Trade unionist clergy issue "wake-up call" over bullying

By staff writers
January 8, 2010

The bullying of clergy is a major problem in churches across the UK, according to Unite, Britain's biggest trade union. They are calling for a change in the law to give ministers of religion the same employment rights as other workers.

Unite, which deals with about 150 cases of clergy bullying each year, has now set up a hotline for those affected. The union says that clergy may be bullied by church superiors on the one hand and by members of their congregations on the other.

The campaign was described as "a wake-up call to those in authority who can make a difference" by Rachael Maskell, National Officer of the Faith Workers' Branch of Unite, which represents around 2,500 priests and ministers.

She told Ekklesia that many clergy work on a basis of implicit trust and that "where that trust breaks, the person is deeply wounded".

The fact that clergy do not have the same legal rights as other employees is likely to come as a surprise to many. Unite believes clergy should have rights such as health and safety at work and freedom from unfair dismissal.

The lack of legal protection means that disciplinary matters may be dealt with in an unprofessional way that would not otherwise be allowed.

"Bishops can treat people shamefully," said the Rev Gerry Barlow, chair of the Faith Workers' Branch, "The most common experience is [that] a priest gets called in for a pastoral chat, to 'see how things are going'. Within half an hour he's telling you he's going to fire you or take your licence away."

However, the Rev John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, said that "most clergy do not actually want employment status".

The issue of clergy bullying hit the headlines in the autumn, when the Rev Mark Sharpe resigned from his post as a rector in rural Worcestershire. He says he was subjected to a campaign of intimidation by parishioners after tackling the parish's financial problems.

"It started with the tyres getting slashed," he explained, "Ended up with a dog mysteriously dying, the car being smeared with excrement, and broken glass across the driveway".

The Diocese of Worcester has described Sharpe's allegations as "appalling" but declined to comment on the details ahead of a formal hearing.

Speaking at the Trades Union Congress last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, described the issue of bullying as "unfinished business for us [the Church of England]", adding "I'm very glad that it's flagged up".

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