The Methodist way

The Confidentiality Clause –

 a rod for our backs.



What is the ethical limit of the confidentiality clauses in the Standing Orders?



The Complaints and Discipline procedure was produced to promote order and discipline in the Methodist Church. Its rules are supposed to maintain the ethical stance of the Church as laid out in SO 1100. Those rules, introduced by Conference, are a key part of the doctrine of the Methodist Church as is required of the Methodist Act 1976, by which the Methodist Church in England is established.


This is the Methodist Way.


A secondary function of the Complaints and Discipline procedure is to protect the Methodist Church from outside criticism by persons who neither share our faith nor know the detail of our beliefs and our ethical stance. Any of us may, on occasion, behave in ways which are damaging to ourselves and others and thus undermine the credibility of the Church’s witness.


It is right therefore that we should have confidentiality in our most sensitive dealings – particularly if they concern the private lives of members of the church community. Ministers are often aware of private situations that the public have no right to know.


This is also the Methodist way.


A third use of the confidentiality clause is to cover up the misdemeanours of someone in the church who acts blatantly in breach of Standing Orders. This may be for a variety of reasons – perhaps the abuse of power when a person wishes the achieve a goal and does not care much how that goal is achieved, or whether it is a just or moral manner in which to act within the church.


It is easy to achieve immense power over a large number of people within the Methodist Church. And to cover it all up it is merely necessary to quote the Standing Order on confidentiality.


THIS IS NOT THE METHODIST WAY – though some in power in the church go down this route.



The most important clause concerning confidentiality is SO 1104 and, in particular, clause (7):


The complainant and the respondent and any person who has brought a complaint under previous Standing Orders relating to complaints and discipline or had such a complaint made against him or her must observe at all times the  confidentiality of those proceedings. The provisions of Standing Order 1157 apply if there is any breach of this obligation”


SO 1157 is a lengthy clause in the Standing Orders concerning breaches of confidentiality. It gives extensive notes on what powers are available to the church should there be a breach of confidence.


There is no limit to the length of time to which this confidentiality may be extended. Certainly the Church authorities have determined that even when a dispute is settled by the complaints system, the documents and the evidence given during the panel of inquiry’s hearings are strictly confidential – forever.


So, to take an example, the wife of a certain minister in a particular district is sexually assaulted by another minister in the district. The minister appeals to his District Chair about this abuse – and is told that he should not spread the word of this around because it will affect the reputation of the Methodist Church -  the Chair will deal with it quietly.


Except that nothing happens. 


Smarting from this, the minister whose wife has been sexually abused takes out a grievance against the offending minister, detailing dates and times and other such details of when the assaults took place. 


The Local Complaints Officer thinks that this is far too “hot” for him to handle, and, egged on by the District Chair, he says that the complainant must take this to a national connexional complaints panel if he wishes to pursue the grievance. It is thought that the national publicity of this shameful episode will deter the minister from proceeding.


The complainant minister considers that a connexional Complaints inquiry will surely vindicate him, so he takes that step, sending his grievance to Methodist Church House. A panel of inquiry is formed and the leader rings up the District Chair for background on the two ministers.


The District Chair is afraid that if this matter gets out of his hands, he will be blamed for not having done something about it earlier, so he advises the panel leader that the woman involved is not a particularly stable person and should not be relied upon.


The connexional panel think about things and decide that, on balance, it would be better if they found against the complainant, hinting that the chief witness, the abused wife, is not entirely reliable as a witness.  


The wife is furious. She has had to go through the details of the sexual abuse - which was very humiliating for her - in front of three men on the panel. She wants to go to the newspapers with her story – particularly when she comes across her abuser in the street one day and he laughs at her.


Her husband cautions her. He says he will appeal the decision of the Connexional Complaints Panel. However,  he discovers that he cannot appeal the decision, because it was he who determined that the complaint should go the Methodist Church House.



He reads the relevant Standing Order to his wife – SO 1126(2)


“No appeal may be brought against a decision that a complaint should be dismissed if the complaint was referred to the connexional Complaints Panel by the complainant rather than the local complaints officer.”



The matter is completely confidential and shall remain so forever.


The wife has a fit about this – so her  husband suggests going to the police. This, after all, was a sexual assault, a criminal offence.  


Out of the blue, he is offered a promotion by the District Chair, who pushes through his candidacy for the job of Superintendent in a neighbouring District. Would the prospect of a nice Manse on the top of a hill not persuade her to shut up?


Of course any involvement with the police will naturally jeopardise the promotion, for such enquiries would become public and would tarnish the image of the new Superintendent and his wife. Furthermore, any breach of confidentiality that he might commit in giving evidence to the police would, naturally, count against him.


You think that this could not happen?  Well, you need to get out more.


The above little anecdote, the true version of which actually broke up a marriage, was well within the Standing Orders of the Methodist Church.




We should never forget S.O. 1100.


This contains the over-arching principles of the Methodist Church in the Standing orders concerning confidentiality.


“SO 1100 Principles.

(1) The need of the Methodist Church for a complaints and discipline process stems from the imperfect nature of human beings. The Church is a fallible community and its members on occasion behave in ways which are damaging to themselves and others and which undermine the credibility of the Church’s witness. A complaints and discipline process is one of the means by which the Church recognises that all human beings are made in the image of God and are entitled to be treated as such, and by which it maintains its witness to the new life to which we are called through Christ.

(2) Through the complaints and discipline process members of the Methodist Church are accountable to the Church in matters of faith and behaviour. The Church seeks to enable healing and reconciliation to take place through that accountability whenever possible. The Church also responds to the call through Christ for justice, openness and honesty, and to the need for each of us to accept responsibility for our own acts.”



This is not so much a standing order – but a principle which over-sees all other standing Orders. It is followed by other such principles which govern the manner in which all other standing orders are to be used.



For example: 1102 General Matters.


“(1) The principle of fairness set out in Standing Order 1100(3)(v) above means that all persons exercising functions in relation to complaints and discipline must at all times have regard to the further principles that a respondent


(i) have an adequate opportunity of responding to the complaint, meeting any charge and dealing with the evidence;

(ii) be treated fairly by any complaints team dealing with the complaint; and

(iii) receive a fair hearing from any church court which is to decide whether any charge is established.”


Perhaps most importantly, the over-riding principle in S.O. 1100 (2)  reads:


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



This opens the question – is it always right to maintain the rules on confidentiality as in SO 1104? What if events breach SO 1100(2) – what if something is going on that is not just, and yet is being kept secret, using the rules on confidentiality in SO 1104?


If anyone in the complaints system  - members of the complaints panel, the complainant or the respondent -  breaches the call of Christ for justice, is it right that such transgression should be hidden away from others in the Church?


Church officials with something to hide may lay great stress on the strength of the Standing Orders on confidentiality within the complaints systems.  When they do, they display some ignorance of the Standing Orders.


They ignore 1100 (2) at their peril, for it is an over-riding standing order. In fact. it is a doctrinal principle of the Church, as expressed in  S.O 1100:


1100 Principles. (1) The need of the Methodist Church for a complaints and discipline process stems from the imperfect nature of human beings.”


However, the need for a complaints system does not supersede the fact that the Church responds to the call through Christ for justice, openness and honesty.



Justice openness and honesty are essential elements in the  fundamental principles  of  the  doctrinal standards of the Methodist Church. This principle stands above all other Standing Orders. Failure to comply with it and to uphold it in our dealings is clearly a potential breach of the Methodist Church Act 1976.



If we deny this, we must consider the damaging possibilities.


 And yet some very senior members of the Church have denied it.


In legal terms, if one is engaged in some work, on a confidential basis, which includes a breach of the law or a breach of anyone’s human rights, the strength of any confidentiality clause or contract is rendered  null and void.  


No confidential agreement can cover up breaking the law of the land, because the law comes first.  That is the nature and consequence of the rule of law.


Similarly, a person’s human rights under the Human Rights Act will always overcome some activity perpetrated against that person  when it  breaches his or her human rights -  even if it is done under a confidentiality clause. 


What would be the position if a company employee signed a confidentiality clause and then witnessed, within the company files, a large scale financial fraud or a policy that was seriously misleading the public and even the government? Would the confidentiality clause that person had signed protect him or her against criminal prosecution?


It could not. The law – and indeed public interest, would over-ride the confidentiality restrictions. The old excuse that “I was only obeying orders” carries little weight in law.


What if some crime, such as a burglary, had been committed by a  connexional complaints panel whilst investigating someone  -  perhaps stealing that person’s files -  could that be ‘covered up’ by using SO  1104? 


It cannot, for that would be going against the principles laid down in SO 1100.  We might hypothesise further – and it is only a matter of degree until we get down to the level where a breach of standing orders is the “crime” that cannot be covered up.


Many members of the Church people have been caught in this “whistle-blower” trap. They may have been badly treated by the officials in Methodist Church House, but have felt themselves bound to maintain confidentiality “for the good of the Church”.


Covering up transgressions is not good for the Church.


Such is the use of SO 1104 by the Church that someone might even witness an illegal act and not report it. Such a person might well be later seen as an accomplice or an accessory to the crime.


We should refuse to go along with any attempt to cover up   wrongdoing by anyone in the Methodist Church.   If we do so, we become a part of such wrongdoing – complicit and equally guilty.


Perhaps more importantly, we would be forgetting the principle laid down in SO 1100 (2) – that we must, each of us,  accept responsibility for our own acts.


Let us be clear about this:


SO 1104 should not apply when there have been irregularities in the complaints procedure; it does not cover breaches of Standing Orders committed by a connexional complaints panel or anyone else involved in the complaints procedures.  


It only applies when there is no irregularity in the procedure.


However, as it is used in the Church today, SO 1104 may be  used to punish people. To be unjustly punished is one thing – to then find that you cannot tell anyone without putting yourself in jeopardy is a second punishment,  but one that is meted out by Methodist Church House with some relish.




On 11th June 2019 the Guardian published an article  containing  details of a report by the House of Commons Select Committee on Equality. The  report was about  confidentiality clauses or non-disclosure agreements. This is pertinent to the Rev Timms case which we see elsewhere on this website.


The use of SO 1104 - the clause on confidentiality in the Standing Orders - has been used throughout the Timms affair as a weapon against him.


The connexional inquiry into his complaints actually began with an accusation that he had already breached confidentiality concerning an invitation committee in 2016. The document termed the “false confession” was based on that accusation  -  and Professor Kitchin (the leader of the connexional panel of inquiry) further demanded that Rev Timms confirm that he had breached confidentiality. Rev Timms’ suspension in 2017 was largely based on an allegation that he had breached confidentiality in launching a campaign against the procedure adopted by the connexional complains inquiry team. 


Rev Timms has consistently maintained that he has not breached confidentiality at any time. One part of his argument on this is the general principle, as outlined in this article,  that such confidentiality clauses cannot be used to cover up a breach of regulations, rules, law – or in this case the standing orders of the Methodist Church.


This general view would appear to be supported by the House of Commons Select Committee.


The following extracts from the complete report are of particular interest.


“It is hard to understand on what basis it could ever be deemed to be in the public interest for employers to use legal agreements, often drawn up by professionally qualified lawyers, HR and trade union professionals, to cover up allegations of unlawful and sometimes criminal behaviour committed in the employer’s organization”.


"It is clearly in the public interest to ensure that allegations of law-breaking are investigated wherever they occur and are not covered up by legally sanctioned secrecy”.


“We are particularly concerned that some employers are using NDAs to avoid investigating unlawful discrimination and harassment complaints and holding perpetrators to account”.


“It is very worrying that some employers appear to have a culture of tolerating unlawful discrimination and harassment and covering it up with NDAs when individual complaints threaten to bring it into the open”.



“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”.


“We are concerned that NDAs are being used unethically and sometimes unlawfully to deter whistleblowers from being able to speak out in the public interest”.



Reports such as this, with such concern about apparent wrongdoing, weighing confidentiality against the public interest,  usually end up as material for debates in the House of Commons.


Currently it is illegal in common law to coerce someone into signing a false confession. Confidentiality clauses, which are used to waive or overcome such common law rights, are disapprovingly termed by the Commons Select Committee as “legally sanctioned secrecy”. Their view is that the law needs to be changed so that such clauses become subject to statute law, with criminal consequences.


Such changes would not be confined to employment practices, but to all aspects of life in the UK, including churches. Standing Order 1104 would no doubt be seen as one such example of an illegal NDA, if it is used to cover up any malpractice in the Church. Such malpractice would include harassment and bullying as well as discrimination and breach of covenant.


The Methodist Church lawyers will no doubt consider that the report in question refers to “employers” and that the Supreme Courts decision in  President  of the Methodist Conference v  Preston 2013 thus precludes the Methodist Church from such views.


In Preston, the Supreme Court considered whether , under the Employment Act,  ministers were “employed” The decision was that they were, technically, not employed.


However, there was a dissenting opinion on the Court by Lady Hale, She stated, as one example of the problem that she saw:


“ it would be very odd indeed if a minister who was not paid her stipend or was threatened with summary eviction from her manse could not rely upon the terms of her appointment either to enforce the payment or to resist a possession action.”


She pointed to several other aspects of the relationship between the Church and its ministers -  which seemed to be very like the relationship that an employee has with an employer. There were, she thought, “terms of appointment”.


So, although ministers may not be “employed”, they nevertheless have legally-binding “terms of appointment”.


The Commons committee was actually primarily concerned with equality.  One must wonder whether, under the Church’s “terms of appointment”, SO  1104 and the manner in which it is used by the Church  would be deemed as “discriminatory” under the Equality Act of 2010. After all, that Act provides redress for persons that are subjected to:


“conduct (that) has the purpose or effect of violating the other's dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”


Many have argued that Rev Timms, whether right or wrong in his protests, has been subjected to such treatment. And his case is just one example.


After all, the Equality and Human Rights Commission would probably consider that coercion to enforce a non-disclosure clause on confidentiality in order to cover up  a breach of other clauses -   in the same document that contains the NDA -  would constitute a violation of a person’s dignity -  with everything that follows such.


This could mean that the Preston decision of 2013 might be revisited and amended – for surely the enforcement of an NDA in order to cover up a misdemeanor indicates  a contractual relationship which resembles employment as determined under the Employment Act rather than any aspect of the central doctrines of the Methodist Church.

Surely, to use Lady Hale’s phrase, “terms of appointment” indicate a contract.


Lady Hale’s dissention in the Supreme Court  summarised:



“In my view, the EAT (Employment Tribunal) and the Court of Appeal reached the right result in this case and I would dismiss this appeal.”


In other words, to quote an old adage in law,  she considered that “if it looks like a pig, smells like a pig and grunts like a pig – it is a pig”.


Lady Hale is currently the President of the Supreme Court.


The other four members of the Supreme Court of 2013, who disagreed with her, summarised:


“the question is whether there were any arrangements of an employment nature at all. One cannot simply ignore the Church’s doctrinal reasons for regarding such arrangements as unnecessary. On the contrary, they provide an essential part of the factual background. They explain why the situation in which the respondent found herself was as it was. In finding that there was no contract, the court is not ignoring the modern approach to these matters. What it cannot ignore is the fact that, because of the way the Church organises its own affairs, the basis for the respondent’s rights and duties is to be found in the constitutional provisions of the Church and not in any arrangement of the kind that could be said to amount to a contract.”



In other words, the Church’s doctrinal reasons for classifying the input of ministers as not being “employment” lie in   the “constitutional provisions of the Church”, not in any contractual arrangement of employment. The latter is overtaken by the former.


But what are the “constitutional provisions” of the Methodist Church? They are surely the standing orders. These provisions are named “constitutional” because the Methodist Act of 1976 requires them as a part of the establishment of the Methodist Church. They are thus ultimately governed or regulated by Parliament. And that is one of the reasons why the Supreme Court regarded them as not being subject to the Employment Act. They were already governed by Parliament.


And when a minister is ordained, is there not a covenant between the minister and the Church – and between the Church and the minister – that each will act in accordance with the standing orders?


The use of SO 1104, the clause on confidentiality in the Standing Orders, as it has been used throughout the Timms affair as a weapon against him, is unconstitutional. It is contrary to the doctrinal ethics and therefore the constitutional provisions of the Methodist Church.

It breaches the “terms of appointment”  in the covenant when he was ordained.


Is this not the rationale behind the words of the Supreme Court characterized the position of ministers in the Church as:


Standing order 700(2) provides that “by receiving persons into full connexion as Methodist ministers the Conference enters into a covenant relationship with them in which they are held accountable by the Church in respect of their ministry and Christian discipleship, and are accounted for by the Church in respect of their deployment and the support they require for their ministry.”


A covenant is an agreement or promise to do, or provide something, or to refrain from doing or providing something. It is  binding on the party giving the covenant,  the "covenantor" -  in this case the Methodist Church.


On the other hand, as stated by the Supreme Court, ordained ministers are held accountable by the Church in respect of their ministry and Christian discipleship


Such is essentiality a form of contract, with obligations on both sides.


Consider for a moment a simple amendment of  the House of Commons Select Committee report  in order to reflect on the position of the Methodist Church in this:


“It is hard to understand on what basis it could ever be deemed to be in the public interest for the Methodist Church to use legal agreements, often drawn up by professionally qualified lawyers, to cover up allegations of  behaviour contrary to the constitutional provisions of the Church committed in the organization of the Church”.




“We are particularly concerned that some members of the executive of the Methodist Church are using an NDA to avoid investigating unlawful discrimination and harassment complaints and holding perpetrators to account”.



Is this not the position of any reasonable person? Is this not fair, is this not just, honest and open? Is this not the position that all Methodists accept in the light of SO 1100.


Is this not the Methodist Way?








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