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Church of England may ban parishioners who bully vicars

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Published Time: 09.02.2024 - 22:40:31 Modified Time: 09.02.2024 - 22:40:31

Papers submitted to the General Synod reveal a string of ‘devastating’ and ‘unacceptable’ incidents iStock The Church of England will consider banning parishioners who bully their vicars

Papers submitted to the General Synod reveal a string of ‘devastating’ and ‘unacceptable’ incidents

: iStock

The Church of England will consider banning parishioners who bully their vicars.

The proposal comes as a string of “devastating” and “unacceptable” instances have emerged in papers submitted to the General Synod, the Church’s lawmaking body, which is set to convene later this month.

The papers cite examples of vicars being “hounded out of office” by aggressive congregants, with some parishes having a reputation for “breaking clergy”, leaving their vacancies impossible to fill. As a result, Synod will hear measures in favour of legal sanctions for bullying – including the possibility of disqualification from holding office within the Church, as well as a new code of conduct for Parochial Church Councils (PCC).

The calls for a new code of conduct come amid claims that meetings descend into “aggressive”, “psychologically damaging” and “physically threatening behaviour” with parishioners slamming fists on tables, “continually interrupting when others speak”, withholding keys to store rooms, blocking each other on and repeatedly trolling and harassing others by printing out messages after being blocked.

The Archdeacon of Blackburn, the Venerable Mark Ireland, called for the Synod to recognise “that bullying is unacceptable behaviour within the Church of God, whether by clergy or lay people” and for it to be tackled.

He also warned against the “unfairness” that arises from clergy being subject to penalties for bullying “that include prohibition and removal from office”, while there is no means of disqualifying a churchwarden, PCC member or other lay officer who is guilty of bullying from holding office. As a result, he said that they too should be “disqualified from holding office”.

He added that the impact of bullying and harassment can be “devastating, on mental health, on physical health, on the breakdown of relationships, and the blighting of local Christian communities”.

“If a churchwarden or lay officer is exercising controlling or bullying behaviour it is not just the priest who is the victim – the rest of the PCC and the congregation also experience the same behaviour and are frightened to speak out or stand up to a person who is abusing their power or role.

“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: “I have been inundated with distressing correspondence from clergy and clergy spouses who have been subjected to bullying and harassment… At the same time there are many disturbing examples of lay officers bullying other lay members of the congregation.”

The Revd Dr Sara Batts-Neale, from the Chelmsford Diocese, also called for the new PCC code of conduct, which would consider the possibility of a disciplinary process for removal from the PCC.

She warned that some meetings take place in a “psychologically unsafe environment” for both lay and ordained participants, warning that “the imperative to forgiveness can sometimes normalise bad behaviour when it is seen to be consequence free”.

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