Monday, June 20, 2011

Reflections on bullying within the church.

Below are my reflections of an event that happened two years ago. I mention it now because my cyber-friend Robert, an American Episcopalian Priest, warned me of the stages of bereavement. He was right: this has crept up on me of late and when I think and write about it I feel emotional and I feel sick in my stomach. I don't usually see myself as a victim and that description doesn't sit easily with me in comparison to what I know others have gone through and continue to go through at the hands of the churches. My situation is trivial in comparison I know. Nevertheless part of the healing process is to be able to talk about the hurt and to acknowledge it: there is therapy and a move towards wholeness and healing there.

So, back to October 2009: It has been a couple of months of limbo: I have graduated and attended Dr. Bob’s ordination in Sheffield and young Mike’s in York. It was great to celebrate with them and to meet up with the others as we turned out to support each other. I felt slightly sad nevertheless, because I have no idea when I will be ordained and this is becoming a pastoral matter. The church is not taking its pastoral responsibilities to me at all seriously. Key figures will say will it is but they will be deeply irritated at the suggestion. Those same figures will probably also claim that the church’s pastoral care of me is someone else’s responsibility. They are the prime movers in what is going on but they do not feel the need to be proactively pastoral.

Pastor ***** continues to be a great help but I don’t see why I should be his pastoral responsibility. It is just luck that we are friends – and fellow sufferers, united in our concern and distaste at how we feel we are being treated. My wife's new vicar, Steve, at St. Angst’s is also being a trouper as is James from St. Atrophy’s. As ever Dr. Bob, Hilda and Stuart, who graduated with me, are keeping up a prayerful support and the congregation at St. Small’s is beginning to ask difficult questions. I am struggling to explain to the many people who ask, what is going on.

It feels odd that I derive my support largely from those outside of my own church.

I am invited to meet the Examination Committee, chaired by the new presiding Bishop in Leeds on the day before my birthday. I am told very clearly that this will not be my final examination; it will be a meeting to plan for the future. I ask a number of times whether I need to prepare anything for the occasion and am reassured that it will be just an informal chat. There is no agenda, or if there is, I don't get a copy. I am in first and ***** will follow me. Bishop **** recommends that we both progress to the next stage: I should be ordained curate and ***** should progress from his curacy to be able to take charge of a congregation in his own right.

~ I am in a state of shock. That hour was probably one of the worst of my life. It started like this:

“Do you feel it is ethical to blog about your students?” This from my mentor.

I have discussed this with my Head Teacher and we have come to an agreement. I will never name the school. I will be vague, even misleading about its geographic location and I will change the names of pupils and those staff who wish. I will send drafts of school related posts to the Head and put copies on the staff notice board to give my colleagues the opportunity to challenge what I have written. While I might express frustrations I will not challenge, criticise or question school policies or the leadership team or the governors in their management of the school.

Let me repeat the question. “Do you think it is ethical to blog about your students?”

It went from bad to worse. I was accused of being arrogant for having contacted St. Angst’s about hosting my ordination and suggesting dates. Who did I think I was? The fact that I had done this after discussion with Bishop **** and with his blessing was clearly not known about, or was conveniently ignored.

My blog came in for much criticism and at one point I was instructed to take it down. “What might a Lutheran from Latvia say, after landing on your blog and discovering you had been to the Leeds Gay Pride in clericals? This could cause great damage to the church.” My defence that my blog clearly states that my views are my own and don’t represent the policy of any church or denomination was snorted at. I refused to take it down as I did not feel that this committee had the right to demand that I should. I offered the compromise that I would go back over it and remove posts which referred to life at St. Smalls.

“I can imagine a situation where people would feel uncomfortable talking in your presence because what they said might then appear on the blog.”

I think that’s a fair point, but Bishop ****, Pastor ***** and Pastor ***** all know that I host a blog; I show people what I am writing if their names appear in a post and several members of the congregation read it and one regularly comments. No one has expressed any concern to me other than to recommend that I be cautious. I think I have been.

“What is your blog for?”

It’s my reflective journal. I got used to writing a reflective journal when I was doing my counselling training. I share it online because the perceptions of others are helpful.

“It’s more like washing your dirty linen in public, especially when you are implicitly critical of our systems.”

Other people seem to find my blog helpful. Can you only find negative things in it?

“I don’t understand why someone would want the world to know their every thought. It smacks of attention seeking.”

No one’s forced to read it or to comment.

They are incredulous. I don’t see that my blog is much different to the blog that the presiding Bishop hosts. Actually it is: she regularly blogs about church life but I feel to point that out would not be wise. In fact, so much on the back foot am I, that I don’t say much at all.

"The Facebook Group, Ordain Jack Parkes." That must go.

That's not my page and I am not a member.

"But she's a friend of yours. You have influence."

I can ask. But it's not my page and she will do as she thinks best.

The reference my Head Teacher provided comes under the microscope. They have had this reference for the best part of two years and have never referred to it before. My Head had commented that on occasions I could become entrenched in my opinions. This was seen as a huge black mark by one member of the committee.

“I should want to pursue that.” I was told. Again I was too taken aback to reply. My Boss and I get on very well and he has been very supportive of me throughout this process: he didn’t sign up for a priest on his staff. It’s all about context: when I am defending my subject areas against the consequences of changes in policy and financial cutbacks, I will be entrenched. I don’t want our A Level teaching to stop because it is deemed economically unviable. I don’t want to have to manage a team of eighteen conscript teachers who have a free period or two that can’t be allocated to their main teaching subject but who are then given to me to run a GCSE Citizenship course in that time. Of course I will be entrenched in my defence of my subjects. I know exactly the occasions when I have been entrenched in my opinion with my Boss.

This goes on for an hour. Four of them and me.

At one point I ask, rather weakly (although I am rallying): Is there nothing positive in my references?

“Oh yes, there is much that is good.” I am told but nothing is elaborated. The script seems to be to concentrate on the negative – or perhaps more to the point, to infer a negative from some minor comments. After all that’s far more important than the positive even though the positive so significantly outweighs the negative that the negative is barely discernable. Nothing that was written by Dean Gustav in Tallinn was mentioned, very little of what my Head or Fr. John wrote in my final report from the Yorkshire Ministry Course, nothing from Bradford College or the Leeds Philharmonic Society, Nothing from James’ reference from St. Atrophy's or from my former vicar, Ray, at St. Angst’s, nothing from the congregation and staff at St. Small's. What’s going on here? This is character assassination. It’s also bullying.

Poor Fr. John is subsequently so concerned about how one thing he has said has been taken out of context that he feels compelled to write to the committee to clarify his remarks.

The report on my parish placement that I had written as an assignment for YMC, and of which I was very proud, was dismissed in one devastating comment: I had noted that the linguistic divide in mother-tongue speakers and immigrants and second generation Lutherans was an issue which needed to be tackled.

“Have you any idea how damaging that would be if it fell into the wrong hands?”

It was an essay for my course. Only you and the tutor for that module have a copy. I can’t see how it would fall into the “wrong hands”. I didn’t say.

“You don’t understand the sensitivity of this issue.”

“We feel your attitude to us is too challenging.”

Do you wonder when this is how you behave? I didn’t say. You’d prefer I was a doormat? I also didn’t say.

“We think your written approaches to us are often confrontational.”

And this isn’t? I didn’t say.

What I did say was: I find communication in this organisation very poor and you are reluctant to confront that. I hear one thing in Leeds and another thing from London. I feel like piggy in the middle. Do you wonder I get frustrated? I am tired of not knowing where I stand or what the time frame is.

“We are concerned that you may not approach conflict within your parish as pastor in an appropriate way.”

What? Like you in this meeting? I didn’t say. How dare you treat me this way while speculating how I might respond face to face when trying to resolve conflict? I should have said.

The upshot was that I should have a year to concentrate on my role as Lay Minister which would be much more closely monitored than before. We would meet in a year to discuss whether I should progress to my final examination. In addition, and the most embarrassing of all, I was to attend counselling to sort out my impatience and anger! I was mortified, so much so that I could never admit to anyone that I was being sent for counselling: I told my family and friends that it was spiritual direction.

Counselling. They felt I needed counselling! I could not have been more humiliated.

I was told I might not under any circumstances discuss these matters with anyone other than Bishop **** and my wife. These were matters of significant confidentiality. I kept to that for some time but have moved to a position where I no longer feel willing to collude with the sweeping under the carpet of bullying behaviour.

I went home. I didn’t feel I’d been able to process things well enough to talk in detail to my wife and I headed back to meet ***** in the pub after his meeting.

***** had also had a hard time at the hands of this committee. Where I was still shocked, he was angry. We swapped notes and commiserated with each other, both instantly breaking the vow of silence imposed on us.

The bottom line was that Bishop ****’s advice about both of us had been ignored. That tells us a lot about what his views stand for now he has retired. ***** said he was furious when they told him. What a slap in the face.

I had been told I didn't need to prepare anything for that meeting. That was a lie. I needed to prepare a defence.

Happy Birthday.

So the London Team parachute themselves in, ignore the advice and wishes of the Bishop Emeritus, the clergy, the Church Council and congregation of St. Small's, cause chaos, distress and resentment in their wake and return to London.

Job well done then.

"We're in charge now and you'd better know it."

And they accused me of arrogance.

I subsequently doubled the dose of anti-depressants I usually take.

I stayed away from St. Small's for about six weeks and wrote Bishop **** an eight page letter of complaint. It is unlikely that it was disseminated: the man has his own problems.

I realise now that I should never have returned. During the four weeks I am signed off work with severe depression I ponder whether my trust in these people can ever be restored. I also ponder their pastoral ineptitude: if they had genuine concerns is this really the best way that the meeting could have been conducted? Is a kangaroo court really the only way to express concerns or – and I’m going out on a limb here – could there not have been an alternative approach that dealt with areas of concern in a way that left me feeling good about myself and not on the edge of a breakdown? Something perhaps which also concentrated on the positive? Just a suggestion. What do I know? I’m not a Bishop.

A friend who is a solicitor specialising in Data Protection issues advises me that the church has ridden a coach and horses through the part of the Data Protection Act which talks about the balanced use of data held on an individual.