We are reaching the end of Mental Health Awareness Week. The Church of England is plugging an online service it has put together for Sunday in which it will say all the right things about helping people with mental health problems. But it will be just talk to make the Church look caring and of use. I was sacked by my bishop for suffering from depression after ten years of being on the receiving end of the most horrible and deliberate bigotry and mistreatment. I have now been unemployed for ten years. If anybody with authority in the Church of England actually cared then someone would have helped me return to and pursue my calling during that time. But not one of them has. They are all hypocrites.
I have told two of the people involved in the service what I think about their role in the travesty but they just replied with platitudes about God’s blessing and how awful it must be for me. They do not intend to do anything concrete about the injustice that was doled out on me and many other priests who dared to show weakness through mental illness.
Here is My story.
I was ordained into the diaconate of the Church of England in the diocese of Newcastle back in 1995. A year later I was ordained into the priesthood. My first curacy was in the parish of Newsham, near Blythe in Northumberland. Although I did not know it when I accepted the post, the vicar, Richard Pringle, was a bully of a man, very unpredictable in his behaviour. He would shout at me in front of the congregation and would physically push me around during services. However, it was his inappropriate behaviour around children and young people that was most disturbing. He would take every opportunity to touch and hug them and would even encourage them to sit on his lap. He had no friends his own age (early forties) and hung around the clubs in town that were frequented by teenagers. His conversations with children and young people could be very suggestive. Once, at coffee after the Sunday morning service, a boy and a girl (aged about fourteen I would guess) were sitting on the front of the stage in the hall, giggling and pushing into each other gently with their shoulders (harmless flirtation).
Pringle walked up to them and said out loud, “If anyone is going to give (girl’s name) a medical examination, it is going to be me.”
That made me shudder but things were to get worse. A mother from the congregation approached me and informed me that Pringle had taken her teenage son to a sauna and photographed him in the nude.
The diocese was in interregnum at the time so I immediately reported the incident to the archdeacon, Peter Elliott. He told me that he would have a word with Pringle. I do not know if he did but one thing is for certain, as I found out later, nobody else was informed and no action was taken.
I should have known that Elliott would not be interested enough in the situation to do anything about it because when I mentioned to him during the interview that Pringle always holidayed in places notable for providing easy sexual access to young males he replied, “I don’t care what Richard Pringle gets up to as long as he doesn’t do anything wrong on my patch.”
Although I was removed from the parish and placed with a vicar, Michael Webb, who was as different from Richard Pringle as you could possibly get and who was an excellent training incumbent, my bad experience as Pringle’s curate led to me experiencing bouts of severe, clinical depression. I struggled on and even managed to gain a first incumbency as the priest in charge of a couple of small parishes on the Northumberland coast. Unfortunately, not long after taking up the post I became so poorly with depression and anxiety that I needed to be hospitalised on various occasions for periods of up to three months. I was off work for over a year.
During the two years of my illness the new bishop, Martin Wharton, came to visit me once and none of my colleagues stayed in touch with me. It was at this point that I started to realise that I would be a social leper because of my illness for the rest of my life.
I later asked Wharton why he had only visited me the once and he replied, “You are not my only priest, Jonathan.”
With the help of an occupational therapist, I worked hard on my recovery (only those who have suffered from severe depression will know how painful and arduous dragging oneself out of the depths of the illness can be) and eventually I was ready to return to work. The bishop sent Richard Langley, the archdeacon of Lindisfarne, to see me. He asked me what I wanted to do and I told him that I would like to return to work, looking after just one of the two parishes to begin with, with the intention of being responsible for both parishes in the near future. Langley told me that would not be possible and that the bishop wanted me to retire. If the Church had not been exempt from employment law (an exemption granted to them by the government to allow them to continue to discriminate against women and gay people) the diocese would have had to, by law, agree to my request for a phased return to work.
Upset at this I arranged to see Martin Wharton at his office. He reiterated the archdeacon’s demands stating that he did not believe a priest who had suffered from mental health problems should ever be allowed to be a parish priest. I argued with him and told him that he had a duty of Christian care but he was far more worried about how much it would cost to keep me employed than he was about my welfare. He told me he would think about it.
A couple of weeks later I received a letter from his office stating that I would be demoted to assistant curate and placed in the parish of St. Francis, High Heaton, Newcastle. Furthermore, I had to report regularly to work consultants and counsellors who were appointed by Wharton and to whom they had to report (there was absolutely no confidentiality). I also had to undergo annual work assessments that were far more intrusive and aggressive than those every other priest had to endure (they even included a lay Christian, who just happened to be a doctor appointed by Wharton). Worst of all I was placed on a two-year contract with the possibility of being dismissed immediately on the bishop’s whim.
I got on with my job and, because the incumbent was reluctant to visit people or go into hospitals (something I feel honoured to do), I was quite well-liked by the congregation. At the end of the two years, I had to fight for my job again as Wharton was still determined to get me off the books. My contract was extended for a further two years with the same draconian conditions.
At the end of this second period of employment, I received a letter from Wharton stating that my contract would not be extended. I wrote back saying that it was against the law of the land to sack an employee who was officially disabled for being disabled. Wharton obviously did not believe that I was disabled as he then sent me to a private psychiatrist to be assessed. I do not know what Wharton expected but I guess it was not what happened. The psychiatrist reported back that I was officially disabled. He also stated that I was perfectly capable of being a parish priest. In fact, he said that although I was slightly “eccentric” I would make an excellent parish priest (I still have a copy of his report should my honesty on this matter ever be challenged). The bishop then deigned to give me a one year contract.
I worked for a further three years, the last couple of years being without any contract whatsoever, although I still received my wages at the end of each month. Eventually, the vicar of Saint Francis’ decided to move on and Wharton used this as an opportunity to get rid of me for good.
I would point out that during the eight years that I was at the church of Saint Francis I did not have a single day off because of any illness, mental or physical.
When a vicar leaves his post and the parish moves into an interregnum it is the local area dean who becomes responsible for the services of the parish. In our case, the area dean, Kevin Hunt, passed the responsibility for the services to the two lay readers and myself. Now, I am not one for being in charge and I prefer to work collaboratively. However, I do like the services I preside at to be well put together and coherent. So, I immediately went to the choirmaster and organist and asked them to join with me to choose the hymns each week. The following week they came back to me and told me that they alone would choose the hymns (which is never their responsibility, I was, in fact, being far more inclusive than I had to be, mainly because I like working with others rather than on my own). When I replied that this would not be possible the organist, the choirmaster and choir went on strike.
The bishop told me that I had to leave the sorting out of the situation to the churchwardens. The archdeacon, Geoff Miller, told me I was not to discuss the matter with anyone. I completely obeyed both these directions even though no such rules applied to the organist or choir. A rumour started, which Miller chose to believe even after I had told him it was not true, that I had shouted at the organist. But neither of us had exchanged cross words with each other. Kevin Hunt came to a parish meeting but he refused to say that the choir was in the wrong as far as church law was concerned and that he had handed responsibility for the content of the services to the lay readers and myself. It was a nightmare. Nobody would stand up for me except the lay readers. It was as if the whole thing had been contrived to bring me down and it succeeded in doing just that. Bishop Martin Wharton fired me and evicted my wife and myself from my clergy house, our only home. In May 2010 I presided at my last holy communion at Saint Francis’ and I have not worked since.
I moved into Durham diocese hoping for a fresh start but nobody will help me. Justin Welby was both insulting and aggressive towards me once he had spoken to Bishop Wharton (Welby had been quite supportive up until that point) and the new bishop won’t speak to me and did not respond to my request to meet him. The archdeacons refuse to answer my emails or acknowledge job applications that I put in. The area dean of the church in Durham that I was worshipping at refused to allow me to join the chapter. A person who I thought was a friend chose preferment to remaining my friend (that hurt). Kevin Hunt, who used to meet up with me for a drink once a month, made excuses not to see me again when he was promoted to the post of residentiary canon of Newcastle Cathedral (that really hurt and led me to believe that all those years he was just spying on me for the bishop). I have been almost completely cut off from the diocese. An email to the new Bishop of Newcastle, Christine Hardman, telling her of my ordeal under her predecessor and asking for help, elicited no response. The bishop of Glasgow, Gregor Duncan, wrote to me after I had driven all the way to his city to ask him for help, to tell me I would not be welcome in his diocese because I would “bring too much baggage with me.” No colleague, bar Jenny Lancaster, a female priest from the church I worked in under the vicar, Michael Webb, have kept in touch with me. No bishop or archdeacon in the Church of England, although many know of me, my situation and my requests for assistance, have come forward with offers of help.
Of course, I am not the only priest who has been “disappeared” by his diocesan bishop following a bout of mental illness. I know of many myself. But I am one of the few who have stood up to the abuse and shouted about it publicly. My blog, “Of Course, I Could Be Wrong…” (which I started up after five years of enduring Martin Wharton’s prejudice) shouted very loudly about the Church of England’s discrimination against the disabled, gays, women and anybody else who are not the “right sort of people.” I am sure that my style of open blogging has made me even more unpopular within the Church. On the other hand, my blogging helped me remain relatively sane and introduced me to many people (albeit mostly living on the other side of the world) who do as Jesus would do rather than as the CEO of a banking concern would do. I have somehow managed to maintain a priestly ministry on the internet without the support of the church which ordained me.
Basically, I appear to be an embarrassment because I am a person who has mental health problems. Certainly, I have not received anything like the care, accommodation and understanding that I would have been legally entitled to if I had been working for a secular employer.