human rights

HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE METHODIST CHURCH

 

The standing orders of the Methodist Church are supposed to reflect the articles of the Human Rights Act. That was the commitment made by the Methodist Church to  the government to ensure that the Church could enjoy its right to freedom of religious belief by being exempt from the Act.


In the case of Peter Timms, the Methodist Church coerced him and eventually carried out their  threats -  by removing him from the ministry. They wanted him to sign a self-incriminating document ( a false confession)  without granting him the chance either to hear of what he had been accused and without being able to explain his actions in his defence.

Such action does not “reflect” the Human Rights Act in any way. The Methodist Church is therefore not fulfilling its commitment to the Government.


 

This article is a précis of a much more detailed article which may be found on this website by clicking here. Part of the longer article is to form the basis of a report to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. For the longer version CLICK HERE.

For a Chronology of the case , CLICK HERE.

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The case of Peter Timms, who was removed from the Methodist ministry in 2021,  raised the question of the role of the 1998 Human Rights Act and its relevance to the procedures of the Methodist Church’s Complaints and Disciplinary proceedings.

In law, the Methodist Church is a “hybrid public authority” under the terms of the Human Rights Act. The Church is  under statutory regulation for some of its activities, but exempt from other regulations.

In 1998 Home Secretary Jack Straw outlined the general situation to  a House of Commons Committee:

Much of what the Churches do is, in the legal context and in the context of the European Convention on human rights, essentially private in nature, and would not be affected by the Bill”

However, the government left the decision on what were  “private matters” to  a case-by-case consideration.

 

“We…believe that the test must relate to the substance and nature of the act…”
(Hansard col 433)

Mr. Chris Kitchin, the leader of the complaints panel investigating Peter Timms’ complaints about favouritism in Bexhill, told Timms  that “the HRA does not apply” to the case. He was supported in this, first by the outgoing Secretary to Conference, Gareth Powell - and then by his successor, Jonathan Hustler.

That, it must be presumed, is the policy of the Methodist Church.

 

Whilst expounding this policy, Mr. Kitchin’s added  that the standing orders of the Church “reflected” the Human Rights Act. This may refer to the guiding principle,  SO 1100:

 “all human beings are made in the image of God and are entitled to be treated as such

  or to a second guiding principle  which reads: 

“The Church also responds to the call through Christ for  justice, openness and honesty,”

Mr Kitchin seems to have been referring to the official guidelines to the standing orders which state:

 “(European) Convention rights do not apply to the Church’s procedures for dealing with complaints and discipline.........However, it would be good practice to take full account of those rights when dealing with a complaint or charge.”

 The Church’s Safeguarding principles appear to go a step further. They mention the UK Human Rights Act specifically:

 

“the Methodist Church is guided by the following foundations:

a)   the gospel     b) human rights, international and national law”

 

These pronouncements are qualified by an important legal precedent in civil and ecclesiastical law which was established in 2003 in the House of Lords. Their Lordships pointed out that there is a:

 

“statutory aim of promoting the observance of human rights values”

 

Ensuring that the Church observes “human rights values” means that there must be transparency or openness in the Church’s dealings. This is required by SO 1100 which demands of all members:

 

justice, openness and honesty,”

 

However, a  Standing Order of the Church - SO 1104 (7) -  enforces confidentiality in Church  matters. Pastoral  care often requires such confidentiality and such are legitimate “private matters”. However, with  SO 1104 (7) the Church has extended this to specifically  cover cases involving complaints and discipline.

 

This extension of privacy means that the process of considering complaints within the Church are considered to be “private matters”. This makes such matters potentially free from the restraints of the Human Rights Act – since no one can know if any Article of that  Act had been breached.

 

The privacy imposed by SO 1104 (7)  is also supposed to protect the human dignity of both the complainant and the respondent involved in a dispute.   However,  as SO 1104 (7)  is currently interpreted by the Methodist Church, it   actually allows members of a connexional panel, with impunity, to harass, coerce and humiliate persons involved in the proceedings of the complaints and disciplinary systems -  for these are classed as “private matters”

 

Intrusion into “private matters” by governmental authorities or agencies is not uncommon. “Private matters” may become matters of  “public interest”, where, to follow the government’s words,  the “test of privacy relates to the substance and nature of the act” is applied.

 

One example is the manner in which the police invade the privacy of family life when there is a suspicion that a child is being abused. A second example is the police powers to breach company “private matters”  if they suspect either an illegal cover-up, or a crime such as embezzlement has taken place. A third example is the ability of the police to intervene in a Church’s “private matters”  if they suspect there is activity damaging to the State – such as terrorism.

 

Over the past few years, the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), to retain privacy when illegal acts might be  being committed, has become particularly controversial. Some NDAs, to protect copyrights and such, are legitimate, but “privacy” has often been extended to cover  other, less legitimate, actions.

 

In June 2019,  a House of Commons Select Committee on Equality   reported:

 

“NDAs should not be used to silence victims of discrimination and harassment, and employers and their legal advisers should not be complicit in using NDAs to cover up allegations of unlawful behaviour”.

 

The intrusion into “private matters” is not the only way in which the Human Rights Act may be applied to the Discipline and Complaints system of a religious organisation. Even when the procedures of a disciplinary panel remain “private”, the Human Rights Act may be important in the determination of the punishment.

 

The Church fully supports the personal dignity and rights of all its members and it therefore adheres to the standards set by the Human Rights Act.

 

We can see from this that the Methodist Church, although it is a “hybrid” organisation”, is, by no means, wholly exempt from the standards set by the Human Rights Act. This is not how some in the Methodist Church see the situation. They refer to the guidelines that the Church published to clarify its standing orders.

 

It now seems clear that Convention rights do not apply to the Church’s procedures for dealing with complaints and discipline”

 

 

The exemptions to the Human Rights Act are qualified. The first test is that privacy :

 

“ must relate to the substance and nature of the act”

 

 and secondly, over-arching this, is the:

 

“statutory aim of promoting the observance of human rights values”

 

Applying these qualifications to the Complaints and Discipline procedures in the Methodist Church requires the intrusion into “private matters” by the application of the standards of the Human Rights Act.

 

 

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ADDITIONAL RESTRAINTS

on “hybrid organisations

 

There are three additional ways in which the Human Rights Act may be used to intrude into the “private matters” of the Methodist  Church to  correct irregularities or wrongdoing.

 

The Methodist Church is known all around the world as representing, in some fashion, Great Britain. Thus it is in the public interest in Britain that the Methodist Church should be seen as a bastion of Human Rights.

 

The government may decide to intervene if any organisation does not meet proper standards in a manner  - so as to cause the reputation of the United Kingdom to be damaged. The Methodist Church is subject to the terms of the Methodist Act, 1976.

 

A second reason why adherence to the Human Rights Act is important is when the Methodist Church chooses to use an established judicial system such as “the balance of probabilities”. The procedures of that system are qualified by the terms of the Human Rights Act.

 

Thirdly, the Church must submit its“public benefit” in its annual report to the Charity Commission. The judgement by the Commission as to whether the terms of that public benefit is sufficient or not, is qualified by the terms of the Human Rights Act.

 

Weakness in the System.

 

The structure of the executive committees of the Methodist Church makes it vulnerable to committing potential  breaches of the Human Rights Act. Assessing human rights is not the work of lay persons.

 

Connexional panels require persons with a wide range of expertise, either individually or collectively. Given the relatively small numbers of persons available from which to choose connexional panel members,  it is almost impossible for all the requirements of expertise, necessary in a connexional complaints panel, to be satisfied. In reality, there is too much work for too few people. Thus, there is too much reliance on the training of the persons involved.

 

As a consequence of this, there is a general tendency for members of such panels to rely on what some might term “natural justice”,  emanating from the “Christian ethic”  -  rather than justice in accordance with the law of the land.

 

 

CASE STUDIES:

 

Two case studies may illustrate the weaknesses in this system.

 

Case 1

The Stacey Report on sex abuse

in the Methodist Church.

 

Sex abuse is a criminal activity. It is notoriously difficult to deal with because of the nature of the evidence in most cases.  Nevertheless, in the 1750 cases discovered by this review, not only were the human rights of most of the victims and supposed perpetrators assessed and considered solely by the Church, but the level of culpability of most of the accused was also considered solely by the Church.

 

The figures produced by the report suggest that it is possible that about 206 cases of alleged criminal activity by Methodist ministers had been investigated and  judged, in one form or another inside the Church. Many of those who sat in judgment may have been untutored in law.

 

It seems that the human rights of some 412 persons (victims and accused) were assessed or judged  by persons who may have had  little or no formal legal training, particularly in the Human Rights Act. The actions of these  persons were not subject to scrutiny, nor was there any  easy appeal of their decisions.

 

In particular, we may surmise from this that the victims in the cases that involved 206 ministers  had their human rights protected only by the internal promises given by the safeguarding committee of the Church and the guidelines to the Standing Orders.

 

CASE 2.

 

THE CASE OF PETER TIMMS

 

The potential breaches in the Timms case were in three main areas.

 

a) He was coerced in an attempt to persuade him into signing a false confession

b) he was placed under covert surveillance and

c) unreasonable restrictions were imposed upon his evidence.

 

The leader of the connexional panel, Mr. Kitchin,  further discriminated against him by demonstrating a  reluctance to acquire “best evidence”. He did not consult with Peter Timms’ GP over Timms’ health and its relevance to the date of the final hearing. This constituted  a direct breach of SO 1124 (7) -  in that the connexional panel  “had  not taken all the proper steps”.  Such   is specifically required of such a panel  by this standing order.

 

However, the major potential breach of the Human Rights Act in the case occurred when Peter Timms was later called before a Connexional Disciplinary inquiry.

 

Following the adverse report of the connexional complaints panel, Peter Timms had continued to protest against the procedures adopted by Mr. Chris Kitchin and the connexional complaints panel. He was charged with causing harm,  and damaging the reputation of the Church.

 

The leader of the Disciplinary panel considering this case was Mr. Graham Danbury.

 

Mr Danbury is a colleague of Mr. Kitchin’s in the Methodist Church at Hatfield Road, St Albans. Both he and Mr Kitchin have together been members of the  same Church council.  They have known each other, both professionally and socially, for many years. They are also professional colleagues, in that Mr. Kitchin was, for many years a magistrate in the area and his office and court were just across the road from the court of Mr. Danbury, who is the Deputy Coroner in St Albans.

 

The doctrine of recusal in such circumstances is underpinned by important public policy reasons. Those reasons affect the reputation and the “public benefit” of the Methodist Church. One aspect of this is that by effectively claiming under SO 1104(7) that such matters are “private matters” the Church is committing a potential breach of the Human Rights Act.

 

The decision in any tribunal, in order to be aligned with article 6 of the Human Rights Act,  must be made by persons who are independent -  and,  indeed, are seen to be independent, of any influence that might reasonably be perceived as compromising their  ability to consider cases fairly and impartially.

 

To act otherwise would not reflect the Human Rights Act, nor the European Convention,  as is required by the Methodist Church. Nor does such action reflect the guiding principles of the Methodist Church. It  also constitutes an affront to the inherent dignity of all human beings involved in the proceedings.

 

Most pertinently,  since the disciplinary investigation was conducted under the system of “the balance of probabilities”, the terms of the Human Rights Act applied directly to the procedures of the panel.

 

It must have been clear to Mr. Danbury, with his almost three decades experience as a coroner,  that he should have recused himself from the work of the disciplinary panel. His association with Mr Kitchin was far too close to be acceptable.

 

There can be no excuse for this. As a part of the panel’s investigations, the members  -  and in particular Mr Danbury -  needed to read the articles on this website, for it was the primary cause of the action against Peter Timms.  The actions of Mr Kitchin, and the documentary evidence concerning it, are integral to the website.

 

It would have been clear to Mr. Danbury, well before the final hearing, that the entire case against Timms was effectively built on his  refusal to accept the procedures adopted by Mr. Kitchin.

 

Mr. Danbury, with almost three decades of experience as a coroner,  must have known the relevance and the detail of the doctrine of recusal in such circumstances.

 

That Mr Danbury did not recuse himself from the Timms hearing was a gross injustice and an abuse of the procedures of the disciplinary procedures of the Methodist Church. His decision  to remain as leader of the panel was clearly discriminatory. It breached not only the Human Rights Act, but the guiding principles of the Methodist Church.

 

And yet, the Methodist Church accepted his decision.

 

For a more detailed article  on this subject, CLICK HERE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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