25 July 2007
Yet again, the Church allows one of its ministers to retire from their position early rather than face the consequences of the mistreatment of a parishioner. The Church professes a belief in mediation – even to the extent of organising a conference on the subject – yet it refuses to respond to the pleas of the wronged parishioner who still only seeks reconciliation with her priest. Its only response is to threaten her with legal action if she does not stop attempting to communicate with it.
To read the announcement issued by the church mediation service called Bridge Builders to promote its upcoming conference on Church Mediation, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Church actually practices what it claims to believe when it comes to settling disharmony among its ranks and its followers.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, for whilst via its public face the Church might appear to be the benign, helpful and caring organisation it has always purported to be, its behind-the-scenes attitude towards those who have the audacity to complain about treatment from one of its ministers takes a completely different track.
The conference statement quotes some senior members of the Church who all affirm their belief in mediation to solve disputes, yet when Mrs Patricia Davies, who was studying to become a minister herself, complained to her local Church authorities that her minister, Revd Celia McDonald, had caused her devastating mental anguish by her attitude and treatment when Mrs Davies confided in her priest that she was suffering from severe depression, mediation was the last thing to which the Church would agree.
After several years of Mrs Davies writing to every senior official in the Church she could find in an attempt to help her resolve the matter, the Church held an enquiry into the case, but came to a conclusion based on disputed evidence that had been submitted by the priest, and refused to reconsider the case when the errors on the evidence came to light.
Mrs Davies even went to the trouble and expense of using a solicitor after the Methodist church head office instructed the local church to not even read her communications, let alone answer them; and then threatened Mrs Davies with arrest if she continued to request reconciliation. The last attempt by the solicitor to resolve the matter emphasised that all Mrs Davies wanted was to effect a reconciliation with Revd McDonald, offering to drop her charges of abuse and cover-up, but the Church still refused to bring the matter to a satisfactory close.
The latest move is that Revd McDonald has now been allowed to leave her position in advance of her scheduled retirement in the autumn. This latest move follows Mrs Davies’s declaration that she would ‘blow the whistle’ on the Church’s activities and its attempts to whitewash its actions, and detail her case on the website of the organisation she has founded – Churchgoer Support – to help people who have been similarly treated (see www.churchgoersupport.co.uk).
Eminent churchmen and women such as the Revd Paul Hills, a Baptist Senior Regional Minister; Revd Will Morrey, Past President of The Methodist Conference and South Wales District Chair; and Dr James Behrens, chancellor of two Church of England dioceses and author of Church Disputes Mediation; as well as Alastair McKay, Director of Bridge Builders; are quoted as making statements including: “I am committed to the concept of mediation as a way of dealing with conflict situations in the Church,”; “From experience at many levels of life in the Methodist Church, I know the problems that can arise when people feel forced to use an adversarial system. A process, like mediation, that offers the opportunity to deal properly with differences between people without forcing somebody into the loser role, has to be a better way in many cases,”; and “My experience of mediation convinces me that it provides a better way of resolving most church disputes than using some formal legal process.”
However, when it comes to putting theory into practice, everyone in the Church hierarchy suddenly goes very quiet, with a particularly determined silence from Revd David Gamble, a member of the Bridge Builders Council of Reference and head of the Methodist Church’s Legal and Constitutional practice, who has steadfastly refused to accept Mrs Davies’s pleas for independent mediation and reconciliation.
The stonewalling attitude displayed towards Mrs Davies is not unique, of course. When Revd Pearl Luxon, the Methodist Minister who represents the Anglican 'safeguarding' policies on the vulnerable and children (and is a close working colleague of Revd David Gamble), was interviewed on the Radio 4 Today programme by John Humphrys about the Church’s role in failing to prevent a paedophile choirmaster, Peter Halliday, from abusing children, she refused to comment on the case, even though it had concluded with Halliday pleading guilty.
Revd Luxon’s only comment was: “Robust policies are improved through learning from the past and from following the guidance and good practice that happens now." Despite attempts by Humphrys to persuade her to make some conciliatory statement, she steadfastly refused so to do.
And so it goes on. Revd McDonald is tucked away just as was Halliday, and the Church continues its claims to piety via events such as the Bridge Builders conference on mediation.
The Churchgoer Support movement can be contacted by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing to Help Project, PO Box 1026, Great Wakering, Southend on Sea SS3 OWX.
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