Union accuses bishops of failing to help bullied vicars

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Bishops are failing to support Church of England priests who are increasingly being bullied by powerful parishioners, according to a trade union.

Clergy are experiencing psychological, emotional, verbal and even physical abuse, according to Unite, Britain's largest union, but bishops are "crossing the road to the other side" rather than offering help.

The Church of England acknowledged bullying did happen but said it was "certainly not as widespread as suggested" by the union.

Rachel Maskell, of Unite, said the "pressures of modern society" were leading to an increase in cases of bullying of ministers by their own flock.

"A group of one or two powerful people in any congregation may not like the style of worship, the times of meetings and even when the main activities are taking place in the church," Ms Maskell said. "But these campaigns seem to get out of control and rapidly turn into a little campaign against the minister.

"It could be in the forms of letters to start with and then complaints being made, often to the bishops themselves."

In one case, a minister was off sick due to bullying, but had met the bishop just once in seven months. "Frankly, we believe that the bishops shouldn't be crossing the road to the other side, as happens in the great parable of the Good Samaritan, but should actually be supporting their ministers," said Ms Maskell.

She accused bishops of "hiding behind the legal technicalities of the situation" and said that they had a "moral duty to act when they see one of their ministers in distress".

Next month an Archbishops' Council committee is due to produce a document called Dignity at Work, which will say harassment and bullying are "rare" but intolerable and give advice to dioceses on how to deal with such situations.

But John Packer, the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, who chairs the committee, denied that bishops were not doing enough to help ministers. "I believe bishops do respond when they see ministers in distress," he said, adding that in some cases allegations of bullying came from both sides.

He added: "I would want to move towards a situation in which mediation is used much more often than now."