SECRETS AND LIES, DAMNED LIES

My final post in the Church of England was that of an assistant priest at the Church of Saint Francis in High Heaton, Newcastle Upon Tyne. I was there for over eight years and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I certainly had a ministry there. My vicar, Christopher Clinch, had told the congregation from the pulpit shortly after his arrival at the church, that he did not do visiting, certainly he did not visit people in hospitals. I expect his excuse for this strange statement was that he believed visiting was the job of the laity. But, fine as that might sound in principle, it does not go down well with the laity and people in the parish. So, I saw my opportunity to be of use and spent most of my time visiting people in the parish, especially those who were unwell. I even took courses on the care of the dying to equip myself for this ministry. It was something I was quite good at because my personal experience of the hell of mental illness had left me with no fear of the dark places we all find ourselves in at some time during our lives.

Of course, this made me popular, especially among the elderly and infirm.

When I found out in mid 2010 that my vicar was moving on I decided that I would apply for the post of incumbent of St. Francis. I checked this idea out with the two readers and the wardens and everyone seemed fine with it. But shortly before he left, Christopher Clinch told the choir (who he had personally overseen for all the time he was at St. Francis) that I was the last person in the world who should get the job.

Anyway, he left. In the Church of England, when an incumbent leaves a parish, the rural dean is then in charge of much of the administration of the vacant parish and has responsibility for the worship. Our rural dean met with the two readers and myself and agreed that we should take on the responsibility of organising the worship. This being in his gift, as they say.

The vicar who had left was a control freak. I once asked him why he had to be at every meeting of every group in the church (e.g. the Sunday School leaders' meetings). His reply was that he was better at everything than anyone else. This need to be in charge had meant that he had chosen pretty much every hymn for every service during his time at the church. Now, I'm not that sort of person. So, the week after he had left I went to the leader of the choir and organist and said to them that we would meet up once a month and choose the hymns for services together. I told them that I liked words and enjoyed picking hymn lyrics that fitted in with the theme of each service, but that I was not a musician. I said that together we could come up with some great stuff. They agreed.

A week later the organist came to me and told me that "they had decided that they would be picking the hymns."

I replied that this was okay but I had to have the final word and that sometimes I would want specific hymns included. He agreed to that. Bear in mind that the choosing of hymns was the responsibility of myself and the two readers as we had been given this task by the rural dean.

About a month later I noticed that, on the following Sunday, the organist had chosen "Shine, Jesus, Shine" as the last hymn. Now this hymn was always a problematical choice. Some people in the congregation really enjoyed it. Others hated it with a vengeance. It was the ones who hated it that always went up to the priest afterwards and bent his ear.

So, I told the organist that he should either replace the hymn completely or change it for another one earlier in the service so it wasn't the last thing on the minds of the congregation when they went in for their after service coffee. I could tell he was cross but he agreed to my compromise.

When I turned up for the afternoon service I went up to the choir gallery to discover that there was no organist. The choir leader told me that the organist was cross about my decision and had decided not to turn up (he was a paid organist). I stormed down the stairs and loudly told the warden at the bottom of the stairs that I should sack the organist. Then, realising that I had no authority to do any such thing, I said, "Well, at least I should try and persuade the parish council to sack him." Somehow, in the mind of this particular warden this incident in which I complained about the absence of the organist became me shouting at the organist for not being present. I know that sounds ridiculous but so will most of the rest of this story.

The following week the organist did turn up for the morning service. He completely ignored my request and played "Shine, Jesus Shine" at the end of the service anyway.

I told the bishop, Martin Wharton, and he told me to leave the sorting out of the mess up to the two church wardens. I did this. I told the archdeacon, Geoff Miller, and he told me to keep my mouth shut and not mention the matter to anybody, especially to anybody in the congregation. I faithfully followed his instructions although it would turn out to be the biggest mistake of my working life.

The wardens, without any input from myself, told the organist and choir leader that they should abide by my original compromise. In other words if I needed to change a hymn they should agree to my request. They asked me to make sure I gave the organist plenty of warning of any changes I wanted to make.

Everything was fine until the beginning of November when I received  their hymn choices for December. The choices for Advent were okay. But, because they were not liturgists they had the wrong hymns for the Midnight Mass service and the Christmas morning service. The ones they had chosen did not fit in with the readings. Also, for some reason, they had ignored the fact that it was Holy Innocents on the first Sunday after Christmas. So I changed the hymns accordingly and returned them to the organist.

Shortly after lunch I received a phone call telling me that if I insisted on changing the hymns the organist would resign. I said I was not going to change the hymns (reminding him of what they had agreed with the wardens). The organist subsequently resigned and by the evening on the same day the choir had "gone on strike."

They remained on strike all through Christmas. They still went up to the choir loft where they stood glaring at me from a great height, refusing to sing.

All that was needed to sort this situation out was for the bishop or archdeacon to have told the organist and choir, before it got out of hand, that it was my job to choose the hymns and that my invitation to collaborate with me, back in September, was a particularly fine piece of pastoral sensitivity on my part. But, no. They did no such thing. They never did. They arranged meetings with the choir to hear their side of the story and basically never backed me up at all, even though I was just an assistant priest who had no incumbency status or authority within the church other than that which they had given me.

I went to one meeting with the readers and church wardens at the archdeacon's house. In that meeting I managed to get the warden who had accused me of shouting at the organist (neither of us ever shouted or even exchanged a cross word with each other) that it couldn't have happened because the organist wasn't there. But this didn't seem to register with the archdeacon as he was still accusing me of shouting at the organist a year after I had left the Church's employ.

The outcome of all this was inevitable. Although I applied for the post of incumbent of St. Francis, I did not even get to the interview stage. Worst of all, and most painful, I was never able to tell the congregation what had happened. All they got to hear was what the striking choir members had to say as the archdeacon hadn't instructed them to remain silent on the matter.

After I had left I told the archdeacon that as far as I could work out, the bishop and himself had either deliberately manipulated the situation to get rid of me or they had been grossly incompetent. He got very upset about that allegation but nobody has ever come up with an explanation as to why those in authority hadn't just told everyone involved what the legal situation was or backed up their employee who had no authority himself. I still lie awake at night trying to work out why they didn't. I still cry about it.

This is the first time I have told this story in public. I am no longer under the authority of Bishop Wharton or Archdeacon Miller so I don't mind that I am breaking my agreement to remain silent. The thing is I do not think it is fair for a bishop to put a gagging order on a priest and then talk secretly with other bishops about the situation. This underhand behaviour results in the gagged priest being assessed by any future bishop on the basis of his or her former bishop's secret assessment. I am sure bishops are far more likely to believe other bishops than a priest who has been constructively dismissed by a fellow bishop. But bishops are as human as anybody and many of them far more manipulative than most (otherwise they wouldn't have climbed the greasy pole to get to be a bishop). At least, in a secular court of law both sides get to tell their story. But, as the church is exempt from the law of the land when it comes to employment, bishops can do what they please when they please without having to make account of their decisions public.

So, who am I. Am I the dangerous, mad, troublemaker that Bishop Wharton thinks I am, or am I the priest who visited the dying, who would lay down his life for his friends (and has lost his livelihood for his friends) and who who writes orthodox, inspiring liturgy because he loves God and he loves the Church? I could be either or I could be a mixture of both. But I think people should decide for themselves after talking with me not after talking with my former adversaries. I never let people tell me about other people who are in my care. I always use my own discernment. Gossip and conversations in private are very much the devil's preferred method of doing things. It's about time the Church told the devil to get behind them and to publicly announce that they have done so for all the world to hear.

Comments

SECRETS AND LIES, DAMNED LIES — 26 Comments

  1. I really feel for you, though I fear there is more to this than meets the eye. Not from your side, and not even a personal thing, but rather the way the Church of England was moving at that time.

    With the intorduction of the Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Measure the C of E in Feb 2011 had to give clergy tenure of office, basically a permanent contract.

    There were only a very few exceptions to this.

    What I belive happened was that a number of bishops, (perhaps as few as 2) looked at their clergy staffing levels and terminated some clergy’s licences with effect from no later than January 31st 2011, so that they would not have to give them Common Tenure.

    This happened in 2010.

    Why would they do that?

    One reason might be the Sheffield formula – some dioceses had more clergy than the Sheffield formula, so had to pay for the extra from their own budgets; but they also had to reduce clergy numbers.

    Another reason might be the desire to put clergy where the bishop wanted to while they still could.

    Or you could just think of bishops in four letter words…

    Frankly, I don’t know, but, and it is a big but, it may not have been a personal attack on the clergy whose licences were withdrawn or at least not extended.
    The latter more common than the former.

    So what can we make of this?
    It is not reassuring as such, I know, but could it help to think that a bishop may have felt obliged to pick someone to ‘sack’ (ie not to continue licensing).

    The whole thing is very painful I am sure, though I can’t imagine the depths of it.

  2. “The thing is I do not think it is fair for a bishop to put a gagging order on a priest and then talk secretly with other bishops about the situation.”

    Exactly.

    This whole sordid tale is, of course, beyond horrible. (Made even more so by what Dodgey Vicar reveals here.)

    I could say much more but I don’t really have the stomach for it at the moment.

  3. Difficult to read, but not hard to imagine. Here’s praying that out of it all, the Spirit creates a new thing.

  4. My heart goes out to you. But you were warned: yours is the church whose leader has caved to ever little bit of pressure from every loud mouth around, rather than standing up and pointing to what were once considered (and still are by many) established facts. I the ABC is willing to throw over TEC for GAFCON, what chance has an assistant priest against even the most minor of bishops, or deans, even?

  5. Many a cleric has crashed upon the rocks of organist and choir, clear canonical lines of responsibility notwithstanding. Horrible decisions and dynamics thrive on secrecy. Sadly, your tale does not surprise me but my heart aches for you. You’ve been done wrong. I am glad you put the story out in air and sunlight. That won’t disinfect the C of E but it may help your soul heal.

  6. As the choir director/organist at Trinity used to tell me, 90% of his work as church musician is pastoral theology and psychology and not music. And, a huge problem there was a history of secrecy. It can be so destructive, as you sadly have found out.

  7. What is so sad about the whole story is your honesty and integrity actually being used against you from behind closed doors and in secrecy.

    If this were an employment tribunal, all would have to be disclosed, including those so called ‘privileged’ conversations.

    Even if you didn’t win the tribunal, you would have been able to put your side of the story in public to a wider audience as it would have received wide media coverage.

    What I find so sad is that a talented, pastoral Priest is discarded like so much wast paper and put through the shredder and ripped apart, without any ability to come back to them.

    Mind you, you are doing a fair job of it here!!

  8. Thanks, UKViewer. I have been happy with my ministry being online for a while now, which is why I allowed myself to write this post today when it seemed to fit in with the theme of secrecy in earlier posts. However, I would actually like to become involved with my new diocese and feel part of it. I’m annoyed that I am carrying unfair baggage with me from my last diocese. It’s not as if who I am isn’t writ loud and clear on my blog. I’m quite happy to be accused of all sorts of stuff in that respect but I’m not happy being defined by somebody who didn’t like the fact that I had been ill.

  9. What Paul and Caminante said. Choir directors (& choirs) often forget that the music has to support the liturgy and the service, not the reverse. How horrible to be pushed under the bus and have it all secreted away.

  10. Power’s best preservative is secrecy. The church is operated as a corporation. Life is not fair. And, I cry with you. Pastoral care may be one of the most important parts of organized religion and the least recognized. I grieve with you – and since filing my income taxes today, I’m increasing my tiny pledge to you, my pastor.

  11. Tried 3 times to post – love to you, increasing pledge – Secrecy is power’s best provider. Church is operated as private corporation. Crying with you.

  12. I am sorry to hear this sordid story. I have always understood that during an interregnum the only staff member who was unsackable was the organist/choir master. I suspect that your organist took advantage of that.

    However, look at it from another angle. Were you to have succeeded to the incumbency, you would have had a sullen, probably malicious, and uncooperative organist and choir to deal with. You now have the opportunity to create a lovely online ministry that is unique (in my experience) in the Church of England. You have supportive readers and people who love you hanging out here.

    Title II, Canon 5 of the Episcopal Church states:

    “CANON 5: Of the Music of the Church

    It shall be the duty of every Member of the Clergy to see that music is used as an offering for the glory of God and as a help to the people in their worship in accordance with the Book of Common Prayer and as authorized by the rubrics or by the General Convention of this Church. To this end the Member of the Clergy shall have final authority in the administration of matters pertaining to music. In fulfilling this responsibility the Member of the Clergy shall seek assistance from persons skilled in music. Together they shall see that music is appropriate to the context in which it is used.

    This is the best way to handle the kind of situation you were in.

    Blessings on you, your family, and your ministry.

  13. Thank you for telling us this, MP. It is very hurtful for you I can tell.

    I have been singing in the Choir at my church since 1993. Our Organist/Choir Director meets regularly with the Liturgical Worship Committee(I think that’s what it’s called) which also includes the Rector. Together the Rector and O/CD choose the the Hymns. The Offertory, and Communion motets always reflect the readings, or the particular Saint of the day. We are all thankful for the Canon quoted by Chris.

    I say this because it’s not always as you have experienced.
    I can only imagine how hard this was on you.
    If it’s any comfort, you remain on my prayer list.

  14. Makes me want to cry, something I rarely do. I think you are working on the new, emergent successor to the old boy driven church. It is our gain and the CoE’s loss. Sad but there it is.

    FWIW
    jimB

  15. What was really disappointing, Susan, was that I was so looking forward to letting the congregation have a period of collaborative ministry after 9 years of being controlled by the vicar. To immediately be faced with people who just wanted to be as controlling themselves was a real eye opener. I like to think of myself as optimistic but sometimes I’m sure it’s just naivety.

  16. Tragedy? Farce? Farcedy?

    Whatever it was, it must have been excruciating for you, {{{MP}}}.

    Hope writing it out helps you put it behind you.

    {insert bog-standard 12 Step affirmations}

  17. Thanks for the ministry you have here that has sustained many of us. Your faithfulness to God and God’s people is very encouraging. I continue to pray that your ministry will expand to include parish ministry because you are really good at it. You have been equipped perfectly and I hate to see it not come to fulfillment. So I will continue to pray that God will intervene soon and doors will open for you to participate fully in your new diocese.
    Rudo

  18. Hi MP (hope Google allows me to post this this time, as it hasn’t for the last several months)

    I have always wondered exactly what happened between you and the organist, from such snippets as you have let fall in the past. I don’t know whether you are interested in my take on it as a professional organist, but here it is:

    1) The behaviour of the organist in not turning up for a service without warning simply because of a sulk over hymns is absolutely unforgivable. If he was paid, and your post suggests he was, then he should have been there.

    2) His reluctance to allow you to pick hymns is also unforgivable. It is a sad fact (not suggesting it affects you – in fact your suggestion over that wretched Kendrick hymn implies otherwise) that many vicars are very bad pickers of hymns, being clueless as to what works musically and sometimes as to what goes well liturgically.
    However, they are the vicars and it is their prerogative to make that decision. Organists are paid servants (so are volunteers, except insofar as they are unpaid). They should do as they are told. If they are asked for their views, they should look on that as a bonus and a privilege and not a right.

    3) If organists wish to withdraw their labour at any time because they feel they cannot work with the vicar, then they should have that right – but they should not simply stop turning up. They should give appropriate warning (again, a question of paid employment).

    From what you have told me, the behaviour of the organist was grossly unprofessional, and your first instinct to sack him seems a reasonable one (even though you did not of course have the power to do so as acting vicar). Too many organists seem to feel because they are (a) paid next to nothing (I don’t know, or want to know, whether that was the case here, nor do I want to, but it is the case in most places) and (b) are very rare now, that they are unsackable and can therefore act much as they like without any comeback.

    I should add, however, that it can cut both ways. Twenty-five years ago an organist of my acquaintance (I was a small boy at the time) was sacked by the Vicar on Christmas Eve over a very similar liturgical dispute, without warning or ordinary courtesy. The vicar then compounded the fault by circulating a notice to the choir that the organist had resigned, and rather hypocritically expressed his gratitude to the organist for 25 years of loyal service. I believe said organist was paid £200 a year, and had never missed a service in all that time.

    I’ve been fantastically lucky that in all the benefices (four) where I have been an organist, I’ve had friendly and supportive clergy and have usually arranged these things very amicably. However, there have been disputes, and I have always accepted that when my advice is finally rejected, I do as I’m told. Not because of some canon law, but because I am a hired professional and hired professionals should do as their paymasters tell them (within reason – I’m not advocating breaking laws or anything)!

    In any case, you have my sympathy that you were stuck with such a situation, and I would like to know what on earth the Rural Dean in particular was thinking of to let it get so far out of hand.

  19. I’m so sorry, MP. What a situation, to have to go through. As one who loves church music, it’s hard to admit that sometimes those who hold the keys to the organ loft, hold the rest of the ministry over a barrel – but sadly it’s true, one push from that side and everyone rolls over, too afraid to challenge.

    Our Archbishop (++Thabo Makgoba) recently gave a speech on Canon law where he made the interesting and important observation, that when it comes to the Church and employment, we should be leading the secular world and setting the standards. Not hiding behind whatever excuses we have to exploit people, using them up and discarding them or unfairly discriminating and constructively dismissing.

    Not lagging behind, so that every secular business can put us to shame in terms of labour practices.

    Here’s the link if anyone’s interested: http://www.anglicanchurchsa.org/view.asp?ItemID=440&tname=tblComponent1&oname=News&pg=front

  20. Thanks, HBW and Sally D. I would emphasise that I didn’t ask the organist and choir leader to join me in choosing the hymns as a favour to them. The way I put worship together, and the fact that I’m not a musician, requires cooperation with the church musicians. Most congregations have a very limited repertoire of hymns because most priests don’t realise that hymn words and hymn tunes are not glued together. I like to find hymn lyrics that fit in with the theme of the service, as decided upon by the preacher, and then work with the musicians to find a tune that the congregation will either be familiar with or pick up very quickly with the help of the choir, which has practised it beforehand. I never ever interfere with the musicians choice of anthems or the organist’s choice of incidental music as it is not my area of expertise. It would be like an organist telling me what to preach.

    I really enjoy working together with musicians with the aim of creating a service that is enjoyable to take part in, interesting, innovative and relevant. I am incredibly sad that I never got the chance to do that properly and that it doesn’t look like I ever will. However, my podcasted services do fulfil the need in me to create such holistic liturgy to some extent. If, by some miracle, I do ever get to work with live musicians and other preachers and worship leaders again, I will have learned a lot from online experiments.