It has been disturbing to learn that victims of racism in the Church of England have had to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) before they could receive compensation which might be due to them. So disturbing, in fact, that the Archbishop of Canterbury has “demanded”, according to the Times, that they never be used again in the Church of England. He said he wasn’t aware they were still being used, and is “very frustrated by it”. He reiterated: “I have said many times that I am totally against NDAs. NDAs are unacceptable. I am just horrified by that and horrified by the fact of racism.”
Without wishing to horrify him further, or to be the cause of even more frustration, the problem goes way beyond racism, and the scale of it may be glimpsed in just one diocese, which must, for the moment, remain unnamed for reasons you will understand.
The evidence has been sifted and confidentially corroborated. This Diocese has bought the silence of at least 20 people over the past decade, at an estimated cost of £500,000. We are talking six or nine months of annual salaries and months of free housing for transitional purposes, so half-a-million is an estimate. It might be a little less, or it might be a little more. But the precise sum of money involved is of little consequence when the Bishop of this Diocese seems intent on using the full force of the law to muzzle and conceal rather than live in honesty, mercy, truth and holiness.
At a recent meeting of the diocesan synod, a question about NDAs was asked. The answer was direct: “We do not use and never have used Non-Disclosure Agreements”. But on further questioning it was admitted that confidentiality clauses were regularly used.
A legal agreement with “confidentiality clauses” is a Non-Disclosure Agreement. This Bishop can apparently assure the Archbishop that they aren’t using NDAs because, to him, an agreement with “confidentiality clauses” is something different. This might explain Justin Welby’s frustration: he speaks plainly in clear English; the autonomous dioceses and other church institutions respond with Greek jots and lawerly tittles. He believes he has been heard; they are content to have told him what he wanted to hear. He is not a pope in his church: he doesn’t have levers to pull or buttons to press to impose his concept of justice. He can ‘demand’ until the cows come home that Non-Disclosure Agreements be banned, but he cannot oblige an obdurate dean or recalcitrant bishop to do anything.
Given that some of the NDAs were used deliberately to hide from the synod how much money was being signed off to get rid of people whom someone senior didn’t want, or for people to request a suitable pay-off in exchange for their silence – including the use of solicitors – one begins to question why Christian people have resorted to worldly methods instead of going to Scripture and working on truth and reconciliation through repentance, mercy and forgiveness. Perhaps the answer lies right there: it is far easier, far more convenient, to clobber someone with an NDA than to work on truth and reconciliation, which can be terribly exhausting.
But where is the integrity in a church which covers up, obfuscates and keeps secrets? Where is the compassion in a church which has a secretary or an archdeacon working one day, and suddenly gone the next without any explanation? Where is the truth in a church which then hides the cost of this ‘disappearance’ in accounting mechanisms designed to disguise and deflect, so that synod members have no easy means of discovering the true cost? If someone leaves their post because of poor performance, or if they leave because of some misdemeanour, there is no need for a confidentiality clause: let the truth be known, and let the light of the sun disinfect the body, and the Light of the Son cleanse the temple.
But if staff members leave because someone is grinding them down, bullying them, or otherwise abusing them because they dare to challenge policy decisions, or point out something that isn’t quite right, or disagree with the way something has been or is being handled, then buying their silence with an NDA is unethical and immoral. If someone is asked to leave and is offered a sum of money on condition they remain silent, one wonders what it is that must never be made known.
Remember, this is just one diocese in the Church of England. How many others routinely resort to the law in order to silence the dismayed and disaffected?
We are all broken people, and Jesus is in the business of making people new creations. But he can only do so when there is confession of sin, acceptance of judgement, and reception of mercy and grace. Non-Disclosure Agreements are the antithesis of truth and reconciliation. They may be ready templates and very convenient for disposing of a human problem, but they exact very real emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual costs, as well as the £1000s or £10,000s which necessarily accompany them. The Archbishop of Canterbury is right: they have no place at all in the Church of Jesus Christ, and their use must cease immediately.