Shame

I am not prepared to answer that.”

 

 

 

This article is written by a retired journalist, Peter Hill, who has written many of the articles on this website.  A friend of Rev Peter Timms for several decades, he examines what he regards as a crucial day in the Timms scandal -  October 25th 2017.  In particular, he examines Rev John Hellyer’s role  as  Chairman  of the South East District.

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District Chairs are appointed to give leadership and have care of the life of the Church in the District, and in particular to have care of the ministers and probationers.

 

However, life can be difficult  for a minister if  the District Chair,  who is supposed to help and defend ministers against accusations, has little grasp of how to assess probity of evidence, how interpret the finer points of the standing orders and has little deductive reasoning.

 

Life becomes worse if the District Chair turns on the minister and accuses the minister of breaches of standing orders  without any evidence to back up the accusation. And it is even worse if the District Chair then accuses the minister  of making accusations without evidence.

 

That, unfortunately, is what happened to Rev Peter Timms in 2017. His District Chair was Rev John Hellyer.Rev Timms’ key problem became clear in a particular meeting with him on October 25th of that year.

 

BACKGROUND

 

As I drove him towards Crawley on that sunny Wednesday morning in October 2017,  the journey was long enough for Peter Timms to remind me of the terrible events of the previous thirteen months. A connexional complaints panel headed by Mr Chris Kitchin, with Rev Val  Reid and Rev Chris Jones, had begun its work on three complaints he had submitted, The panel’s work had begun in September 2016. Their first move was to  send him a document which he considered to be a “false confession” to having committed a breach of confidence. They wanted Peter to affirm his guilt by signing the document and returning it.

 

Peter told me that he had known nothing of this accusation.  He speculated there had been a mix-up of cases, for the document stated that he was the respondent, not the complainant.  The opposite was, in fact, true – he was the complainant.

 

During the following month he received  no adequate answers to his  questions about this document, even though it was clearly a mistake. So, on 11th October 2016 he wrote a letter to the leader of the inquiry. He made it clear that that he  had always complied, and would continue to comply,  with the rules on confidentiality. 

 

This response was, apparently, not enough. The demands that he sign the confession continued  – and he received no help from the connexional panel in any aspect of his complaints. They wanted him to sign the document  before any cooperation was given.

 

It was at this point that I had become involved, for Peter was well into his eighties – and, in October 2016, he was taken into hospital with heart problems. I had been his friend for some thirty years.  I acted as his secretary.

 

As we continued our journey to Crawley, we discussed certain events that had occurred in Peter’s home town of Bexhill some eleven months earlier. It seemed that there had been some kind of surreptitious surveillance placed upon Peter after his second stay in hospital. I thought that it was an outrageous story, hardly believable, yet the evidence was there for all to see.

 

After this incident, Peter Timms had begun sending his objections about the connexional inquiry to Methodist Church House. This was in early December 2016. He sent a procedural motion – called a “set-aside motion”.

 

Set aside motions are common elsewhere – they introduce a pause in some matter so that there can be full consideration of the procedure being used, before progressing with the business  in hand.  Peter had encountered such during his long career as a Prison Governor, for prisoners often object, through their lawyers,  to the manner in which prison inquiries are conducted.

 

Nothing was done about his objections and the connexional complaints panel met in early December 2016 without Peter being present. Its report was sent to Methodist Church House in January 2017. His complaints were dismissed and his behaviour criticized.

 

When Rev Timms had heard of this outcome, he  had sent a letter, in late January, to Rev Gareth Powell, Secretary to the Conference. He asked that his  “set-aside” motion should be sent to Conference for consideration.

 

The procedure was ended as far as the connexional panel was concerned – so their procedures could no longer be paused for consideration. Peter’s motion needed to be expanded to take into account the panel’s report and to consider the procedures of the complaints process in general.

 

Peter argued that the panel’s report should never have been written whilst a procedural motion had been lodged. Worse, the connexional complaints panel had not only dismissed his complaints, but had actually castigated him for his attitude in refusing to cooperate in the matter of the  confession document.

 

Let me repeat this clearly, because it is astounding fact in this story. A connexional panel of inquiry actually severely criticised an aged Methodist minister because he refused to sign a document in which he would have been confessing to a breach of standing orders. Furthermore, it was a breach of standing orders which he had not committed and about which he knew absolutely nothing.

The connexional panel ignored his objections and his procedural motion. They criticised the arguments he had written in it which he had  sent to them during the inquiry.

 

Because of this, during the first two months of 2017, Peter had written seven additions, or addenda, to the set-aside motion. They demonstrated, in detail, exactly how the procedure adopted by the panel had been incorrect and not in accordance with standing orders.

 

Peter had drawn upon his vast experience as a prison governor in dealing with the Home Office. In particular, he gave a detailed account of the system of judgement called the “balance of probabilities”  - which he had used many times as a Prison Governor. The connexional panel had said several times that they were using that system. But, Peter argued most cogently, they clearly had no idea of how to reach a decision by using it.

 

Peter Timms told me that he felt sure that Rev John Hellyer had not had access to these documents written in early 2017 which he had sent to Rev Gareth Powell the Secretary to Conference. Hellyer may not even have heard of the set aside motion, never mind its addenda. Peter thought that when his District Chair learned of the detail, he would immediately lift the suspension that had been placed upon him. Apologies would then be  in order. After all, at a South-East synod in 2017, at which John Hellyer had presided, a memorial criticising the complaints system had been passed nem con.

 

Peter planned to tell his District Chairman about how Methodist Church House had simply ignored the procedural aspects of the  “set-aside motion” and had treated it as a simple complaint. They had then rejected it as such. He would tell John Hellyer that the Secretary to Conference, Rev Gareth Powell, did not appear to understand that the procedural motion had been submitted before the panel had held its final hearing and written its report. They had been warned by Peter of the problem, but they had gone ahead, ignoring several relevant standing orders.

 

Peter had brought with him the letter that Rev Powell has written to him  in April 2017, after he had studied the procedural motion. It stated that he, the Secretary to Conference, the most senior executive in the Church, did not have the power to set aside the decision of the complaints panel. He added that even Conference, the governing body of the Methodist Church, did not have that power. It was an incredible position to take in the light of Standing Order 1100 (3 vii) which stated that there should be a means of correcting any errors which may be made in the complaints system.

 

Peter had not counted them, but he thought that there were already quite a few breaches in standing orders in the proceedings.

 

When I asked Peter about who had the power to right this wrong, he had no answer. Methodist Church House did not have an answer to that, so why should he? He needed help and advice – and hoped that John Hellyer would give him it.

 

However, Peter wondered if Hellyer would exhibit the care to his minister that he should. He had asked for John Hellyer’s help five months earlier and received a poor response. He had asked him for advice concerned the  interpretation of Standing Orders – in particular SO 1104 (7). This had been linked with a relatively new standing order -  SO 1157, and Peter did not fully understand how the link should be interpreted.   Rev  Hellyer had replied that these were not matters on which he felt qualified to comment.

 

This was ironic, Peter remarked,  for in 2014, when this whole controversy had begun,  it had been Rev Hellyer’s interpretation of the new standing order SO 545  that had caused the fuss at the Circuit meeting. It was at this meeting that Peter had objected to the selection of Rev Ian Pruden as the new Superintendent and had been shouted down. It had been a nasty affair, for the microphone had been turned off as he spoke and he had been threatened with violence if he did not leave the podium.

  

We drove on through the leafy lanes of Surrey. Things had been quiet in the dispute for a couple of months and Peter thought that the executives in Methodist Church House were hoping that he would shut up and that the whole affair might be swept under the carpet.

 

Four months had passed since his  protests about the complaints panel had finally been turned down. The Officer for Legal and Constitutional Practice in London, Louise Wilkins,  had told him that there was no  further mechanism that he could use in the affair.

 

I knew much of the story which followed this final rejection. Peter had asked me at that time if I had any ideas about what he should do, for the Church executives had told him that all future letters from him would be filed away, unanswered and  un-read. It was an extraordinary snub – clearly designed to seal the matter in the files forever. It signalled the deplorable fact that the executives on Marylebone High Road were initiating a cover-up of the affair. In particular they wished to hide the false confession and the coercion that had gone with it. It was shameful behaviour by persons who are supposed to have the highest integrity.

 

Peter now argued that, after the sex abuse scandal of a few years before, there could never again be such a cover-up inside the Methodist Church. It was a new chapter in the affair which he hoped John Hellyer would appreciate.

 

The affair no longer centred solely on his complaints about local ministers, nor on his objections to the false confession – it was important to the health of the Methodist Church itself that such a cover-up, as was now in place, should not succeed.  

 

I recall his words, more or less, as he spoke them in the car that morning in October 2017.

 

“It has become common in the Church for some to prefer the exertion of personal dominance over others, rather than working together in Christ's love, and for the pursuit of justice, truth  and adherence to the standing orders. We must always resist that.”

 

After extensive discussion in early 2017, I had suggested that, if the executive of the Church would do nothing, then he should appeal to the membership. That seemed the logical thing to do, for the Church is composed of its members, it is financed by them, and they have ultimate control over what is done in its name.

 

To make this easy, I suggested that I should write out a report for him which might inform members of the Church. However, I pointed out that such a report would be long and the printing and postal charges for it would be very expensive – far beyond Peter’s financial resources.  I offered to place the report on the internet, for I already owned a website, based in the United States. Peter thought that this was too drastic – but he was attracted by the idea that a report on the internet would avoid extensive printing and a large postal bill.

 

Peter asked if such an internet report might be restricted to a small number of readers.  He wanted only senior eminent members of the Church to be initially aware of what had been done in their name. They, he thought, would surely intervene. He had in mind only a couple of dozen people at the most. I agreed to his terms. The address of the website could be given out by email. 

 

The circulation of the special internet address had begun in late June 2017, and Peter Timms had been suspended from all Church activities almost immediately. That was the reason for the meeting with the District Chair in Crawley

 

As we approached  Crawley,  Peter had some news to add to the story.

 

Rev Loraine Mellor, President of Conference, had recently visited Bexhill. Peter had contacted her and requested a brief confidential chat, hoping to sort the whole thing out in private.  She had turned him down, stating that everything that had been done had been within the parameters set down by the Conference.

 

I parked my car in the Crawley car park and we sat in the car debating this turn of events. Sending a false confession was within the parameters set down by Conference? How could that be? If anything could persuade John Hellyer to exert his leadership in the District and have care of the ministers in it, it was surely this.  He was responsible for the care of the life of the Church in the South East District. And that, Peter thought, was now at stake in this dispute. Could the Church actually sanction, or condone, sending out a false confession to a minister? It all smacked of a Star Chamber inside Methodist Church House. Inevitably, this news would change the tone of the meeting that day.

 

This pronouncement from the very top of the Church hierarchy had been issued just a week before the crucial meeting of October 25th 2017, when Rev Timms met Rev Hellyer to discuss his suspension. We decided to raise the matter with John Hellyer – we never even got near doing so.

 

 

THE MEETING.

 

Those present at this important meeting were Rev Hellyer, Rev Timms, Rev Cornish and  myself, Peter Hill.

 

It began well enough. There was no agenda - and it was accepted that Peter would first hear why he had been suspended.

 

John Hellyer said that he would give Peter Timms five reasons why he had had to suspend him under SO 013.

 

He said that Peter had stated that the new Superintendent, Rev Ian Pruden, had refused to enter into reconciliation talks, that Pruden had banned Peter from preaching and that this was when Hellyer had banned him from communicating with his Superintendent. He said that Peter had threatened Ian Pruden in a letter.

 

To this, Peter simply shook his head. Knowing him, and his gentle personality, I thought the accusations unlikely. Presumably, Ian Pruden was making that claim – well, but of course, he no doubt disliked the fact that Peter had spoken up against the haste with which Pruden had been selected as the new Superintendent. Did this really merit suspension?

 

Hellyer  then said that Peter had also ignored the ban on talking to anyone in the circuit about the affair. He said that Peter should acknowledge the authority of the Superintendent.

 

John Hellyer was not reading from any letters or emails. he was not showing Peter any evidence for what he was alleging. 

This went on for a short while. John Hellyer made accusation after accusation without any corroborative evidence, even though this evidence clearly existed somewhere. It was obviously not Hellyer’s style to produce evidence to back up his accusations. It was all accusation piled on accusation with no evidence at all.

 

The meeting had turned into an inquisition. Hellyer’s demands for answers were often met with the words “there is no basis for that” from Peter Timms. This was getting us nowhere.

 

But then Hellyer came to what appeared to be the nub of the dispute and the cause of the vehemence of the accusations. I recall his words well. He said:

 

 “I asked you to remove your dossier from the internet and I said that it is my belief that it contains false assumptions and statements and you asked me to give you examples. I can give you some examples.”

 

This, at last, promised evidence that might be discussed and replied to.   The “dossier” was the “report” which Hellyer claimed was written by Peter.   Of course, I had written it. It was I who  had  placed it on the internet at about the same time as the suspension had been issued. The coincidence was unavoidable.

 

We waited for his “examples”.

 

John Hellyer said that on page one of the dossier it was stated that the report was covering a case in which a complainant had been given a false confession to sign, coerced into signing it , had been lied to, threatened, subjected to captious questioning and put under surveillance.

 

Hellyer  looked at Peter and stated with emphasis

 

You have no case to make”

 

I almost burst into laughter – but Peter Timms calmly replied

 

 “That’s not true.”

 

Hellyer skipped over the references to the false confession, the coercion and the lies. He concentrated on the final point of his "example" – the covert surveillance.

 

He said that  Peter might have a belief that he had been put under surveillance, he might suspect he had  been put under surveillance, but he, Hellyer,  was stating here and now that he had not been placed under surveillance.

John Hellyer said this with all the authority he could muster. However, when asked what his evidence was for stating this, he avoided giving his evidence, simply saying, as I recall:

you cannot prove a negative, you have made the accusation, it is up to you to give the evidence for it.”

Of course one cannot prove a negative, but there were no negatives in this aspect of the affair.

There was a silence as Peter and I digested this. Hellyer filled the gap.

 

You have no evidence, it is untrue.”

 

It seemed that John Hellyer had made no attempt to interpret the known facts of the matter. Did he not realise that the key document in the assessment of the evidence was a letter from the connexional panel itself?  Was that "negative evidence"?

 

Certainly it was true that we did not know the identity of the spies in Bexhill, but that did not mean that they did not exist. I had outlined to Peter how, as an investigative TV journalist, I would have easily found out who they were - but he had replied that they were clearly acting in all innocence, the blame was not theirs. So I did not try to find them.

 

The important point was - how could one possibly explain how information had got from two separate lay persons at the opposite ends of Bexhill to the leader of the complaints panel in London? The letter from the connexional panel had named the meetings and the venues and the dates when he had been seen. How could the connexional panel have discovered those details, if they had not been told by someone in Bexhill?

 

No one, not even the local ministers in the area, was supposed to know that the detail of Peter’s movements adn his health was important to the inquiry.  No minister had been at either of the venues on the day in question.  So it must have been lay persons who originated the information. How did lay persons know that Peter’s health was an issue in the inquiry’s proceedings?  For that was the key point of the information that was sent to London. 

A further important question was - how did the information reach Methodist Church House within just a few days? And why did the connexional panel trust this information to the point when it was turned into an accusation and a trigger to bring the final hearing to a swift, and unjust,  end?

 

The letter, the transmission of confidential information from the streets of Bexhill to the offices in London, these were not "negatives" as John Hellyer would have them. They were undeniable facts that needed to be explained. It seemed to me that there was only one explanation. Could Hellyer come up with another?

 

In order to deny the allegation about spying, Hellyer would need to come up with some credible hypothesis to possibly contradict the logical sequence of events that was necessary for all this to have happened. He failed to do so.

 

Such things as occurred in the spying scandal do not happen by accident, they require planning. It was in this deductive approach to the interpretation of the facts that Peter’s proof lay. His hypothesis was the only reasonable one in the circumstances. All other possibilities were eliminated - what was left was clearly the truth.

 

There had been an attempt to affect the outcome of the inquiry  by “keeping an eye on” Peter. Moreover,  this had been done by lay persons who must have reported to one of the ministers involved in the connexional inquiry. It had all been done with evil intent, it was not worthy of the Methodist Church.

Someone had set spies on Rev Peter Timms.

 

There was an additional point which later became important. Surely the connexional panel would not have believed and acted upon the word of one or two persons alone, particularly lay persons? They surely must have had great trust in their source for the allegation. So who had a sufficient level of trustworthiness for them to accept the information as true? It had to be a senior minister. But no such person had been present at the places where Peter Timms had been seen by the spies; he had met only lay people.

This had led to the worst aspect of the whole spy affair. The connexional panel had obviously spotted a problem in what they had done - and they tried to hide it.

In their final report they omitted the details of this aspect of the affair. The letter they had sent to Peter, which outlined his movements in Bexhill was not mentioned.  Instead, the panel gave an entirely different reason for advancing the date of the hearing as they had.   

I repeat this for the sake of clarity and because this behaviour is so reprehensible that one can hardly believe that methodists committed it.

In their final report, the panel claimed that Peter must have been fit to attend the earlier hearing because he could produce voluminous documents. That was not mentioned in the letter they had sent to him when they changed the date of the hearing.

Indeed, they did not receive the "voluminous documents" until several weeks after they moved the date of the hearing! It could not have played any part in their decision to change the date.

In fact, they should have known that these were documents which had actually been prepared by me. They knew of my involvement in the matter,

They hid their true reason for changing the date of the hearing - no doubt because they were ashamed of their actions. This was typical of the deceptive approach that the panel had used throughout the inquiry - but in this case they deceived the Church, not Peter Timms.

 

Peter had made the connexional panel's redaction of evidence clear in one of the addenda to his procedural motion. The executives in Methodist Church House knew that the panel had hidden the evidence which first raised the question of surveillance. The connexional panel had effectively lied to the Church by their omission.

This redaction of evidence damned them.

However, at the October meeting, John Hellyer claimed that Peter had no evidence about surveillance - so it followed, he said, the claim was  untrue. This was the level of reasoning with which we were working.

The truth was, conversely,  it was the accusation by Hellyer, that there was no surveillance, that required hard evidence. Peter had every justification to turn on Hellyer and say “you have made the accusation that I have no evidence, it is up to you to give the evidence for that accusation.”  But that, it seems is not how things work in the Methodist Church. Peter remained silent. I thought that trying to be nice was not always the best way forward.

 

There was little wonder about why  John Hellyer had tried to dismiss the surveillance so quickly. The consequence of the covert surveillance had been devastating. The connexional panel used the accusation as an excuse to bring  the date of the final hearing forward by a month - to a time when Peter could not possibly attend because he was still ill. They found against him in his absence.

 

The panel claimed that Peter was fit enough to attend the new, earlier,  hearing. Why, then, when Peter objected, had they not spoken to Peter’s doctor to check whether he was fit enough to attend an earlier hearing? Peter gave them permission to approach his doctor, but no one on the panel cared to even lift up the phone. Apparently, the three members of the connexional panel were greater medical experts that a GP in Bexhill.

No doubt they have their General Medical Council diplomas on the wall at home.

 

From the extant documentary evidence, we can deduce with some certainty why this was all covered up in the final report. There had been a major breach of standing orders as well as common decency.

 

It was lies by omission. Hellyer seemed to have recognised it as such and had tried to gloss over the unpalatable facts.

I wondered how he could have been so misguided as to raise the matter in the first place. Was it guilty conscience - had he actually been involved in the surveillance scandal? 

The answer to the accusation Hellyer made against Peter Timms - that there was no evidence - raised one of the worst points about this particular connexional panel. The panel seemed willing to hide the truth from the Church in order to cover up their shameful actions. The  truth were far too unpalatable.

 

The logic of the sequence of the events, the fact that a cover-up had been constructed to hide this shameful affair, all this proved that something underhand had gone on – and that could only be covert surveillance.

But Hellyer was adamant – “you have no proof, it is untrue”.

I recalled Peter’s words in the car about the preference in the Church for personal dominance,  over justice and the truth.

This episode raised an important question. Why had John Hellyer fallen into the trap of attacking the question of surveillance  - when examination of the provenance of the evidence led to such a terrible truth? Had he not considered the evidence of the panel's letter and the redaction in their report? 

I began to wonder about John Hellyer’s abilities with regard to probative evidence. What ability did he have to seek and find best evidence? What was the level of his ability to establish the provenance of evidence? Just what did he regard as enough proof to label some statement as true?

 

We soon learned.

 

John Hellyer quoted a section of the internet report in which I had claimed that there had been a contravention of SO 040. The report claimed that there had been a failure to fulfil obligations because of the delay in telling Peter about the evidence which supported the allegation mentioned in the false confession. This troublesome delay had caused problems which had prejudiced the inquiry.

 

John Hellyer noted, with some relish, Peter’s (sic) mistake in this. He quoted it as an example of how Peter did not understand the Standing Orders -  and muddled them. For, he said, SO 040 concerns ministers – and Mr. Kitchin was not a minister. Therefore, SO 040 did not apply in this case.

 

I could see that this was his  “rabbit out of the hat”, carefully rehearsed, to demonstrate his superior knowledge and mastery of the standing orders.

 

However, it betrayed the level of probity of evidence to which he was accustomed. For whilst it was true that SO 040 concerned ministers and not lay persons, Mr. Kitchin, as the leader of the panel, had been acting as an agent of the other two persons on the panel – who were both ministers.

 

The troublesome delay had been caused not by Kitchin, but by the panel – the majority of whom were ministers. That was where the failure to fulfil obligations had occurred.

If, in fact, the ministers were to subsequently to claim that they had known nothing of what Mr. Kitchin had been doing in their name, that he was not acting as their agent and that they knew nothing about the false confession - then they were certainly guilty of  failing to fulfil their obligations. For they should have known about it all.

Kitchin himself claimed that the other members of the panel had considered the matter.

The significant point at the meeting in Crawley was that John Hellyer clearly did not understand the rules of agency. More to the point, he had not checked the strength of his evidence. My heart sank. This really was an inquisition.

 

John Hellyer went on. He said that when Peter had sent an email to John Troughton – the one that had been leaked to the inquiry and which was the basis of the false confession – Peter had claimed that this too was done under SO 040. But, once again, Hellyer pointed out, John Troughton, though a senior circuit steward,  was a lay person, not a minister  and therefore not subject to SO 040.

 

Such was the apparent satisfaction in his face as he said this that I  mentally added the word “SNAP!” to his accusation.

 

However, John Hellyer was again mistaken. In his haste to condemn Peter, he had muddled the situation. He had forgotten that Peter Timms, as a minister, was, of course, subject to SO 040 and that, if he had not sent the email in question, he might have later been accused of having failed in fulfilling his obligations to the Church. That was why the matter had been under SO 040.

 

The accusations went on. Hellyer stated that Peter had been “leading worship” in breach of the terms of the suspension. Peter denied this. He said that he had not even been invited to lead worship  - because everyone who might possibly issue such  an invitation had been told that leading worship was forbidden to him.

 

Hellyer did not ask why Peter denied the charge. He simply repeated that Peter had been leading worship. He again offered no evidence for his accusation. Guilt, it seemed, was established simply because John Hellyer said so.

Peter told me afterwards that he had led the singing of hymns at the Richmond Care Home where he worked – but that he had not preached there.  Could this be the basis for the accusation?  The spy who we were aware of in the care home might have reported the incident to Hellyer. However, if this was indeed the source, both the spy and John Hellyer had failed to appreciate the significant point.  The terms of Peter’s suspension covered activities exclusively within the Methodist Church and, more specifically, within the South East circuit. The care home in Bexhill did not come under Hellyer’s jurisdiction.

 

It is difficult to argue with someone such as John Hellyer whose grip on the probity of evidence is so weak.

 

I realised that Peter was not going to be able to present his defence by explaining to John Hellyer why he had agreed to allow me to place the report on the internet. When he did offer a response, Hellyer simply repeated the accusation.  Peter made a signal to me and I drew the false confession out of the folder that I have brought to the meeting.

 

It was an important moment. Peter and I had debated this area of the dispute for weeks. The confession document had been sent because of an incident in August 2016. This incident is mentioned above in the matter of the use of SO 040.

Peter had alerted the invitation committee in Bexhill that the person, whose station they were proposing to extend, Rev Ian Pruden, was the subject of an outstanding complaint.   This email, the connexional panel  had claimed, was  a breach of the confidentiality of the complaints procedure that Peter himself had launched.

 

When the national inquiry began a month after th eemail was sent, Peter had defended his position on this in a report to the connexional panel. He repeated it at length when later writing the addenda to his “set-aside” motion. Briefly he had argued that he had an obligation to remind the secretary of the invitation committee, John Troughton, of Pruden's situation and of Troughton's responsibilities to the invitation committee. If he had not done so,  Peter could, himself,  have been judged to be in breach of SO 040 .

 

This was because, as a responsible minister, Peter could see where the invitation committee' considerations were heading. They were on exactly the same path as they had been two years before. They were heading for trouble. He was recalling the disturbance when Rev Ian Pruden had first been chosen as Superintendent - the turning off of the microphone and the threats to drag him from the podium.  

 

Peter did not want a repetition of the events of two years before. He hoped that, when reminded of the situation, John Troughton would suggest to his chairman, District Chair John Hellyer, that an independent chairman from another District might be brought in to manage the extension of Ian Pruden’s employment. That was the appropriate route laid down in standing orders for such circumstances.

 

There was the additional fear that if the invitation committee went ahead, and Pruden’s appointment was extended to a further five years, there would be severe embarrassment if the complaint by Peter against Pruden was upheld.

 

Peter had a further fear. If  Pruden’s position was backed by the committee, this would clearly indicate that there had been nothing wrong in the original selection of him in 2014. That would threaten to  prejudice the inquiry by the connexional panel. There would be a potential breach of SO 1100.

 

Unlike John Hellyer, Peter Timms had clearly foreseen this problem and had hoped to avoid it.

Peter’s position on this matter had been lodged with Methodist Church House some ten months before the meeting with John Hellyer. Peter thought that Hellyer must have heard of it and must have a reply prepared for this meeting.

The email in question had, of course, been the reason for sending the false confession.

I was curious about what Hellyer would come up with. Peter and I had long wondered if there was any possible justification for the confession document.  I thought that there had to be a legitimate reason, hidden somewhere in some ambiguous paragraph in the standing orders – a paragraph which might perhaps give the connexional panel the right to send it. Reasonable people do not issue such false confessions and then try to make the recipient sign their rights away.  Hellyer had already shown his knowledge of the minutiae of the standing orders. Had he found some justification?

 

There had been a problem with the various editions of the standing orders, which had complicated matters. Peter had been working with the 2013 edition -  for the dispute had begun in 2014. However, the panel began its work in 2016 and had been working with the 2015 edition, which had included the new SO 1157. Peter had not been aware of this and  did not obtain the latest edition during the first month or so of the inquiry. Repeated questions to the panel arising from this confusion had been ignored  - with the accompanying demand that he first sign the confession.

When he finally obtained the same edition of the standing orders that the panel was using, he had studied SO 1157 intensely. One clause bothered him. Clause (7) stated  that the

“conducting officer from time to time may take account of any and all previous breaches in deciding whether and if so in what manner to exercise the powers under clause (6) if there is a subsequent breach”

 

One interpretation of this might have been behind the panel’s actions, for they were certainly claiming that there had been “previous breach”. A signature on the false confession would acknowledge and affirm this.

This passage allowed a panel to initiate action under clause six. That in turn allowed the panel to decline “to provide the respondent with copies of further documents or further information in connection with the relevant complaint or charge.”

This certainly seemed to be what the panel in the Timms case had done, and here, apparently, was justification for their actions.  

Peter and I had debated this for many hours and reached the conclusion that a “previous breach” could only mean a decision which was the outcome of a complaints procedure. Only when there was finality in a case could the term “previous breach” apply.  

This had not happened in the Timms complaints process. What the panel had been presented with, by the anonymous accuser, was an alleged breach. Thus, it did not come within the terms of SO 1157.

Of course, if Peter ever signed the confession, the panel could take it into account and find against him in the decision over his present complaints. It clearly showed their bias and it would be a quick way out of their problem in assigning guilt. No wonder that they had exerted such pressure on him to sign.

Peter and I had prepared argument on this for the meeting with Hellyer. We reasoned that John Hellyer must have known that the alleged breach had no proper foundation. Its provenance was obscure and its probity weak. It could easily be dismissed.

What if Hellyer had already recognised and addessed  that argument - where else might he raise an accusation? He must surely have prepared some other argument that, in some way, might justify the “false confession” document? After all, when he had come to the matter of the false confession in his opening statements  he had told Peter:

 

You have no case to make”

 

Perhaps Hellyer would try to throw a different light on the confession document, by interpreting some of its words as being obscure or equivocal -  and therefore misinterpreted by Peter Timms. We thought that he would have some surprise up his sleeve.

We had decided that we would press for evidence that the “previous breach” had, in some way, gone through a judicial process. That was the only way in which this supposed breach might have authenticity and evidential value.

 

We were surprised.  John Hellyer did not mention SO 1157. He had no clever arguments.

 

I was holding the false confession in my hand, so I held it up and began the discussion “Please tell us why this is not a false confession sent to Peter Timms. And do you condone false confessions being given out and coercion applied to make people sign them?”

 

Hellyer's reply was that, in his judgment, along with that of others, Peter should not have contacted John Troughton prior to the meeting of the invitation committee concerned with the extension of Rev Ian Pruden as Superintendent. He did not address the wording of the confession document, he merely sought to justify his position by speaking about the supposed breach of confidence. He was relying on the judgment of some un-named individuals to support his contention.

 

It was a tit-for-tat approach. He gave no reason why he considered Peter’s email to be a breach of confidentiality, nor did he give the names of the “others” whom he mentioned as agreeing with him. It was the same kind of argument we had heard already on that day. John Hellyer considered that such was so – therefore it was so. No further evidence was needed.

 

I could not believe that this was the depth of thinking that had brought Peter Timms to the edge of the ruin of his career, the break-up of his marriage and a few final years of ignominy in his life in the Church to which he had devoted his life.

 

I told John Hellyer that I considered that he was the man in charge and he was condoning a false confession. I read out the particular paragraph which encapsulated the confession. I asked him again if he condoned the action by the connexional panel to which he replied

 

I am not prepared to answer that

 

How could a senior executive of the Methodist Church give such an  answer?  He was confronted with the evidence that the  Church had issued a false confession to one of its ministers and, when asked if he condoned the practice, replied that he was not prepared to give an opinion.

I had not been asking whether he agreed that the document was a false confession - I had asked if he condoned the practice of the Church issuing false confessions.

 

Why was he “not prepared” to answer that particular question?  And what exactly did he mean by that phrase?

 

Even if his justification for addressing the matter of the email, as yet unexpressed,  was correct – was this the way the Church should go about dealing with it? Does one not need to present any evidence at all for such a breach of all normal manners when handling such an important matter? 

If Hellyer was not prepared to answer any questions about the key document in the entire affair, there seemed little point in continuing the meeting.

 

I passed my copy  of the confession document across the table to Rev Deborah Cornish and picked up a letter that the panel had sent Peter a month later, in October 2016. 

I pointed out that this later letter from the panel had softened the tone, saying

 “I said that there may already have been a breach of confidentiality"

rather than the original outright accusation. The word "may" indicated that they were back-tracking on their demands. However, the demand that Peter must sign the confession was still there:  

"return the signed undertaking in the next few days"

So, the letter was yet another trick to try to persuade Peter to sign the confession - for the confession clearly stated that he was guilty of the charge;  there was no maybe about it. It was not the first trick that the panel had tried in an effort to persuade Peter to sign the confession. Nor was it the last. 

I was about to make this point, but  Deborah Cornish indicated that she had now finished reading the original confession document. She passed it along the table to John Hellyer. It lay on the table between them as I passed the later, captious, letter across the table to her.

 

I turned and pushed the confession document further towards Hellyer. He waved it away. He would not even touch it.

 

Nothing further could be gained from the meeting. The suspension was to stand. Peter pointed out that this was tactically a bad move, if Hellyer wished him to stop protesting. Peter now had nothing whatsoever to lose. Hellyer had punished him as far as he could; there was nothing left, short of expulsion from the Church.

 

We prepared to leave. I asked that John Hellyer should read again the passage about spies in Bexhill – for it seemed to me that he had not thought it through.  Peter said that perhaps the worse aspect of this  was the defamation of character that he had suffered – largely because of what John Hellyer had done and said.

 

That defamation,”  he said, “is the ultimate of the abandonment of your responsibilities.”

 

Voices were raised and I stood up, telling Peter that we should leave. I apologised to Deborah Cornish, saying “I am sorry it has been noisy,” – for she was sitting with her mouth agape at what had happened. I did not want there to be further damage done because of rash words.

 

On the stairs down to the ground floor, I mentioned to Peter that he had been astute in saying that there was no further punishment that Hellyer might give him. I was to be proved wrong, for John Hellyer is an intelligent and ingenious adversary.

 

Within a few months a campaign of “nuisance grievances” started up in Bexhill, engineered by Hellyer’s friend, senior circuit steward  John Troughton. The complaints were numerous – and included spurious allegations of criminal behaviour allegedly committed by Peter Timms.

 

These charges were all baseless and they extended beyond accusations against Peter.  They defamed various other members of the Church in Bexhill. The worst charge was that he had intimidated a female. This was the aspect that had angered Peter the most. He asked the woman in question if she had ever felt intimidated by him. She totally denied Troughton’s allegation.

 

The moment that Peter raised his objections, Troughton withdrew the grievances with an apology - only to then come up with more accusations. These nuisance grievances  had to be dealt with and it took time. Peter was actually preparing to have a heart pacemaker fitted, but he answered Troughton's charges.

 

In March 2018, after Peter had finally managed to get Troughton into reconciliation talks, Troughton agreed, before a senior member of the church, that the allegation that Peter had breached confidentiality by the email he had sent in 2016 was not true and that Peter’s rationale for sending the email to him was sound. Peter was, after all, as a minister, a member of the invitation committee. There had been no breach of confidentiality.

 

Troughton's agreement on this, however, took place some six months after the meeting with Hellyer. The reconciliation agreement  meant that Hellyer’s justification for the false confession, on the grounds that Peter had breached confidentiality by sending an email to John Troughton, had been proved to have no basis at all.

 

No wonder then, that Hellyer had not been prepared to talk about the false confession. He was intelligent enough to realise that Peter’s rationale for sending the email had been correct and in line with standing orders.

And yet, of course, the incident demonstrated Hellyer's poor grasp pon procedure.

Even if Peter Timms had, indeed, breached confidentiality, such a charge would need to go through due process in order for it to be established as fact. Even then the manner in which the connexional panel had tried to coerce him into signing the confession would have been improper.

 

This final action in the email affair cast doubt on the motive of the anonymous person who had sent the email to the connexional panel of inquiry;  and it cast doubt on Hellyer’s motive in supporting that person’s contention about it.

 

Driving away from the meeting, only one phrase went round and round in our heads:

 

I am not prepared to answer that

It had been the very centre of the argument - and that was all that Hellyer would say on the matter.

The image of John Hellyer pulling his hands back to avoid even touching the false confession has stayed with me ever after.

According to SO 700 (10),  District Chairs are appointed to give leadership and have care of the life of the Church in the District, and in particular to have care of the ministers and probationers.

I find it difficult to find any word in this quotation from SO 700, which might reflect in any way John Hellyer’s performance as South East District Chairman in the meeting with Peter Timms of October 25th 2017. Nor do I find any mention in any standing order of any authorisation for a District Chair to ruin a man’s career by raising what is, at best, merely an untried, unproven,  prima-facie case against him. For Hellyer had presented no firm evidence for his assertions on that day.

He had acted like an inquisitor. He made the accusaiton - there was no defence.

The worst aspect of it all was that John Hellyer had attempted to justify the false confession by quoting an incident of alleged misdemeanour, when Peter Timms' actions had been  quite legitimate and proper. Hellyer had failed to understand that that  particular accusation should have played no part whatsoever in the matters before the Connexional panel of inquiry.

The act of sending the email to the connexional panel was not only a breach of standing orders, but a blatant attempt to prejudice the panel against Peter Timms.

During the journey back to Bexhill, Peter remarked on another aspect of the meeting - why had Hellyer, as his District Chair,  made no effort whatsoever to support him against the connexional panel of inquiry? It had set him wondering, and he referred me to a passage in his set aside motion.

He had quoted the eminent Methodist expert on the standing orders, Clifford Bellamy:

"A District Chair is not entitled to communicate with members of a connexional complaints team appointed to investigate a complaint"

He wondered if there was enough evidence to suggest that John Hellyer had done exactly that - in both the matter of the email and of the spies. Could it possibly be that Hellyer was at the very heart of the unfair tactics being used against Peter? After all, said Peter, the panel must have been given the information on both issues by someone they would trust. Would they have trusted lay persons enough to make the accusations? Would not a District Chair be seen as far more trustworthy?

These questions might have been answered at the meeting. It has been set up to discuss why the suspension was in place. Discounting the twenty minutes or so at the beginning,  when  John Hellyer had kept us waiting, the meeting nevertheless lasted around 35 minutes. There was ample time, one might have thought, to discuss at least the main issues.

In fact Peter Timms had not managed to reply to any of John Hellyer's accusations. Hellyer had refused to engage, simply repeating his accusations when Peter denied them.

Peter  had not been alerted to any of the accusations, so he had come to the meeting without any of the documents he would need to defend himself against the charges. However, the main reason why he had been unable to present any defence was that John Hellyer had simply refused to  enter into any kind of discussion on matters such as the surveillance in Bexhill and the false confession. Not only had he refused to discuss the false confession, but he had even refused to read it.

A greater issue now appeared which we were to debate over the next few weeks.  Peter had been keen to confine the debate to persons within the Methodist Church, indeed only to very senior members. I had now seen at first hand the attitude of a leading member of that Church.

The Methodist Church is an established church in England and subject to Parliament for its ethical conduct. As a journalist, I could not condone hiding the information of this affair away from the public. Moreover, being complicit in the cover-up that they were creating would harm my own reputation as a journalist.

In the end it was inevitable that I had to break my word to Peter on our agreement about confidentiality,  which I had given him in the past. I bitterly regretted this, but there was now a higher call. We cannot allow cover-ups to hide the misdeeds of executives in any of the major establishments in our nation. 

My decision produced a breach between me and my friend, which has remained.

Within a year of the Hellyer meeting, a Select Committee of the House of Commons produced a report which supported my position on this. It would seem that future legislation will ban the kind of cover-up that was created by the Church in this dispute. If I had kept their secrets,  I would have been guilty of maintaining the cover-up which protected John Hellyer and the members of the connexional panel. 

I went on to make a film about the case, and to create this website  - so that the people of the nation might know what the Methodist Church does to innocent ministers who fall foul of the wrath of the executives of the Church.

I hope that this will be seen as a true service to the Methodist Church.

 

-Peter Hill

 


 


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