Pink slips no remedy for unsatisfactory clergy

Published May 1, 1998

SHOULD CLERGY be fired without cause? General Synod is about to consider a law that would permit just that. It is a well-intentioned but it is wrong.

Currently, when a bishop, priest and parish agree on an appointment, the bishop licences the priest to function as the incumbent of that parish. (Some incumbents are called vicars or rectors; in Canada, they all amount to the same thing.) Once appointed, a priest can be forcibly removed from the parish only if he or she commits a civil or church crime. In other words, just because a bishop or parish doesn’t like a priest, doesn’t mean the priest can be fired.

This is important because, among other things, clergy are always involved in challenging and changing people’s attitudes. Unlike most Protestant churches, where the congregation hires and fires the pastor, it gives Anglican clergy the freedom to provoke people into thinking about life in a way that might ultimately prove right and good, but that might cause anxiety from time to time and could lead to being fired in another denomination.

In general, lay people and clergy have been happy with this model for the past several hundred years, going back to our English roots.

It’s not perfect, of course. There are mediocre and difficult clergy who never commit a crime but don’t do a good job. There are also parishes that regularly treat their clergy shabbily. On the whole, both are exceptions that prove the rule.

General Synod is going to be asked to change the rule. The proposal would let bishops remove clergy from parishes for no particular reason. In fact, it’s the whole idea.

The law would let a bishop remove a priest from a parish where there is obvious trouble, centred around the priest, but where there is insufficient evidence to prove wrongdoing on the priest’s part and “something has to be done.” Under the proposal, the bishop’s decision couldn’t be appealed, only the amount of the settlement offered. And the priest wouldn’t be allowed to serve as a priest anywhere else in that diocese.

In short, it’s a draconian measure that would give bishops dictatorial power.

Bishops sometimes say they don’t have enough power to fix problems in their diocese. While they may be justifiably frustrated by certain situations, more power is no solution. This plan would let bishops remove clergy on a whim, even if they say they wouldn’t do it. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. And if there are so many problem clergy about, why should we not suppose that some of them are becoming bishops? So who is guarding the guardians? The proposal has no section for removing ineffective bishops from a diocese.

As an aside, Lutherans have expressed concern in the full-communion talks about the lack of accountability for Anglican bishops and the fact they don’t have term appointments as Lutheran bishops do. They might have been relieved to see a similar proposal dealing with bishops, archbishops and primates.

Already some bishops are trying to get around the current rules by appointing clergy to parishes under fixed-term contracts of, say, three years. That’s no solution either; theologically, politically or legally. A bishop who tries to force just such a contract priest out of a parish might well end up on the losing end of a lawsuit.

Parish clergy are not employees. The courts in Canada and England are agreed on that. In the spectrum of possible working relationships in society between short-term contract (usually less than two years and for a specific piece of work) and permanent appointments, like judges, clergy are close to the judges. Their relationship to their bishop is also complex. Since the Oxford Movement and especially since Vatican II, Anglican bishops have tended to follow Rome in seeing bishops as being chief pastors with priests and deacons as helpers. A different but equally valid model sees the college of priests as the primary pastoral group with the bishop raised up as a leader and administrator in a more equitable sharing of power.

There’s nothing sacred saying that bishops have or should have the power to rule dioceses like a despot. And surely most of them wouldn’t want such power. On the other hand, second-rate priests who stubbornly refuse to do improve their skills and do a better job shouldn’t be able to hide behind the rule book and destroy a parish.

If the canon is to succeed, it needs several changes. First, the general rules must apply equally to bishops as to other clergy. Secondly, the bishop must have to give defensible reasons that can be reviewed objectively and impartially. Thirdly, the decision must be able to be appealed to the archbishop’s court. Fourthly, even if removed, the priest must remain in good standing in the diocese and at least eligible to apply for another position. After all, it’s not as if a priest can apply for a job with another church, the way, say, an editor can.

The issue is important and serious. Both church and society are changing rapidly and we need to be able to deploy clergy effectively and where their talents can best help the church as a whole.

The proposed canon heads in the wrong direction. More constructive feedback from parishes, paying greater attention to continuing education and better supervision skills from bishops would be a more constructive approach.

Unless substantially amended, the proposed canon should be defeated by all three orders in synod.


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