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
When Maria and her friend Clare discuss what has happened, Clare suggests that the best person to approach in the church is Neil, the reader (Licensed Lay Minister). Maria agrees, she knows that Neil also has reservations about some of the things that Zoe is doing. It is possibly not a coincidence that he was absent from the ministry team meeting where the new rotas and services were discussed.
Although Neil knows some of what has happened, he has not realised the extent and he is deeply concerned about what has been going on. After prayerful consideration he decides that the best people to help resolve this situation are Beth and Jack, the churchwardens.
Beth and Jack are in a difficult position. They like Zoe and think that she is having a really positive effect on some aspects of church life. The Sunrise Club for toddlers and carers is bringing new, younger people into contact with the church. As well Zoe’s ideas, and the fact that she has two children of her own, are revitalising the All Age services. The PCC and the readers have had an awayday to discuss the new strategic vision. While Beth has a few reservations about what she privately thinks is a lot of waffle, Jack is very positive and feels the day was inspirational.
They also like Maria but think there is an element of truth in some of Zoe’s comments – Maria can be quite critical at times and it’s clear she isn’t totally in favour of the new strategic vision.
As well they have a duty to the church. The last thing they want is dissension in the church, with people taking sides. Privately they hope this is a blip and that everything will blow over without any fuss. They have more than enough to do sorting all the churchwarden’s jobs: the new roof for the church, the visit of the diocesan financial adviser and the new strategic vision which is going to need a lot of work.
However, they have a lot of respect for Neil and they can see how concerned he is. They agree to meet with Maria and hear what she has to say.
Maria feels that Beth and Jack listen to her. They discuss what to do next. Beth and Jack agree to meet with Zoe and see if things can be resolved.
Zoe is astonished that the churchwardens want to talk about the situation with Maria. As far as she is concerned, they are in separate boxes and there is no need for any overlap. She points out that Maria is part of the ministry team and so she is the priest’s responsibility not the churchwardens’. In any case this is a temporary problem, hopefully Maria will be back doing pastoral care very soon after she has had time for rest and reflection. There is no need for the churchwardens to be concerned.
Jack and Beth are reassured but when several weeks have gone by and there is no change in Maria’s situation, Beth tries to talk to Zoe again. Zoe says that as far as she is concerned nothing has changed, Maria still needs more time. Beth asks what it is that Maria needs more time for, but Zoe’s response is vague.
Jack and Beth talk to Neil. They are all reluctant to escalate things, but Neil is clear that Maria needs support and that the situation does need attention. Jack suggests speaking to Paula, the area dean who is the next person up from Zoe in the church hierarchy. They agree that Neil is the person best placed to do this. When he sees Paula at a deanery meeting, he asks if he can come and talk to her.
Paula’s experience of church bullying is from a different perspective. At her last church there was a churchwarden who had been there for 30 years and did his best to block any changes that Paula and others wanted to make. She knows first-hand just how easy it is for a bullying member of the laity to make the priest’s life a misery. PCC meetings used to make her feel sick and it took her days to recover from the one where she suggested having new hymnbooks. As well as her own experiences, she is in close contact with other priests who have had similar experiences. Her ordination training group have a secret facebook group and all too often her fellow priests are posting about appalling PCC meetings and their dread of meeting up with particular parishioners.
While she listens to what Neil has to say, Paula sees Zoe as a breath of fresh air, not just at St Augustine’s but across the deanery. She is younger than many of the other priests, and willing to experiment with different ideas. She tells Neil that Zoe has mentioned a problem with a particular parishioner (who she has not named) and explains how difficult it is for a priest to move a church forwards when people refuse to listen and do their best to block progress. Neil knows that this is not a good representation of the situation, but he is unable to get this across to Paula.
Neil, Jack and Beth feel powerless to change things. They do not have the training or experience to recognise bullying or how to deal with it. In fact, none of them, not even Maria, have used the word bullying – instead they talk about problems or a relationship breakdown.
They wonder if they should speak to the archdeacon as the person above the area dean in the Church of England hierarchy. After Neil’s experience with Paula no one is keen. Besides what could the archdeacon do? Parish priests are responsible to the bishop and are almost autonomous in their own churches. Even if the archdeacon were involved, there might be little he could do to change things. There are no clear procedures to follow. The only official route through is the Clergy Discipline Measure which is reserved for serious misconduct and takes months if not years to process.
Each part of Maria’s story seems petty and trivial. It is only when viewed as a whole that it can be seen to be about bullying.
Although Maria is not involved, church life has moved on and there seems no noticeable difference to church fellowship. The pastoral care side of things seems to be carrying on smoothly under new management. The new worship patterns have become established and the coffee time afterwards seems as pleasant and friendly as ever. Perhaps everyone needs to draw a line and move on.
Although all seems well, the church is living dangerously. If Zoe has got her own way through bullying once, it’s likely that this isn’t a one off. She will probably bully again. Who will be next? What impact will this have on the church? Is Zoe going to be someone who bullies anyone who disagrees with her – or will she be a serial bully moving from one victim to the next?