Pete Hobson writes: Who needs a Trade Union for faith? When I started out in ordained ministry in the Church of England in 1977 I would have barely understood the question – and having grasped it would have quickly concluded it was not relevant to me. Over 40 years later I find myself chair of CECA (the Church of England Clergy Advocates) within the Faith Workers Branch of Unite the Union, and a strong advocate of others joining. Why the change? And what reasons—theological and otherwise—do I advance to my colleagues in ministry?
So much has changed over my time in ministry. I began life as a curate with a firm vocation but no security of tenure, and an implicit belief that the church would surely look out for me, as I went about its business. Perhaps even then I knew that may have been a little naïve. My engagement with my sponsoring bishop Victor Whitsey of Chester was limited, but I can still vividly remember a meeting he required with my new fiancée, when his manner seemed even then patriarchal and not a little creepy. We now know a lot more about him and his failings, and how the institutions of the church then and after failed either to see or else to act on them.
Since then the frameworks we inhabit have changed out of all recognition. We have Common Tenure (CT) via the Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Measure 2009, but not employment rights, the Clergy Discipline via the 2003 Measure (CDM), which causes at least as much harm as the misconduct it aims to address, and of course Safeguarding in its many and iterative processes, which has had the effect of clergy feeling ever less safe, alongside laity feeling ever more suspicious. And of clergy accused of misdoing feeling “handed over to the dogs” in the words of the recent Sheldon report. And all of that alongside a steady dismantling of the structures that undergirded the CofE throughout the 20th century. That, in itself, is only a manifestation of the rapid social and cultural changes in our society—now most emphatically not only post-Christendom, but increasingly post-Christian.
So when all of that precarious interplay of structures, forces and human emotions and failings coincide to bring the institution of the church into conflict with the lives of its clergy—who you gonna call? When that happened to me, I looked around and realised the answer was—nobody was there. So I joined the Union. It was too late for it to be able to help at the time (that was thankfully resolved otherwise) but the whole experience energised me to seek to see that others might be more protected.
A Union branch for Faith Workers began its life in the 1990s in MSF, which over time transmuted into Amicus, and eventually Unite. Then in 2012 we created CECA as a specific section within that Branch for Church of England clergy—because our circumstances of non-employment were so specific and specialised. Since then it has doubled in size from some 700 members to over 1,400—and continues to grow, currently at the rate of at least 30 a month. The wider Branch now has over 2,400 members, covering other denominations and faiths, and all have access to our 7-day a week Helpline for members—a first port of call for all queries, conundrums or crises which then can give access to a trained Branch Rep if the situation needs ongoing support, to the paid Unite staff if that too is needed, and ultimately to the legal support available to every Union member.
So increasingly clergy are finding very practical reasons for joining CECA. Curates join at the outset of their ordained ministry, and those in training are wanting to find out more. Bishops and Archdeacons are all too aware that ‘status’ is no longer protection against accusation—which can be as well-founded or as malicious as for other clergy. And unlike me all those decades ago, many are now ordained out of previous careers where Union membership with the protection it brings was a given—and keen to find out what is available for clergy. Others are all too aware of friends who have suffered reverses, and found the union a major support. Or just anxious lest something should happen to them.
But beyond self-protection and the invaluable insurance ‘in case’, is there a theology of Union membership, and what it perhaps adds to ministry? Trade Unions are largely a creation of the 19th and 20th centuries, but it’s arguable their ideological roots go back to Reformation theology, especially of an Anabaptist flavour.
The absolute value of every human life to God, and the consequent principle of equality within the congregation lie at the roots of the values on which Unionism is still based—member-based democracy and a firm challenge to injustice wherever it is perceived. That the Methodist class system also contributed to the growth of similar of Trade Unionism is also well-established and evidenced by the traditional language of a senior shop steward as the ‘Father of the Chapel’. I find deep resonances with the deepest parts of my own faith in these values. Of course, any Union in existence will embody them imperfectly—but then, so does the church, and that doesn’t (mostly) stop us staying within its fold.
And one particular joy for me of being in CECA is the absolute theological diversity of members’ views at levels beyond these basic principles. So it is not possible to say CECA members are mainly traditionalist or revisionist, evangelical, catholic or liberal. Or anything else. All find a place within the fold – and refreshingly we spend little if any time discerning or debating those distinctions. It’s not that they don’t matter to us any more, but in the Union context they become secondary. If a member needs support, they get support – irrespective of a Rep’s view of their theological stance. Because what Unite Reps do for our members is to make sure there is an Advocate standing alongside you when the institution turns from nurturer to accuser, and holds it to account for its own claimed policies, practices and values.
And some would be amazed how often that is required. CDM complaint, parish reorganisation, blue file anxiety, safeguarding allegations—there is a forest of ecclesiastical red tape that has to be navigated safely. It might be a member has done wrong and needs holding to account, but fairly. It might be a parishioner is being vexatious or malicious. It might be someone in diocese or parish is harassing or bullying you. Who hand-holds you through it all? Your Unite Rep. We can’t promise the outcome—but we do aim to hold all to proper process.
There’s another theological reason I’ve found for Unite membership, beyond my initial motivations. Seeing other people doing the works they were, but not part of their in-group, the disciples asked Jesus to stop them (Mark 9.38ff). “Don’t,” said Jesus “Whoever is not against us is for us”. Through its inherited structures, Unite works for the good of its more than 1 million members and many others beyond. Faith workers make up over 6% of our Unite sector, for community, youth and not for profit bodies. We get insight into the challenges faced by youth workers, advice workers, those working in supported housing and animal charities—to name but a few! And Unite’s wider positions on the covid-19 pandemic, on poverty, on global justice and on climate change have been ones I have welcomed and its resources have often proved invaluable. We know the work of the kingdom of God continues well beyond the bounds of the church, and Union membership gives insights into that, and chances for solidarity. And, reciprocally, Unite at both its regional and at national levels has begun to sit up and notice faith as a possible power for good, and organising faith workers as a meaningful enterprise.
Traditionally, Unions also engage in collective bargaining. That’s trickier in the CofE. Its inherited structures have no space for Union recognition—that role being largely taken up by the synodical Houses of Clergy at various levels. And we know how well that appears to be working! But we have, increasingly, found ways to at least engage in useful dialogue at national and, increasingly, diocesan level. Our national committee meets three times a year with senior staff from the NCIs, and once a year we’re invited into part of the meeting of the maybe obscure Remuneration and Conditions of Service Committee (RACSC) for clergy to bring issues forward. People on the other side of the table always seem keen to listen—but there is seldom any sense that they have either the power or the desire to bring about any specific changes as a result. But that says as much about the way CoE structures work as about any individual or a specific attitude to CECA.
That’s one reason why I’m very interested to see how the current Governance Review lands, as one of its key points is that the levers of power are so distributed that it is nigh impossible to work out who is responsible for anything, or how to bring about meaningful change. Maybe that works for a church secure in its inherited position in society. Maybe that’s the problem. It’s absolutely not for CECA or Unite to solve that—but I’ve found it an invaluable sphere of ministry whilst we, the church, work out who we are and what we are about at this juncture of the divine story.
Who needs a Trade Union for faith? Maybe you do.
Pete Hobson is currently chair of the Church of England Clergy Advocates. He’s now retired, with over 40 years ordained ministry under his belt in inner-city Manchester, Hackney and Leicester, before ending his working life for the church at Leicester Cathedral, helping re-inter Richard III, and build for its future.
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