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
Is it possible for this story to have a happy ending? Is reconciliation possible?
The answer is yes but it depends on several factors:
1 The diocese needs to be committed to reconciliation, resilience and how to deal with conflict. Some dioceses have advisers on these issues. There also needs to be ways in which churches can access this help and someone outside their church to help them with the process.
2 The suggestion about reconciliation needs to come from someone above Zoe in the hierarchy – the area dean, the archdeacon or the bishop. She is unlikely to take much notice of anyone she sees as below her.
3 All parties need to actively want reconciliation. This isn’t something you can force someone into.
4 Why is Zoe bullying? This is crucial. It may be that lack of experience or poor training has given her the impression that this is the best way to manage volunteers.
It may be that she feels inadequate and is so terrified of getting things wrong that she has created this authoritarian persona to hide behind. She realises that what has happened is wrong but has no idea how to put things right.
It may be that Zoe sees the problems (and Maria) as belonging to the past. She does not engage with anyone who wants to talk about Maria and seems surprised that they want to do so. Perhaps she is concentrating so much on changing the church and moving on that she is unaware of the impact her actions have had on the present. Her lack of awareness may be due to overwork or to focusing only on the positive. An increase in numbers could look like justification by success.
It may be that she is a narcissist. Unable to empathise or see people as real, she is prepared to manipulate everyone around her to get her own way.
5 Both Zoe and Maria would need to accept that they might find things out about themselves that they would rather not know. They may both need to change aspects of their behaviour.
6 Zoe will need to give up some of her power. At the moment, the power in the church is weighted towards Zoe. She is the incumbent, the person in charge, with the authority to make decisions about the church. If reconciliation is going to work, Zoe and Maria need to be able to meet as equals. If the power remains weighted towards Zoe, then the bullying will only be exacerbated.
Several Christian friends tell Maria that she needs to forgive Zoe.
“Forgiveness is at the heart of Christianity,” says one.
“Christians must be prepared to forgive,” says another.
One friend has taken to posting inspirational quotes about forgiveness on her Facebook page. “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” Maria grits her teeth and hits the like button.
Theoretically Maria knows all this is true but putting it into practice is something else.
“How do I do it?” she wails to Clare. “It’s months now. I want to forgive Zoe but I’m still so angry. It’s the injustice of it all.”
Clare listens and prays and tells Maria about her own experiences. “It’s ongoing. Just when you think you’ve forgiven someone, something happens and you have to start all over again from scratch. I find it helps if I can imagine myself in their shoes. I try to understand why they did what they did.”
“I can’t imagine myself in Zoe’s shoes,” says Maria. “I don’t understand her at all. It’s not just me, it’s the effect on everyone else, my family, people at church, the dementia group.” She pauses and giggles. “Especially not those awful crocodile sandals with the snapping teeth.”
“Sometimes I think it’s the first step that is the hardest,” says Clare. “You just have to wait and one day that first step will be shown to you.”
Maria tries to pray for Zoe. She hopes she doesn’t wish Zoe any actual harm. What she would like is for Zoe to be “alive and well and somewhere else.” This is unlikely to happen; Zoe seems to be popping up everywhere.
Maria finds herself at the annual parish meeting, where all the local community groups get the chance to talk about the past year. She has come to give the WI report. In the past the churchwardens have given the church report, but this year Zoe has come herself. If Maria had realised this, she would have stayed away but it is too late now.
Zoe is beaming and expounding on the successes of the year – the Sunshine Club has 30 regular children and families, the Sunset Club has 20 elderly people most weeks, numbers are up significantly at All Age Worship. She thanks everyone profusely in detail and says that she knows everyone is having fun by the big smiles she sees wherever she goes.
Is this what success at church looks like? wonders Maria. Is success just about smiles and statistics?
This is something she thinks about a lot over the next few weeks. She tries to make more time for prayer and reflection.
But it isn’t until she goes to a candlelit evensong in the cathedral that she realises that no, it isn’t like that at all.
For Maria the church is like a stream of living water, existing through all times and all places. She only has to step forward to be part of it. However much the institutional church tries to contain and manage it, somewhere the living water breaks free. No one can take the living water away from her. No one can exclude her.
Maria is aware of the Holy Spirit when she prays with Clare on Wednesdays, the hands of Jesus at the healing service and the presence of the Creator when she takes her dog on early morning walks.
Listening and laughing with Eve, sitting with Jane as she faces yet another anniversary, the dementia group singing along to Buddy Holly are all times when she can pause and let God come close.
She is not alone. There are times, especially when she prays alone in a remote corner of the church, that she is aware of being part of a great crowd of people all journeying together. No one has ever been promised an easy journey, but she is not alone.
It may be that Zoe has these experiences too but if she does, they are not reflected in her current focus on status, authority, success and fun. Maria wonders if Zoe has lost her way in her drive towards success.
Perhaps she should be feeling sorry for Zoe?
Perhaps this is the first step towards forgiveness?
And then again perhaps it isn’t… Is forgiveness even possible without justice?