Evil-minded parishioners making life hell for clergy
By Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent
Congregations cowed by bullies
Vicars stressed by the need to be nice
Churches in Britain are a “toxic cocktail” of bullying and terror, as parish priests struggle to lead congregations dominated by neurotic worshippers who spread havoc with gossip and manipulation.
The “dark side” of parish life is detailed in a report published by the Church of England, which describes how peace and love are in desperately short supply in the pews of churches this Christmas.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, is among the contributors to the report, The Future of the Parish System: Shaping the Church of England for the 21st Century.
One of the authors, Sara Savage, a psychology and religion researcher at the University of Cambridge, reports how increasing numbers of ministers are going down with a new illness, irritable clergy syndrome.
Priests are being torn by the pressure of having to be nice all the time to everyone, even when confronted with extremes of nastiness, she says.
It is worse in the suburbs, where Christians can choose between a variety of “gathered” churches, all offering different styles, from tambourines to High Mass with incense. Here, troublemakers indulge in “church hopping”, moving on to the next church once they have had enough of the one they are in.
Dr Savage says that these people suffer from neurotic personality disorders bordering on the psychotic.
But even where a church has none of these in its congregation, other problems arise.
One difficulty is how to motivate the “settled blancmange” of the softly acquiescent majority, described by Dr Savage as “social loafers”. “Bums on pews are often just that,” she reports.
Dr Savage says one of the problems is that churches are hierarchical systems, with all the attendant echoes of feudal society. Thus they elicit bad behaviour such as status seeking, fawning, bullying, passivity, blaming others and gossiping.
Clergy soften the impact of this, while at the same time preserving it, by being “nice”, she says. “The norm of Christian niceness is ubiquitous, despite the portrait the Gospels paint of Jesus as an assertive, sometimes acerbic personality who readily confronted people in order to pursue their spiritual welfare.”
She agrees that nastiness is unproductive, but argues that niceness “can tie churches up in knots”. Because lay volunteers, such as churchwardens or vergers, are unpaid, they do not expect to be confronted by their “nice” vicar over the way they fulfil their role.
“Clergy desperately need their lay workers and volunteers, of whom there is a limited supply. Organists know this,” she writes. “I am reliably informed that one of the most stressful features of ministry is the effort to be nice to difficult people.”
The report comes as the Church of England is in the process of looking at new ways of “doing church”. Two years ago Dr Williams called for an overhaul of the traditional parish system to meet the needs of modern society.