and home for his family, public recognition, financial security. All because he believed something else to be more important. If Jesus is who He claimed to be, His message is of eternal significance. How can you grasp the middle-class trappings for yourself if you could be saving souls?
I confess that we did expect more intelligent Christians to realise that the decision had been taken selflessly. We anticipated appreciation, if nothing else.
Instead, I’ve noticed an increasingly ignorant and boorish contempt towards the clergy — even from those within the Church. Even (perhaps particularly) from the Church hierarchy. I wish I could say that I was surprised to hear the union Unite call earlier this week for employment rights for the clergy. I long to say that I struggled to believe the appalling details recently revealed about the Rev Mark Sharpe: how he was hounded by his parishioners and ignored by his two pastors, his Diocesan and his Suffregan Bishops, both of whom refused to meet him for two years. What do these men think they are appointed to do? What could possibly be more important than tending their flock?
Alas, it has become all too predictably familiar. The truth is that if you’d asked me, ten or 20 years ago, to write about the stress on clergy families I would have said, “Stress? What stress?”. Yes, honestly. Despite the anecdotal evidence all around me that clergy suffer proportionately more breakdowns, ME, exhaustion and ill health than other professionals (and even more divorce than their Christian lay friends), I still thought that there was lots to recommend working for the C of E.
My view is very different now. Partly because we ourselves have been at the sharp end of a system in which employees have scanty legal rights, and partly because the employment of clergy has become very much worse all round.
Since my grandfather was a clergyman a hundred years ago, the role has changed from being a low-stress and high-status one, to low status and high stress... Livings are being phased out, so clergy can be sacked on a whim. There is a compulsory retirement age, with all the implications for those who own no property. And Bishops have become pen-pushing bureaucrats who routinely ignore pastoral problems. Sometimes they behave more like bullies than pastors.
In recent years I have seen more and more to disturb me. Clergy isolated, abused, bullied and abandoned. Nobody to turn to and no one to fight for them. “Working for God” when they seek protection; but accountable to man when the budget is squeezed. They exist on a pittance, with none of the old perks — humble though these were.
And when things go wrong, they find themselves in an impossible bind. If a member of the clergy complains — or, Heaven forbid, considers legal action — he or she will never work again. There is talk among those in the know of a so-called Lambeth List, on which blacklisted names (some think up to 3,000) are secreted.
Read the rest of this excellent and, believe me, very accurate article at THE TIMES.
The redemption of this awful situation does not lie with the parish clergy, the bishops and archdeacons, the media or UNITE. It is up to the laity to do something about it. They need to change their attitude towards the clergy who serve them and they need to change their attitude towards their giving (which is pitifully low compared to much of the rest of the Communion) as our lack of finances is making it easier for the clergy to be bullied. Or they need to ditch the clergy completely. What they have no right to do under the terms of Christ's teachings is to carry on selfishly taking from their clergy until they break and then discarding them like a worn out vacuum cleaner.