Faith & Reason: A problem of idle and scandalous priests

The Church of England could take lessons from the Roman Catholic Church on disciplining its clergy, writes Andrew Brown. But it must beware of operating behind closed doors.
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Two stories this week focus on the discipline of priests and make clear what a huge gap exists between the Church of England and everyone else on the matter, even though the gap is being closed rapidly.

The first is the clampdown in the Roman Catholic diocese of Bristol on the neocatechumenate movement. The movement is accused of all the things that new religious movements are generally accused of, sometimes with justice: it is said to be parasitic and destructive; to remove its members from the the rest of the Church and to rely on esoteric doctrines. Perhaps most serious is the unspoken accusation that members of the movement owe their allegiance to the movement itself and not to the wider Church as represented by their bishop. This is never quite made explicit in the report of the Clifton diocese's commission of enquiry, because under the Roman Catholic system it is not quite sayable that things should be otherwise. On the other hand, the commission recommends that the bishop consider whether to redeploy the priests concerned, and, if he decides to do so, there is nothing whatever they can do to stop him.

Compare and contrast this with the Anglican situation. If the priests involved had had their freehold in the Church of England, nothing whatever could be done to get rid of them. If they had merely been priests in charge, employed on contract, all that could practicably be done would be to wait for the end of their contracts, though this would not take more than a couple of years.

The reforms in clergy courts proposed last week are meant to remedy this distressing state of Anglican indiscipline. They do this in two ways: by weakening the protection afforded by the freehold to idle or scandalous priests and by strengthening the protection available to priests in charge.

The protection which clergy freehold provides to its owners is at the moment implicit more than explicit. It is not what the law demands of them that is inadequate, but the difficulty of applying these demands. They are protected by the expense and embarrassment of removing a clergyman who does not want to go. There are three cases used to demonstrate this fact: more telling than the details is the fact that these three cases are the only ones which have ever been brought under the 1963 legislation. There is no case in which it has ever worked as intended.

The reforms are supposed to replace the present machinery with something quicker, cheaper, and apparently fairer. It does look as if the proposed machinery will do all these things. There is also a new graded scale of punishments, ranging from complete defrocking to solemn warnings. These have the advantage, incidental to Establishment, that anyone who ignores them will find himself automatically in contempt of court, which can be a fierce sanction.

To go with the punishments, there are new offences, such as "gross inefficiency". This can seem very sinister. In fact it would have been useful in the past. One rural priest told me once that his predecessor held the freehold from 1952 to 1987: "In that time he did nothing. He left the church, the hall and even the vicarage derelict when he retired. One service a week with attendance in single figures. He left half a million and his will was published the week we launched an appeal to repair some of the long legacy of neglect."

Yet there is one point in the new system which seems to me scandalous. This is the provision that trials should normally be held in private. This is the legacy of Lincoln Cathedral. The trial and acquittal of the dean on charges of adultery last year was a tremendous story that made the Church of England look utterly ridiculous. Yet such cases must continue to arise. What made Lincoln a difficult case was that the charges came down to a question of trust: she said he did; he said he didn't. There were no witnesses. This difficulty cannot be removed for the future.

The Church cannot take the view that the priest in such circumstances must always be believed. So, if the allegations cannot be disproved, they must lead to a trial. To hold these trials behind closed doors may spare the Church embarrassment; the price, however, is loss of credibility and I don't think that's worth paying. However squalid and undignified the Lincoln trial was, it should only be possible in future to try such cases in private if both parties agree.