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Dangers of too much clerical comfort; In this age of political correctness, not even the clergy are safe, says Ros Dodd.

A clergyman's lot is not an easy one. Not only are priests and vicars entrusted with the job of nurturing the faith of their flock, they have also to care for parishioners' pastoral needs.

Notwithstanding the secularisation of society, clerics are often called upon to minister to church members and their families on an emotional as well as a spiritual level.

When a crisis blows up or tragedy strikes, even those who don't consider themselves regular churchgoers instinctively reach out for the comfort that religion can bring.

In many cases, that solace is delivered in the person of a man or woman in a dog collar.

Vicars are expected to know the "right" things to say; they are perceived to be essentially caring and sympathetic individuals whose love of God is reflected in their love of human beings.

People look to the clergy not only for succour, but for advice on matters ranging from the sacred to the profane.

Many of the problems and issues laid at the door of vicarages throughout the land are intensely personal and private.

In dealing with them, clerics inevitably find themselves talking to parishioners on a one-to-one basis. The dialogue will often be emotionally deep, sometimes profound.

In a handful of cases, such intimate encounters sow the seeds of impropriety either in the minds of those being ministered to or those doing the ministering.

Roddy Wright, the former Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, resigned from his post after falling in love with married mother-of-three Kathleen MacPhee.

Mrs MacPhee turned to the Catholic priest for counselling in 1990 when her marriage ran into trouble.

Although Father Roddy persuaded her to return to the family home and insisted nothing improper happened between them until several years later, they ran away together and wed in the Caribbean last summer.

Such instances are few and far between, however. For every cleric who falls short of his responsibilities there are a host of others who work unstintingly for the good of their flock.

That is why a "code of professional conduct" for clergymen being considered by the Church of England would seriously dilute the essence of the job of vicar.

Although clerics will be told to abide by the new code in order to protect themselves from allegations of sexual and emotional abuse, many will surely be reluctant to do so.

In today's somewhat paranoid society, it may be inadvisable of a vicar to put a comforting arm around a weeping parishioner or counsel a churchgoer alone in the church vestry or vicarage in case subsequent allegations of "inappropriate conduct" are made against them, but such expressions of care and support are an inherent part of the job.

Of course, clergymen - particularly unmarried priests - are always going to be vulnerable to the unwelcome romantic attentions of parishioners.

The Dean of Lincoln, the Very Rev Brandon Jackson, almost lost his job and home after an unmarried female verger claimed they had enjoyed a passionate affair.

Five years ago, a church court rejected 32-year-old Verity Freestone's story of two specific sexual encounters with the 60-year-old father-of-three.

Although Miss Freestone's claims must have caused Mr Jackson untold anguish, most clergymen are able to extricate themselves from difficult situations before they get out of hand.

To be required to adhere to behavioural guidelines would hamper men and women of the cloth in the generally good work they do.

Who is going to confide in their local vicar if a third party has to be present to ensure everything stays above board?

How can a cleric adequately convey his profound sympathy for a distraught churchgoer, newly bereaved, if he can't place a comforting arm around his or her shoulder?

We live in a confused culture where, on the one hand, we are encouraged to drop the "stiff upper lip" approach and let our feelings out, yet on the other are told to keep tabs on our every action in case it is misconstrued.

The Church is only the latest institution to feel the force of political correctness. Teachers and employers are already constrained by society's heightened fears - blown over the Atlantic from America - that the young and vulnerable are constantly at risk of being abused, either physically or emotionally.

Certainly the public needs protecting from those who prey upon innocent victims and the Church - both Roman Catholic and Anglican - unwittingly harbours a minority of clergy whose intentions are far from honourable.

The Roman Catholic Church, in particular, is regularly rocked by claims of sexual abuse.

Nevertheless, this week's agreement by leading figures in the established Church to begin drawing up a code of professional conduct as part of its provisions to update its disciplinary system for errant clergy is a move in the wrong direction.

"If we do not get our own act together as ministers, other people will impose something on us," commented Canon Hugh Wilcox, Prolocutor of the Canterbury Convocation. "Frankly, I would rather grasp this nettle than leave it to other people."

His feelings are understandable, but imposing such restrictions on vicars can only be counter-productive.

At a time when church attendance is at a worrying low and life is lived at such a frenetic pace that people have little time to stretch out a helping hand to those in trouble, clerics need to be encouraged to expand their pastoral work rather than draw in their horns.

The Church hierarchy might still be bickering about issues such as homosexuality and the remarriage of divorcees, but grassroots clergy are generally held in high public esteem - and deservedly so.

Church leaders would be better employed unifying their views on moral issues rather than laying down codes of conduct.

The modern-day reluctance to pass judgment on the difficulties experienced by members of their congregation would also be compromised if priests had to behave in a certain manner.

Refusing to physically comfort a parishioner could be construed as tantamount to the clergyman believing he was in danger of being accused of impropriety by the unhappy churchgoer.

While the Church is undoubtedly considering these measures for the best of reasons, it should have the strength to resist getting sucked into the mixed-up ethics of today's society - ethics its teachings attempt to iron out.
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Title Annotation:National
Author:Dodd, Ros
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 1, 2000
Words:1038
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