I was bullied by my flock

The Church was Reverend Kennedy's life. But then the congregation started to make his life hell. By Julia Stuart
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The Independent Culture
ABOVE THE settee hangs a typical 1979 wedding photograph. The bride, slim in white, sports a page-boy hair cut. The groom's suit is the kind that would cost a small fortune today in a retro shop. Holding hands, the couple look over their shoulders, beaming at the camera. Their hopes for a happy future - one spent devoted to the Church of England - are almost palpable.

Today, sitting under the photograph, the Reverend Arthur Kennedy, 42, and his wife Pauline, 41, bear no trace of their former zest for life. He seldom makes eye contact. She no longer bothers to keep up with hair fashions. They achieved their dream all right. What they weren't expecting, however, was to feel so bullied by a minority of their congregation that they would end up on anti-depressants, too traumatised to set foot in a church, and questioning their faith.

``As clergy you are brought up to equate God and the church, and when the church does something awful to you, you have to do some kind of mental readjustment to try and convince yourself that God is OK and it's the people in the church who have got it wrong. I think I'm still going through that,'' says Rev Kennedy.

Rev Kennedy was ordained in Norwich in 1985. Six years later the couple and their two children, then aged 10 and nine, moved to Somerset, where Rev Kennedy became rector of Farmborough, Marksbury and Stanton Prior. Its combined congregation was around 100. His wife, a former bank clerk, was appointed as reader. Problems started in 1994 when the rector began to make ``gentle moves'' to modernise services in a bid to attract more young people and families. Immediately there was talk of some of the principal opponents stopping their financial support of the church. Then there were objections to the husband and wife working together.

Eyes lowered, the minister recalls how their authority was undermined. ``If I wanted a pause for silent reflection at the end of a sermon and return to my place and sit down, one member, as soon as I left the pulpit, would be on his feet ready to get on with the next part of the service.''

He would specify a particular tune, only to hear the organist playing another. Similarly, when Mrs Kennedy asked for a reading from one version of the Bible, a member of the congregation read from another. During one particularly hurtful confrontation, a church-goer accused them of preaching ``fundamentalist clap trap'', insulting the intelligence of the congregation and being ill-prepared. ``He told me that if I didn't handle the situation in the way that he said I should, he would make life very difficult for me,'' says Rev Kennedy.

Mrs Kennedy's anxiety was making her vomit before services, and she withdrew her ministry after Easter 1995. The following September her husband suffered a nervous breakdown. ``On the surface I did ignore it [the bullying], but it eats away inside, and eventually it becomes more than you can bear. It was an accumulation of little things. Each one in itself may seem insignificant, but taken together you can't take anymore,'' he says. The minister's doctor signed him off work for six months, and the couple were both prescribed anti-depressants.

Turning to the church authorities for help, they found little support. ``You can't ever prove that you were bullied, because there are no witnesses and it's all too subtle.''

Rev Kennedy returned to work in March 1996 hoping to become well enough to apply for another post. But he found the situation worse. In May 1998 the minister went on sick leave again. He has not worked since. In January they moved to a modest house in Taunton.

``I can't see myself coping with a full-time job again. My health and confidence just aren't up to that,'' mutters Rev Kennedy.

"I get flashbacks and nightmares,'' says Mrs Kennedy. ``Neither of us can go near a church. I'm terrified of going out on my own.''

The couple set up an e-mail community in June, called Bullied and Abused Lives in Ministry (BALM). Some people who have contacted the couple have been bullied by their congregation, others by senior members of the clergy. Rev Andrew de Berry, of the clergy and church workers branch of the Manufacturing Science Finance union, says: ``Bullying is as common a problem in the ministry as in any other walk of life. Forms of redress in secular employment are not in place in the Church."

While the union is trying to get terms and conditions of service in place for the clergy, any success will come too late for Rev Kennedy. Does he regret going into the ministry? He looks me in the eye: ``Yes, I think I do.''