By Paul Bignell
Published: 11 November 2007
A spitting vicar, a karate-kicking clergyman and a priest who prompted fury by selling off a priceless medieval map – these are not characters from a lost episode of the Trollopian “Barchester Chronicles”, but modern-day holy men involved in bitter feuds at the heart of ecclesiastical life. Some priestly disputes have become so bad that a “conflict management” course has been introduced for church leaders.
Its aim will be to resolve the growing number of rows which are causing deep, unbrotherly – and unsisterly – rifts, according to Dr Sara Savage, a senior researcher at Cambridge University who co-developed the course.
“Conflict is generally not handled well within the church,” she said. “Even minor disagreements can leave bitterness and resentment… Instead of churches being contexts for grace and loving challenge, they can become arenas for bullying, blaming and scapegoating.”
Of the 18.9 million working days lost annually in the UK through stress – in much of which bullying plays a significant part – a high proportion of workplace bullies are in the caring professions, including the church. A study by the Andrea Adams Trust, which deals with workplace bullying, found that lay people, church officers, workers or clerics increasingly behave abusively to other lay or ordained people.
According to the Cambridge research team, attempts to resolve inter-clergy rows often make matters worse because those involved lack proper training in resolving conflicts.
But it’s not just colleagues the clergy have to fear, as the unfortunate vicar of St Mary and St Michael church in Trumpington, near Cambridge, found. Dr Tom Ambrose must now defend himself against 97 allegations – including spitting at a church warden – from his parishioners in front one of only a few ecclesiastical tribunals held in the past century. Lawyers estimate his legal fees could reach £150,000. His crime? The modernising vicar wanted lavatories in the church for his ageing congregation. In another case, the Rev Brian Regan used his martial arts expertise to quell a violent parishioner.
Paul Handley, editor of the Church Times, said yesterday that the time is right for a conflict-management course: “I think that professional advice… is very important. Otherwise you get churches run by the ‘angry-squad’.”
The first session of the course will take place next month. Representatives will attend from six denominations – Anglican, Methodist, Church of Scotland, Roman Catholic, Baptist and United Reform. It will centre on psychological and conflict resolution techniques. Course leaders hope that more sessions will follow encompassing different faith groups, including Muslims and Hindus.
Rev Harry Brown, 2003: sacked over sexual impropriety, intimidation and financial irregularities
Dr Brandon Jackson, 1997: eight-year feud with sub-dean at Lincoln. Cleared of adultery; resigns as dean
Rev Lucy Winkett, 1997: her appointment at St Paul’s Cathedral provoked mutiny and hate-mail
Rev Tom Ambrose, 2007: faces 97 allegations, including spitting at a warden, and could lose his job
Dr Martin Neary, 1999: Westminster Abbey organist, sacked for ‘financial irregularities’; lost his appeal