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Church of England Evangelical Priest Resigns over Bullying and Abuse

Church of England Evangelical Priest Resigns over Bullying and Abuse
Saga has left 39-year-old former astrophysicist unemployed


By Anonymous
November 9, 2022

[Everything in this account is true and can be proved by documentary evidence that is on file.]

The Revd Matthew Firth was appointed by Bishop Paul Butler as Priest in Charge of St Cuthbert's Darlington & Priest in Charge of Holy Trinity Darlington, along with being Resource Church Leader for a new transformation and growth project at St Cuthbert's. Members of the interview panel have told Matthew that Paul Butler pushed for Matthew to be appointed and reported Paul Butler as having said that 'Matthew is an excellent candidate because clearly one day he will be an Archdeacon or a Suffragan Bishop.'

Matthew moved to Darlington and was licensed by Paul Butler. Within a few weeks of the licensing service, however, Matthew discovered that Paul Butler had done no consultation whatsoever with St Cuthbert's PCC about whether St Cuthbert's wanted to be a Resource Church. Nevertheless, Butler's Resource Church Officer instructed Matthew to take forward the planning process for St Cuthbert's. Matthew did this as best as he could, but the absence of any initial consultation obviously made things very difficult. Throughout the process, however, the Resource Church Officer praised Matthew's work and planning. The planning work also received Stage 1 accreditation by the Church Commissioners for Strategic Development Funding. Thus, Matthew's initial work on the project received only praise and no criticism whatsoever from anyone.

Five months into his post, during a sermon at Holy Trinity Darlington, Matthew shared the current official Church of England teaching on marriage and abortion, making reference to Global Anglican Future Conference materials. Twelve people walked out of the service. After the service, a number of congregation members aggressively told Matthew that the congregation 'Does not want to hear this teaching.' Subject Access Request papers now show that Matthew's orthodox teaching at the service was the major factor in Holy Trinity PCC members' desire to begin the backroom process of ousting Matthew from his post.

Six months into his post Matthew was informed by the local Archdeacon that it was time for his routine six month review. This was simply to be a chat to talk about how things were going and to review Matthew's role description. Matthew was used to this from previous roles. Subject Access Request papers now show, however, that what Matthew had actually been invited to was in fact the beginning of a Capability Process. This was very underhand. Matthew should have been treated with transparency and should have been invited to be accompanied by a colleague. Instead, he went alone into a meeting which was very different to what he had been told and which potentially carried serious consequences.

There were two outcomes of the meeting. The first was that Matthew was to spend the next nine months working on putting more energy into developing the existing congregations as well as developing the plans for the future Resource Church project. The second was that the title of Resource Church Leader was officially added to Matthew's role description and signed off by the Archdeacon. Matthew was content and encouraged with this outcome.

Only nine weeks later, however, Paul Butler unceremoniously summoned Matthew to a meeting with himself and his Resource Church Officer at Auckland Castle. The meeting was brutal, and Matthew was informed by Butler that he was cancelling the Resource Church project due to Matthew's 'leadership'. Matthew responded by saying that any Achilles Heel in the project was due to Butler's initial failure to consult St Cuthbert's about the project. Butler then said that he had fully consulted St Cuthbert's and told Matthew to stop saying that he hadn't. Subject Access Request papers now show that the Bishop's Leadership Team were well aware that this act of suddenly pulling the rug on the Resource Church project would be very likely to push Matthew to the point of resignation.

Matthew, however, did not resign. Instead, he again asked St Cuthbert's PCC whether Paul Butler had consulted them about the Resource Church project. Every single PCC member confirmed that Butler had not consulted them. Butler then wrote to the PCC apologising for his 'inadequate consultation' with them about the project. This was astonishing, given that he had told Matthew that he had fully consulted them and had told Matthew to stop saying that he hadn't.

Despite all of this, Matthew decided to soldier on and to try to enable both churches to flourish and grow. But then the bullying at Holy Trinity started. The backroom plot to oust Matthew began to come to the surface.

There are many examples of bullying that could be cited, but here are just a few examples:

Matthew preached at one service for 20 minutes. Afterwards, a PCC member jabbed her finger towards Matthew's face and shouted aggressively at him saying 'You will only preach for 8 minutes in this church. If you preach for any longer you will empty the place. Listen and learn! I'm going to make a complaint about you!'

During a PCC meeting one of the members had misunderstood something that Matthew had said. Matthew clarified, but then the PCC member leapt to his feet and started loudly shouting at Matthew saying 'No, you are a liar, you are a liar, I can't work with liars, I resign!'

During another PCC meeting, Matthew was explaining the need to take both churches into account when making plans. In response, a PCC member leapt to her feet and shouted at Matthew saying 'You're an idiot, and I will not work with an idiot!' She then stormed out of the meeting.

After a service, a congregation member came into the vestry to show Matthew a text message that was being circulated to congregation members by PCC members. The text message said 'We're trying to get rid of Matthew by June. Please come on board to help us.'

On one occasion a PCC member insisted on visiting Matthew at the vicarage. On arrival, the PCC member attempted to enter into an inappropriate and intimidating conversation with Matthew about very personal matters. When Matthew tried to protect himself and return to appropriate conversational boundaries, the PCC member said 'I want to know why you are single. Is it because you're too ugly to find a wife?'

On another occasion, a PCC member came into one of the churches as Matthew was setting up for an Evening Service and physically assaulted Matthew.

There are many other examples of bullying that could be cited. It was all a manifestation of the desire within Holy Trinity PCC to oust Matthew from his post. Subject Access Request papers now show that PCC members were repeatedly asking the Bishop's Leadership Team about how Matthew could be ousted. The papers also show that, despite PCC assurances to the contrary, PCC members were having secret meetings with at least one member of the Bishop's Leadership Team behind Matthew's back where discussions included their desire to oust Matthew. The papers also show that one of the Bishop's Leadership Team members was pushing for a Capability Procedure or a Clergy Disciplinary Measure to be used as a lever to oust Matthew from his post. Such tools are meant to be used for genuine HR purposes; they are not meant for weaponisation in this way. The same papers show that another member of the Bishop's Leadership Team was actively calling for Matthew to be ousted from his post and suggesting that he should be paid off. The same team member also laid out a timetable which should govern the ousting of Matthew from his post.

Throughout all this, Paul Butler never alerted Matthew either to any significant concerns held by himself or his team, or to the fact that Holy Trinity PCC members were pushing for him to be ousted. This blindsided Matthew to the moves against him, and left him very vulnerable to the bullying that he did indeed end up facing. Matthew tried to work well and professionally with all PCC members, but their bullying made his life a misery.

When it came to the election of new churchwardens at Holy Trinity, PCC members were encouraging people not to stand for election, so as to put Matthew in a difficult position. When one person did finally decide to stand for election, PCC members quickly intimidated that person into withdrawing their nomination.

At this point, Matthew had had enough. He needed to leave a situation in which he was being bullied and where the bullying was spreading towards those who showed him any support. He therefore tendered his resignation to Paul Butler, with six months notice. Matthew told Butler that the major reason for his resignation was that he had been subjected to a campaign of bullying. Butler responded by rubbishing Matthew's account, conducting no investigation, and claiming that Holy Trinity PCC members really wanted to work with Matthew. Butler claimed this despite Subject Access Request papers which now show that, at this point, Butler had known for 16 months that Holy Trinity PCC members were asking for Matthew to be ousted.

Matthew also raised the bullying that he had faced during a Holy Trinity PCC meeting. He specifically challenged members for circulating the text messages about him that were mentioned earlier in this account. At the next PCC meeting, members insisted that the references to bullying must be stripped from the minutes of the previous meeting. When Matthew asked why, one member said 'It can't be there because it makes us look bad.' Another member said 'Why do you want this to be in the minutes Matthew? Is it good for you somehow?' The PCC then demanded that Matthew signed the stripped minutes as an accurate record of the previous meeting. Matthew refused, because it obviously wasn't now an accurate record. Holy Trinity PCC has since claimed that they believed that the references that Matthew had made to bullying weren't about him but were about someone else. This is a ludicrous claim because Matthew made extensive reference during the relevant PCC meeting about the bullying text messages that PCC members were circulating about him.

The pandemic hit during Matthew's notice period. The local MP therefore asked Paul Butler if Matthew could stay in the vicarage for a while longer rather than having to find new accommodation at the height of the pandemic. Butler refused this request, saying that the vicarage needed to be rented out in order to bring in money. After Matthew had moved out, the vicarage wasn't rented out. It remained empty for 8 months.

Some time after these events and after Matthew had moved away from Darlington, he submitted a number of Subject Access Requests. The returns of these revealed many of the details of the backroom plots against him that have been described in this account. In the course of completing one of the Subject Access Requests, Holy Trinity Darlington PCC wrote to Matthew to tell him that they had uncovered a potential safeguarding concern about what they described as inappropriate behaviour towards Matthew by a certain PCC member. The shocking and astonishing thing is that the person they commissioned to write to Matthew about this matter was the very person about whom they claimed to have a potential safeguarding concern. Even more worryingly, the PCC has confirmed that this astonishing decision was signed off by the Durham Diocese Safeguarding Team.

Matthew has recently again raised the bullying that he faced with Paul Butler. He also confidentially disclosed to Paul Butler that he was assaulted by a PCC member. Butler's response was to again rubbish Matthew's account, conduct no investigation, and pass the confidential disclosure to the PCC member that he assumed that Matthew was referring to. Again, this is terrible safeguarding practice.

Subject Access Request papers state that Paul Butler has been keeping a monitoring file of things that Matthew has said on social media. Butler did not tell Matthew about this formal monitoring process. He did, however, clearly tell others, because certain individuals splashed news of it all over Twitter, encouraging as many people as possible to 'fill the file with complaints.' This triggered a social media pile-on which was a horrendous experience for Matthew to endure.

All Matthew has wanted is for Paul Butler to take seriously what has been done to him and to reach a fair and private arrangement of restitution. At every turn, however, Matthew's attempts to bring about talks have been rejected. Over the last few days, after various rounds of complaints and communications, the Archbishop of York finally attempted to use soft power to intervene on Matthew's behalf. That led to Paul Butler saying that he wouldn't be able to enter into any talks until Matthew agreed to not post anything on social media about Darlington. Matthew gave that undertaking and stuck to it. In response, Butler reneged and stated that he wouldn't enter into any talks at all.

The latest development is that a Holy Trinity PCC member has sent a picture of vomit to Matthew.

All of these events were triggered by incompetent employment practices and the fact that Matthew taught current official Church of England doctrine.

Matthew is currently exploring the possibility of a new ministry within a different episcopal family of the Anglican world.

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