Church of England urged to tackle problem of parishioners ‘bullying’ clergy

Attendees gather at the July 2023 meeting of The General Synod of The Church of England.
Attendees gather at the July 2023 meeting of The General Synod of The Church of England. | YouTube/The Church of England

The Church of England is poised to address the escalating issue of parishioners bullying clergy, with proposals for legal sanctions and a new code of conduct on the agenda for the upcoming General Synod. The move follows numerous reports of vicars being aggressively forced out by congregants.

The General Synod, the denomination's legislative body, will deliberate on measures to potentially ban parishioners who engage in such bullying behaviors, The Telegraph reported. These discussions are fueled by instances described as “devastating” and “unacceptable,” highlighting a toxic culture that has led to clergy vacancies that are difficult to fill.

The proposed sanctions, supported by at least a hundred members of the General Synod, include disqualification from holding any church office and the introduction of a new code of conduct for Parochial Church Councils (PCC), aimed at curbing the aggressive and harmful behaviors reported, The Times of London said.

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The Archdeacon of Blackburn, the Venerable Mark Ireland, said it is necessary to address bullying within churches, pointing out the discrepancy where clergy, but not laypeople, can be penalized for such actions.

He highlighted the widespread impact of bullying on mental and physical health, relationships, and the wider church community. “If a churchwarden or lay officer is exercising controlling or bullying behavior it is not just the priest who is the victim — the rest of the PCC and the congregation also experience the same behavior and are frightened to speak out or stand up to a person who is abusing their power or role,” he was quoted as saying.

“Indeed there are some parishes which bishops are reluctant to recommend to prospective applicants, knowing that a series of previous incumbents have been hounded out of office,” he added.

Ireland’s call for action is backed by distressing accounts from clergy and their spouses, underscoring the urgent need for change.

Examples of bullying behavior by parishioners include aggressive actions during meetings, involving slamming fists on tables and constantly interrupting others, alongside persistent harassment outside of these gatherings. Additionally, there are instances of making unfounded complaints about others, withholding resources or keys to hinder church activities, and a general normalization of such misconduct due to the absence of repercussions.

The Rev. Sara Batts-Neale, representing the Chelmsford Diocese, also advocated for the new PCC code of conduct. She warned of the psychologically unsafe environments created by bullying behaviors, which detract from the denomination's mission and waste valuable time and resources.

William Nye, the CofE's secretary-general, acknowledged the seriousness of the issue, emphasizing the need for a culture of mutual respect rather than punitive measures.

“Legislation is a blunt instrument and may have unintended consequences, resulting in situations being inflamed and escalated, and affected people resorting to counter-claims of bullying,” Nye said, according to Church Times. “Use of a formal process needs to be a last resort, as any process would be time-consuming and emotionally draining for all those involved. A punitive approach is not conducive to giving individuals [the] opportunity to become aware of the effect of their behavior, reflect on it, and learn to modify it. If the motion is passed, it may be worth establishing a group to consider the options for addressing bullying effectively, rather than only the legislation option of a discipline process akin to the Clergy Conduct Measure.”

The General Synod is scheduled to convene Feb. 23-27.

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