Despitefully Used

Union representation through MSF for clergy and church employees has now been available for 18 months, with a membership to date well in excess of 300. Many grievances and other injustices which have not been dealt with in a Christian spirit by the Church authorities, merit and have been given the support and backing of the Union.

To be anecdotal for a moment, I learned earlier in the year of a Diocesan Clergy School on the subject of ‘Clergy stress’ presided over by the Bishop of Southwell. As far as I could make out, this was no more than an exercise in window-dressing, where, in the words of one Canon spoken to me afterwards: “A seminar arranged to discuss clergy stress only served to aggravate it!”

As part of his MA at Nottingham University, one has summarised the findings of a questionnaire which he had sent to all the more senior clergy (i.e incumbents) in the diocese. Clergy were asked forthright questions about their health, ability to cope, general sense of well-being and the state of their love life. Of the fifty percent who responded, many answers ranging from 60% to 80% said that “No, they could not cope; they were stressed and suffering all sorts of physical side-effects; finance was an acute worry; and few of them, it seems, are having anything approaching a decent love life!’

And this was how the more secure clergy who enjoy the freehold felt! What about all our NSMs, PICs and the rest?! In response to these shocking statistics, The Times ran an article by Ruth Gledhill on 27 March with the tabloid headline, Vicars sacrifice marital joy on the altar of work!

But if we, the senior clergy, are having problems, what of our junior clergy (and here I refer to the Church of England)? In a Church Times leader on 12 April we heard the sad outcome of Rev Dr Alexander Coker, who lost his appeal against unfair dismissal on the grounds that ‘curates are not employed’! Alexander’s bishop, Roy Williamson, declared that this was an important judgement for the Church. “It brings to an end a time of uncertainty. The law clearly states that a curate is not an employee.” The bishop didn’t ask: And with what ‘certainty’ does that leave Dr Coker?

In response to a letter written to Dr Carey over the Revd Kit Chalcraft and the residue of his loyal parishioners within the ‘Oxborough Circuit’ who have broken away from the diocese of Norwich, a bland reply was received which said, in effect, nothing. The Archbishop repeated what he had said in his Canterbury diocesan address earlier this year, namely that the diocese is the principal unit of the Church; the inference being that parishes are secondary. This is a response which Oxborough have felt obliged to deride, and which potentially may cause other parishes (lumbered with ever-growing financial commitments) to imitate.

There is the ongoing debacle within the cloisters of Lincoln. Last year Dean Brandon Jackson was exonerated after having been hauled before a Consistory Court on charges of sexual misconduct. This conspiracy of the night of the long knives is far from over, with the Dean and Chapter remaining in a state of civil war. No-one seems willing or able to mediate in a situation that is wrecking the diocese.

Lastly, may I say that, having joined MSF, I find myself becoming a bit of a pariah. Clearly in the eyes of some, I’m a militant who can’t wait to brandish placards, work to rule and if need be to walk out on the dying at the very point when they need the last rites! So often the clergy (at least within the Church of England) are their own worst enemies. They will swear undying fidelity to their bishops even when their bishops will happily send them to the wall, or to use a Biblical phrase, ‘despitefully use them.’ Yet, despite all their grief, joining a union remains anathema.

Over the three years that I have become interested in the plight of clergy in distress, I have filled a couple of dossiers with the anguished cries of clergy (men and women) who without question have been despitefully used. By joining MSF, I have been able to share with other clergy in that awful sense of injustice that afflicts so many, and who have no redress (not even the sympathy and support of other clergy). I am no anarchist any more than are my fellow members; we are not out to sabotage the best endeavours of our bishops or to oppose any constructive initiatives when they occur. The union is there for all church employees at all levels and of all denominations; but to press for improved terms and conditions of service nationally.

The union is there to provide justice in countless situations where injustice is rife. The union is there as a God-fearing organisation initiated by honourable men and women of yesteryear. It is there to bring a semblance of Christianity back into what some would now see as little more than The Church of England Plc, and into those other denominations where a humane Christianity is all but dead and buried.