AT LONG LAST: MISTREATMENT OFPARISH CLERGY IN ENGLAND AND WALESIS NO LONGER A TABOO SUBJECT

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.

Comments

AT LONG LAST: MISTREATMENT OFPARISH CLERGY IN ENGLAND AND WALESIS NO LONGER A TABOO SUBJECT — 31 Comments

  1. how are bishops chosen in England/Wales? I begin to think our TEC election process – flawed as it often is – may be better than I thought! keep up the good fight!

  2. “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.

    This is so true.

    Quite some years ago, when I tried to get my bishop’s support (yes, the good one!) in making some sensible plans for my future and old age and especially what I might face when I new bishop came on board, he said, “But you’re supposed to be trusting in God.”

  3. Horrible that the very people who should be leading the charge for better conditions, protecting the parish clergy and speaking out for those abused by prejudice are the ones oppressing the victims. England needs a revolution.

    And you may yet get one. The chances are that the church will fracture over women bishops and its inability to lead the communion. The times they are a’changing and as is often the case the blindness at the top is devastating.

    FWIW
    jimB

  4. I agree with every word of this Jonathon. I don’t think the problem lies just with the laity but I do agree that there needs to be a real culture of offering support to clergy and, yes, giving more. Parishioners, effectively, can behave as badly as they wish, give what they choose, resign a role on the spot, be as demanding as they like, expect to be treated well by their vicar themselves but not reciprocate- and walk off to another church if they’re not satisfied. It is hardly an equal relationship and this should be recognised in the safeguards given to priests.

  5. Thank you Suem. And, of course, some parish priests are tyrants and the vast majority of church members are lovely human beings. Unfortunately, on both sides it is the rotten apples that are destroying my church and we don’t seem to have an episcopate up to dealing with this. In fact, they seem to be making the situation worse, and in their case I feel it is the majority.

  6. I’m sorry to hear it’s so bad. I know American clergy often feel under attack; I don’t know how the two situations compare in terms of severity.

    It is up to the laity. So is the issue of paying church staff fairly and giving them adequate working conditions, and making sure the congregation does not casually mangle their desktops (often, the church office is open to the congregation on Sundays).

    So often, church members talk big about saving the world, global injustice, etc., etc., but do not work on relationships within the parish.

    –Boston

  7. Thanks, Boston. And I must state that I’m not attacking the laity here. I am giving them a task that I feel only they can achieve. I have a high view of the laity and I believe most good change in the church comes about because of them.

  8. Bravo.
    At long bloody last, though.
    Nigel has been a member of unite for many years and the things mentioned are a fraction of what drove him to resign. I have heard some appalling horror stories that make me continue to be glad that my future and his does not rest in these frankly godless hands.

  9. The English Church is sick unto death, probably a lingering and painful death. And your two chief bishops, Canterbury and York fiddle while their church burns, as we watch where their energies and words are focused. I bridle still when the ABC scolds TEC for electing an excellent woman as bishop in the Diocese of California because she loves another woman. Is he blind? Doesn’t he look around on his own home ground?

    I commend you and the other few, who spoke out early about the frightful mess in your church and put yourselves at risk. Take courage, because I have no doubt that new life is already springing up in the CofE. You may not be able to see it yet. The growth may yet be under the soil. But it is there.

    Institutions, leaders, and even our own friends and family may fail us, but God never fails us. Our faith in a loving God is, at times, all we have, but when we place our hope in a loving God, we have everything.

    You may think that those of us across the pond don’t care about the CofE, but we do. We don’t much care for your leaders, but we care about the people of God in the English church.

    As a tonic, you may want to read Mark Harris’ latest post The Prophetic Spirit and the year of the Tyger. Mark speaks of the Episcopal Church, but the time is ripe for the grass roots in the CofE, the laity and the lowly clergy, to take up the prophetic cause and begin to raise the CofE back to life, with God’s help.

  10. Thank you, Mimi.
    We will never know all of God’s plan in this life. But, the greatest gift the internet has given me is the ability to see a lot more of the big picture than I have ever seen before. My gut feeling, the one I live my life by, tells me that you are “probably” right.

  11. RE: “It’s all behind closed doors. We are not even told who the candidates are.”

    See, to Americans, that would never fly. We insist on having a voice in pretty much everything.

    On the other hand, maybe there are advantages to not turning it into a campaign. :shrug:

  12. I must admit to feeling torn here. I am horrified at how some of my troubled priest friends have been treated by the church, and I know many who suffer from their parishioners, it’s a real problem.

    But giving more…. I do what I can to support my priest and I do as much locally as I possibly can, but I will not give money to an organisation that refuses to accept and treat me as a full and equal member.

  13. You’re right, the Atkins article is brilliant – well written and backed up by personal experience. I haven’t particularly liked her in the past, but with this she has hit the proverbial nail firmly on its head.

  14. Thank you, MP, for sharing this with the rest of us who have the on-the-whole-a-blessing to be members of other (non-English) churches of the Anglican Communion.

    Grandmère Mimi is right, as she usually is: The English Church is sick unto death. And +Rowan (whom, believe it or not, I actually respect a whole lot, mostly) has raised Cluelessness to a High Art. If +Katharine were not a very much nicer and holier person than I am, she would tell +Rowan that it’s time for him to fix his own church and shut the hell up about how we run ours.

    If anyone has not yet followed the link MP provided to Anne Atkins’ article in The Times, go read it now. But don’t read the comments, which are mostly provided by Dawkinsite buttheads and a few Established-Church suckups.

    Yes, there are downsides to the American Episcopal system of electing bishops, which typically involves the so-called “dog-and-pony show.” But I’ve participated in a couple of these, in which the outcome was that nominees who were not the obvious “cardinal-rector” types were elected and have proved to be very fine bishops.

    Non-US folks who are interested in how we go about electing bishops might keep an eye on the Episcopal Cafe website, and particularly The Lead section, which tracks episcopal election processes pretty well.

  15. Oh, and I was going to add my second to Mimi’s recommendation of Mark Harris’ current post. Very thoughtful and perceptive.

  16. WSJM, I’d settled on a candidate from the bios, but at the dog and pony show, I saw another candidate whom I thought would be much better suited to be our bishop than my original choice. I didn’t have a vote, but I lobbied like hell for my new favorite, and by a miracle, he was elected, TBTG.

  17. All true. But also true of institutions in general. In evangelical land the tone is set in “Bible College” where you are only allowed to read and regurgitate endless reams of crap while your wife and toddlers never see you. There is no such thing as “depression” though it is everywhere under the surface ready to break out somewhere dowm the track. When it does everyone looks the other way.

  18. the more I read about this sort of thing, the more I wonder if the Anglican church is an institution to which I really care to commit more of my time and energy.

  19. Being the spouse of a pastor, I know quite well that laypersons can take our clergy for granted. There is a tendency to think of clergy as employees but only in so far as the negative aspects of an employer/employee relationship are trotted out when convenient. Pastors and priests are not there to be treated like the worst end of a customer service. You are right to insist that the laity take responsibility as members of the Church. The problem I fear is that from what I can tell too many of your bog standard sorts of laity have been pushed away or repulsed in recent years by goings on at the top. The diminishing returns are an increasingly ugly laity as well.

  20. Several years back, I was stonewalled and sabotaged out of the ordination process by a minority group of laity in a very unhealthy parish (the majority were either uncaring or intimidated by the people in power, and the priest had already been driven out). The bishop was not helpful. Given what I’ve seen clergy go through in TEC, I’ve sometimes wondered whether those folks actually did me a favor. Any of the stories in the Atkins article could have happened on this side of the pond.

  21. A very accurate description, Boaz.
    And the reason they look the other way is because they’re busy lining up the next sucker to fill the reject’s place…

  22. I think the ‘dog and pony’ thing had a lot to do with the choice of our diocesan and he was a truly inspired choice. Having the vote of almost one entire block of our clergy (the vocational deacons) did not hurt either of course. 😉 But, in some sense it is all about what sort of bishop you want. We Americans seem to want pastoral skills and because the laity vote, we generally (not always) get them.

    FWIW
    jimB

  23. I’m not surprised. On Thinking Anglicans, Graham Kings(sic) is “rah-rah” about the Covenant and how our TEC episcopacy has departed the Anglican tradition by becoming mere employees for their laity.

    I’ve suspected that the bishops in the CofE were afraid of something, but now I know what: it’s clear that they are threatened by TEC’s more egalitarian model because it places accountability on the bishop’s shoulders and denies the bishop a sort of carte blanche based on some mystical mumbo-jumbo about God’s Will and bishops having some higher degree of insight. I know now, as well, why bishops have so objected to being disestablished as Lord Bishop So-and-So.

    It would seem there is one part of the British establishment left who has not yet had to deal with the end of Empire.

  24. I agree, Christopher. In England, I think we can trace the change of attitudes among the laity towards the clergy and each other back to the synod vote to ordain women. The bad behaviour of the opponents of that bill and the immediate capitulation by synod to their demands gave the green light to blackmail and bullying as the primary method of conflict resolution in the church.

  25. Thank you for this post. Certainly many of the abuses you mention also happen in the U.S., and in other denominations, but it sounds like things are even worse in England. The good news, as you noted, is that the media is publicizing the problems like never before, and more clergy are speaking up, too.

    As a pastor (though no longer serving a parish) and spouse of a pastor, I know how stressful the job can be, and how unrealistic it is to think that a bishop, who is at least in some sense a pastor’s boss and has a great deal of influence over future call possibilities, can also provide pastoral care and counsel to that pastor.

    While I agree that ultimately the laity need to treat their clergy better and give more, I also think that we as clergy need to be more proactive in setting boundaries, insisting on fair pay and adequate time off, and nurturing our own physical, emotional, and spiritual health. I have started a free monthly newsletter for clergy and monthly conference calls, as well as a “Pastors on Facebook” group in hopes of building a supportive community of people who really do understand how stressful this calling can be. If you’re interested, you can find out more at my website, http://www.betruetoyourself.com.