No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less… (John Donne 1572 -1631)
A story like Maria’s is an exploration of bullying in churches in six parts. You can read Part 1 here: A story like Maria’s Part 1
So far we know little about Maria apart from her role as pastoral care leader and her love of dogs. She could be single, married, divorced, straight, gay, childless, a parent, working, retired, solitary or company loving. At the moment all the possibilities are open but if we are going to look at the impact her experience has on her and on others, she can’t remain a one dimensional character.
Family: Maria is married to Peter and they have two children in their early twenties. None of them are involved with the church. Her son is at uni, her daughter has just started her first job. At first, Maria does not tell them about her problems with Zoe and they all become exasperated by her increasing vagueness as she goes over and over the situation in her mind wondering what to do next. They are used to her listening when they tell her things: “Mum! I bowled three people in a row! It was a hat trick!” “Then my boss said I needed to start the report again from scratch. I’m sure everyone was listening. It’s an open plan office…”
But as time goes on and Maria becomes increasingly unhappy, she has to tell them what has happened.
They are furious. It isn’t just that Maria is so upset; what has happened is clearly wrong and is against their sense of justice. They want to do something. Anything. Their suggestions range from writing a personal letter to the archbishop to her son saying he’s sure he has a mate who would be prepared to spray paint a word beginning with “B” on Zoe’s car. Peter is determined to go round and tell Zoe just what he thinks of her. It is an effort for Maria to persuade them that nothing they do will make any difference.
Her daughter is particularly incensed by Zoe’s remarks about clothes: “Mum, you look great in jeans and shirt. If that orange and pink skirt is the one she wore for the fete I should think it gave all the old people migraines.”
They are also full of suggestions for what Maria should have done or what she should do now. Wearying though this might appear, their underlying love and concern makes a huge difference to how Maria feels about things.
Friends: Clare is Maria’s closest friend at church and is on the pastoral care team. Maria has been confiding in her all along and she has been offering prayer, support and advice. She has not had much direct contact with Zoe, who has always been friendly and pleasant. What has happened presents her with a dilemma. She has enjoyed being on the pastoral care team with Maria, but it won’t be the same without her, especially as Clare knows what really happened. Does she want to continue? Should she resign in support of Maria? But if she does resign, what will happen to the lonely and elderly people that she visits on behalf of the church?
Mike and Juliet are friends of both Peter and Maria. Neither of them are church goers but Mike has been interested in the dementia group. He thinks that this is just the sort of thing that the church should be doing. His mother is at the beginning of dementia and after chatting to Maria he has persuaded her to join the local choir for people with dementia, which she loves. When they come round for supper, he is keen to share this with Maria and can’t understand her lack of enthusiasm; it isn’t long before Peter (with help from Maria) is telling them what has happened. Mike and Juliet are incredulous; it all sounds so petty. What is more, from an outsider’s point of view, this is not how the church is supposed to be. Churches should not be places of bullying and broken relationships. Juliet says it’s hypocritical since they’re supposed to be Christians.
Maria’s gifts lie with people, she is a friendly person and likely to have many more friends, all of whom need some kind of explanation as to what has happened. What about the people she meets through her job in the library, dog walking or the Women’s Institute? The ripples spread outward…
Community: Zoe has told the PCC (the Parochial Church Council) that Maria is taking a break from her role for personal reasons. It seems that she expects the PCC members to pass this on to the rest of the church and to the community and they duly do so. Zoe sees this as the end of the matter. No one will question “personal reasons” for that would be gossip. Effectively she sees Maria as “an island, entire of itself.”
Reality is not remotely like that. People talk. All the time.
For some it is just gossip. But for others who know Maria they want to be able to understand what is happening and offer help and support.
Several people decide that “personal reasons” probably means a potentially fatal illness for Peter or one of the children. On his way home from the station, Peter encounters five people, all with sympathetic smiles, asking after his health. Usually they just say hello or comment on the weather. He is completely baffled when after assuring them that he is fine they gently ask about his children…
Her friend Clare tells Maria that this is what Zoe has said and that people keep asking her what is happening. What should she say? Should she tell people what has happened – which reflects badly on the church? Or should she make something up – which would not be true?
In either case enough people know something for stories to be circulating. Someone once described confidentiality as telling people one at a time. A story like Maria’s cannot be kept secret.
Why doesn’t Zoe realise this? It may be that she has not got much experience of communities. It may be that she lacks imagination. It may be that she thinks her authority is sufficient to keep it confidential. Perhaps she has already moved on and has almost forgotten Maria or dismissed her as someone who no longer has any importance.
Eventually people will talk about something else. But damage will have been done; Maria’s story will be considered as evidence of how the church is, both for those who go and for those who don’t.