CDM: moral injury caused by the absence of God’s love.


The human cost of the Clergy Discipline Measure is enormous.  37% of respondents to the Sheldon Hub survey experienced thoughts of suicide.  62% suffer depression.  Many clergy have left ministry and others, like me, survive but experience ongoing institutional betrayal trauma and psychological or moral injury.  This paper explores an understanding of moral injury before establishing how CDM inflicts such injury.  I will then propose a starting point for establishing effective discipline in the light of the true love of God. 

What is Moral Injury?

Psychology Today defines moral injury as ‘the social, psychological, and spiritual harm that arises from a betrayal of one’s core values, such as justice, fairness, and loyalty. Harming others, whether in military or civilian life; failing to protect others, through error or inaction; and failure to be protected by leaders, especially in combat—can all wound a person’s conscience, leading to lasting anger, guilt, and shame, and can fundamentally alter one’s world view and impair the ability to trust others.’

The Lancet published an article in March 2021 exploring this relatively new area of mental health where severe psychological stress is induced by the violation of a person’s moral code.  ‘Morally injurious events threaten one’s deeply held beliefs and trust…can cause profound feelings of shame and guilt, and alterations in cognitions and beliefs (eg, “I am a failure”, “colleagues don’t care about me”)…with a 2018 meta-analysis finding that exposure to potentially morally injurious events was significantly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicidality.’ 

The work carried out by Sheldon Hub into the lived experience of CDM respondents included the observation that ‘The personal pressures under which respondents usually continue outward ministry place psychological burdens upon them which manifest most often as the symptoms of anxiety, depression and, in some cases, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).’

The authors of the article in The Lancet believe existing approaches to the treatment of mental health issues, such as exposure-based approaches and CBT, are either unhelpful, ineffective or inappropriate for treating moral injury.  ‘Approaches that focus on self-forgiveness, acceptance, self-compassion, and (if possible) making amends, might hold more promise. In cases in which the effects of moral injury extend beyond psychological to spiritual harms, spiritual care providers could have a role alongside mental health clinicians.’

In short, to use the findings of Williamson et al and Christian approaches to sin, CDM subjects respondents to social, psychological, and spiritual harm that arises from a betrayal of one’s core values, such as justice, fairness, loyalty, repentance compassion, forgiveness and restitution. The process must be renewed with the true love of God as the starting point.   

What causes moral injury for CDM respondents?

The Sheldon Hub report, I was handed over to the Dogs, outlines a toxic combination of the circumstantial causes of PTS due to CDM.  A caustic cocktail of a prolonged investigation, poor communication, minor complaints escalated by risk averse registrars into more serious allegations, no accountability within the system, conflicting rules, lack of confidence in the procedures, punitive meetings, broken trust with senior clergy, unresolved conflict with parishioners and strain on marriages and family members induce stress and trauma.  

The discipline process will never be straightforward or easy.   The complex and messy facts of a case need to be understood in the context of relationships which are separated by distance and time.  Bishops, registrars and tribunal panel members must try to work out what actually happened in a remote community, not their own.  The disjointed and often mishandled process is not the root cause of moral injury.  Respondents would be protected from moral injury by a careful application of God’s love in Christ.

Moral injury caused by a lack of God’s love

Love is one of the most distinctive and attractive qualities of the church of Jesus Christ.  When a member of the clergy is subject to the CDM process, the complainant, bishop and registrar seem to fail to demonstrate the love of God in Christ and this induces moral injury.  The respondent’s deeply held understanding and experience of God’s love is betrayed.

The love of God in Christ is both expiatory and propitiatory.  Everyone who experiences the perfect love of God in Christ no longer fears God because fear is to do with punishment.  CDM requires bishops to answer one, closed question, ‘What level of sanction, ranging from a simple rebuke to permanent removal of licence, does the respondent deserve?’  The respondent endures an open-ended process under the threat of severe punishment, at worst, the loss of vocation and home.  This approach to discipline is sub-Christian, denying the love of God in Christ and so causing severe moral injury to respondents.

The Apostle John writes specifically about the kind of love God demonstrates towards sinners in his fourth chapter of his first letter:

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: in this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

John’s teaching on the love of God in sending his Son as an atoning sacrifice for sin needs to be applied every time sin needs to be addressed.  John helps us see why the CDM process lacks true love.

  • Christian love is God centred.  Love comes from God because God is love. (v7-8)  Knowledge of the God who is love should render the Christian judicial process distinct to the judicial practices of the world, which does not know the God who is love. 
  • God’s love is demonstrated to us by the giving of the person of Christ as he died on the cross, an atonement for sin. (v9-10)  CDM cases sometimes involve very serious sin.  The cross declares that there is no sin which is beyond the atoning sacrifice and love of Christ. CDM is narrowly focused from the outset on the level of sanctions or penalty available to the bishop.  These penalties range from rebuke to removal of license.  With penalty as the focus, the love of God in Christ crucified for sin is absent from the process.
  • God’s love is experienced in the church and made visible to the world by the way those who are born of God love one another. (v11-12)  Complainants, bishops, registrars and respondents are compelled by the love of God to love one another.  The love of Christ is more than compulsion, his people are obliged to love one another, we ought to love one another as he first loved us. 
  • God’s love is made real by His indwelling of believers by His Spirit, through their belief in the Father and Son, who mutually indwell believers and bring His love to life.  Believers know and rely upon God’s love. (v13-16)  When CDM narrowly focuses on the judicial process and penalty, divorced from God’s love, this betrayal results in moral injury.
  • God is just.  Justice is the fair, right, moral and deserved or merited application of the law to law breakers.  God’s law has both moral and penal components.  As God is just, he has set aside a day of judgement when he will act with perfect justice. (v17)  If CDM is judicial, then the outcome ought to be just.  The process ought to establish the truth, the facts and penalties ought to be deserved.  The process cannot be just in cases where both complainant and respondent are at fault, but only the respondent can face sanctions.
  • God’s love drives out the fear of punishment.  The love of God (as Trinity) sent the person of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (v10).  The love of God is expiatory and propitiatory and this is experienced in Christ, as He removes the fear of punishment by his death on the cross (v18).  For CDM to be truly loving, as God loves his people, the fear of punishment needs to be absent.  Sanctions need to be seen and understood as discipline and protection for congregations, not punishment of the respondent.  Sanctions must also be applicable to complainants, as personal discipline and protection for the congregation, including the respondent. Both complainant and respondent need to be offered restorative pastoral care and counselling with the potential for sanctions to be lifted.
  • Christians are to love one another as God loved us, by not punishing one another for sin.
  • The people of the world punish one another with aggression, anger, violence, retribution, murder or silence, isolation or withdrawing love and support.  Some people turn to the police or courts to punish someone, and will lie to increase the severity of the punishment.  This kind of behaviour is particularly prevalent in areas of urban deprivation.  It has also been evident in the large number of vexatious CDM complaints.  In some cases, complainants, registrars and bishops appear to want to punish clergy.
  • Christian love is marked by love from God and for God, compassion for one another as his children, who are His dwelling places, and the people for whom Christ died to atone for sin.   Love is expressed between believers by repentance for sin, confession, forgiveness, self-forgiveness, acceptance, mercy and grace.  This kind of love needs to be the atmosphere in which CDM is done.
  • CDM respondents do not experience this kind of love.  Instead, their lived experience is of a prolonged, punitive process with the threat of severe penalty (loss of vocation, home and livelihood) at its conclusion.  Moral injury is caused, at the deepest level, because core values of Christian love (atonement, expiation and propitiation) are absent in the CDM process.   Post traumatic stress is induced by the continued threat of repeated punitive complaints.

CDM: a failure to love one another like Christ

CDM unlovingly escalates all complaints to a legal/judicial process with the possibility of five levels of punishment, ranging from rebuke to removal of licence.  The process is, from the outset, sub-Christian, inducing the fear of punishment throughout.

The true love of God in Christ compels Christians to love one another by NOT punishing one another for sin.  CDM needs to recover gospel love by framing sanctions as protection of church members from the sinful behaviour of abusive clergy, not punishment.  CDM should recover the love of God which disciplines transgressors for their good, seeking to transform, restore and reconcile, where possible. 

Moral injury occurs because clergy routinely seek to reconcile broken relationships through the love of Christ by encouraging compassion for one another, repentance for sin, confession, forgiveness, self-forgiveness, acceptance, mercy and grace whilst protecting the flock from wicked or evil people.  Anglican liturgy reinforces this message of openness, honesty, repentance, love and charity.

You then, who truly and earnestly repent of your sins,
and are in love and charity with your neighbours,
and intend to lead a new life,
following the commandments of God,
and walking from this day forward in his holy ways:
draw near with faith,
and take this holy sacrament to your comfort;
and make your humble confession to almighty God.

The love of God in the death of Christ for sin is held out week after week at holy communion.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who, in your tender mercy,
gave your only Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption;
who made there by his one oblation of himself once offered
a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction 
for the sins of the whole world;
he instituted, and in his holy gospel commanded us to continue,
a perpetual memory of his precious death until he comes again.

When clergy are then treated differently to this core belief and practice, with potentially severe punishment for them and their families, through the loss of home, income and vocation and without reference to the love of God in Christ, the stress is almost unbearable.

The replacement for CDM needs to capture again the love of God in a way which allows complainants, registrars and bishops to demonstrate it and clergy respondents to receive it.  Clergy may be sanctioned by way of protection for the flock, transformation, restoration and reconciliation, but the fear of punishment must end. 

About neilrobbie

I am a 6'6" formerly ginger Scot, in a cross cultural marriage to my lovely Londoner wife. We've lived in SE Asia and since 2005, I have served as an Anglican minister in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
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