This article examines just one standing order in an effort to demonstrate that ordinary church members can become overwhelmed by the complexity of the current Standing Orders.  It suggests that a body should be set up by Conference that is accountable to both Conference and all church members for the interpretation of the Standing Orders.


In 2001 the Methodist Church introduced a completely new process for dealing with complaints and made significant changes to the procedure for dealing with disciplinary charges. Great time and care was invested in conceiving, drafting and implementing new Standing Orders. Those who invested that effort genuinely believed and hoped that the new procedures would enable someone wishing to make a complaint to do so confident that the Church was willing to listen and respond sensitively and that anyone against whom a complaint was made could be equally confident in the Church’s willingness to deal with them fairly.


A senior Family court judge, His Honour Clifford Bellamy, was asked to provide a guide to the new Standing Orders.  He was aided by notable Methodists - His Honour Judge Peter Ross Revd Jim Booth, Chair of the Liverpool District,  Robert Gaitskell QC., barrister Jennifer Jones,  Susan Howdle, Elizabeth Ovey and the Revd David Gamble.


Collectively, the knowledge and understanding of Methodist law and polity of this group was vast. A second edition of their exhaustive work was issued in 2008.


The current leading officers of the Methodist Church now ignore the wise words of Bellamy and his committee.


Rev Alan Bolton, who was, until recently,  the head of the complaints system,  stated in November 2017 that “Bellamy is out of date”. Professor Chris Kitchin, then a prominent  member of the complaints inquiry panel committee, said “The last edition of the Bellamy Guide was published in 2008 and the world has moved on since then.” He added: ‘It must always be remembered that Bellamy  is only a guide to the Standing Orders, not a substitute for them.”


Why does the Church ignore the exhaustive work done on its behalf by such eminent members? After eight years in the making, how could Bellamy’s Guide become obsolete in as many years?


One answer to this might be that the Standing Orders are so difficult to understand that only a lawyer, with the time to read the entire document and absorb it, may be able to make use of them.


One example is SO 1155


This is called “ Complaints about the Process”


It begins with clause (1)


(i) ‘the aggrieved person’ means a person who has been involved in the complaints and discipline process in any way who makes repeated complaints to the relevant connexional Team member about the manner in which the process has been carried out or about any related matter;



The problems begin here – for it suggests that someone who has a complaint about the process that was used in a complaint must have made repeated complaints in order to qualify in using this standing order.


Further, who exactly is “the relevant connexional team member”?  What makes any one of the team members more relevant to any of the others?


And indeed, if the complaint is about the procedure or process being used by the team, what is the point of complaining to a member of that team using SO 1155? Surely the judgement on fair process must come from someone who is not a member of the team that is being accused of acting unfairly?



Clause 2 adds to the limitations of the standing order:


2) Subject to clause (3) below, if the relevant connexional Team member is unable to resolve the aggrieved person’s complaints, he or she may refer the aggrieved person to the connexional Reconciliation Group and the subsequent provisions of this Standing Order will apply.


Briefly skipping to clause 3, we see that :


“(3) Clause (2) above does not apply if the complaints are made during the course of the complaints and discipline process and could be raised on an appeal.”


There are two problems with this – what if the irregular procedure is not discovered by the aggrieved person until after the procedure has finished – perhaps in the panel’s final report?


Further, appeals in the complaints system are very limited. For example if the local complaints officer refuses to pass a complaint on to the national level, the complainant  automatically loses his or her right of appeal by sending the complaint to that level him or herself.


Further a connexional panel of inquiry may simply end its report by stating that there is no appeal against the conclusions. Does that mean that SO 1155 cannot be used?


To return briefly to clause (2) – it would seem that SO 1155 allows a complainant to refer the dispute to the Connexional Reconciliation Group. But such an approach may not be available if the complainant has not submitted repeated complaints to a person designated “the relevant team member” who might simply claim that there can be no appeal. Alternately, the “relevant Team member” might admit that there is cause for complaint and allow the issue to go to the connexional Reconciliation group. But by doing so, that team member is surely admitting that a mistake may have occurred.


If such is the case, should the relevant team member not bring this to the attention of the connexional panel conducting the inquiry and come to a final decision on the matter?


Why would one need to take the matter higher?


The next three clauses outline the process to be used by the Connexional Reconciliation Group – a process which largely follws the normal complaints process. But it starts to go somewhat astray when we reach clause (7 iii) for this states, in part, that the connexional reconciliation group should :


“to explore with the aggrieved person whether there is any means of resolving his or her concerns, including achieving resolution by a form of reconciliation with a person or persons involved in the complaints and discipline process;”


A complaint against a process may take many forms, but generally such disputes come down to differences in the interpretation of a Standing Order, or different views on the balance of one standing order against another. The question will always be – whose view of the standing orders is the correct one? That is what the connexional reconciliation group must decide in most cases of complaint against process. It may be that they see the reasoning behind both the views of the complainant and the view of the connexional panel of inquiry. But ultimately it for the reconciliation group to decide which side was correct.


Standing Order 1112 assets that connexional reconciliation groups must have persons with expertise law, accountancy, harassment and disability issues, marriage guidance, medicine and theology.


Considering such a variety of expertise, it may be a misnomer to call the Groups “reconciliation” groups. Considering that the original complaint was about process, rather than matters of accountancy, harassment and marriage break-ups and such, in many cases there will no mediation, or any form of reconciliation, taking place – simply a consideration (probably by a lawyer) and an explanation of the reasoning behind the reconciliation group’s preference for one view against the other.


The overall role of the reconciliation groups in this is exemplified by the following clause (iv) which states that it is the duty of the reconciliation group: 


“ to make any recommendations for the improvement of the process which the team thinks appropriate.”


- though to whom such recommendations are sent is not clear.


Clause (9) of this Standing Order is most unclear, but it is essentially the punishment that the Church might give to the complainant in this matter. It reads:


“(9) If the aggrieved person’s concerns have not been resolved and he or she is not willing to agree not to pursue them further, the relevant connexional Team member must refer the matter to a person falling within Standing Order 231(3)  for consideration whether the aggrieved person should be declared to be a persistent complainant.”


The relevant connexional Team member must further inform the aggrieved person that if he or she wishes to make representations to the referee, those representations must be sent in writing to the relevant connexional Team member within 14 days from the day on which the aggrieved person is so informed."


This would appear to mean that if the complainant about process gets no satisfaction from the Connexional Reconciliation Group, he or she must go back to the inquiry panel, contact the “relevant team member” (whoever that may be) and request that the matter go to a “referee” – and that this must be done within a fortnight of the Group’s decision on the matter.


It was the panel of inquiry that acted in the manner which the complainant is disputing. And their view of the matter has just been supported by the Connexional Reconciliation Group. And the reference to a referee is not to decide who is right in the dispute – but to decide whether or not the complainant is a “persistent complainant”. In other words, the complainant is asking the relevant team member to activate the punishment for the crime of complaining!



The words ‘the referee’ mean  someone chosen ( by whom?) from a panel of persons from which members may from time to time be chosen  connexional Appeal Committees - persons selected for their qualifications or experience to chair Discipline and Appeal Committees and identified as such in the resolution of appointment. In other words, these people come from exactly the same group as the members of the connexional panel of inquiry!


So ultimately everything may rest on the importance or influence of the “relevant team member” in the group of which he or she is a member.



Clause 14 of the standing order makes it very clear that the decision of the referee is final:


“No appeal lies against a decision that an aggrieved person is a persistent complainant.”


That, of course means that if the process, by which the complainant was judged, was ill-considered, and unjustly not in line with standing orders, there is no possibility of appeal against it under SO 1155.


So in summary and in plain words, if you are unhappy with the process that is applied to a complaint you have, you must first have complained to the inquiry panel  several times, then persuaded one of them to admit that there might be a problem with the panel’s interpretation of proper procedure – and then go to a reconciliation group. There you will enter into reconciliation; it will not be any kind of tribunal. It means essentially that they will try to persuade you to give way and come to terms with the views of the three inquiry panel members. If you do not agree to a compromise and reconciliation, you may be sent to a “referee” (who plays for the other side) and may find yourself judged to be a “persistent complainant”.


At which point they can ignore any future complaints.


The executives in Methodist Church House will consider that the above analysis of Standing Order 1155 is incorrect. And in truth, it is only one reading of the order. There may be others. Further, at no point in this analysis is each individual action considered in the light of SO 1100 with its demand that “justice, openness and honesty” is a pre-requisite in all such matters.


But the fact that such an interpretation is possible is enough to damn the Standing Order. It is not adequate for a “Complaint again Process” which is what it purports to be. The independent body that such matters are referred to is the Connexional Reconciliation Group. The primary aim by this group is reconciliation – i.e. an agreement on interpretation between the Inquiry panel and the complainant - when in fact both sides might be wrong in their interpretation of the relevant standing orders.


What is significantly missing from the entire wording is any authoritative body which will decide on behalf of Conference exactly what the Standing Orders mean.


Overall, there would appear to be very little defence for the complainant and his or her rights in the matter.


With such difficulties in the correct understanding of the Standing Orders, it is perhaps surprising that the Methodist Church now ignores the exhaustive work done on its behalf by person such as Judge Clifford Bellamy.  This paper covers just one standing order, his guide covered all of them – and took him and his committee some eight years to compile.


Nowadays,   the need for members of the Church to understand the rules by which is organised seems less attractive to its leaders.








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