A few weeks after I started my first church job as a Pastoral Assistant, my parish priest advised me to join a union. “If you are going to be employed by the church,” he said, “then you are going to need it”. How right he was. I joined and have been a member ever since.

The union I joined then was the clergy section of MSF—the union for Manufacturing, Science and Finance (take your pick which category you think the clergy fit under!) Several mergers later, and the Faith Workers Branch (FWB) is now a constituent branch of Unite, the largest union in the UK, which has 1.42 million members in every type of workplace. The word ‘Clergy’ has been dropped from the title and members comprise the lay employees of temples, churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith organisations, as well as priests, ministers, rabbis and imams. The branch has about 1,500 members with more joining every year.

I trained as a workplace representative about 10 years ago and it means that I can represent any of our members in difficulty anywhere in the country, although typically I mostly serve in London and the South East of England, where I am based.  The ecumenical and interfaith dimensions are fascinating and I have attended meetings in support of members at synagogues and cathedrals and the headquarters of religious orders. Faith organisations share an enormous amount in common when it comes to employing and managing staff. They all struggle with the tensions that arise from work that is done both as a vocation out of love and as a livelihood. They all struggle with the collision between ancient teachings passed down over generations and fast-paced, modern social developments especially in the areas of gender and sexuality, but also in terms of law and hierarchical structure. Bullying is the most commonly cited reason for members to contact their union. Other reasons include sickness, impending redundancy or retirement, safeguarding, disciplinary measures and discrimination.

Members in trouble can ring the FWB Helpline (0333 123 0021) for help and advice. If further support is needed then the Co-ordinator will assign a Representative to the case. The Representative can attend meetings, negotiate with senior staff or employers on the member’s behalf and most importantly, listen to the member and reassure them that they are not alone. Many people feel incredibly isolated when things begin to go wrong at work. Often, it is only when someone has been signed off sick with stress that they realise how difficult things really are and contact the union. There is a great need to help people recover their confidence and resilience if they are to return to work in a faith organisation again. The Representatives are all volunteers, but where there are legal issues then the case can be referred to the paid officers of Unite. Several cases, such as that of Vicar, Mark Sharp, who became a test case on whether or not Anglican clergy are entitled to the same rights as employees in this country, have achieved a national profile and media attention.

I have recently been elected onto the National Executive for the Faith Workers Branch and been asked to take on the role of Equalities Officer. Unite is always working towards fairer workplaces that include opportunities for everyone, especially those who have historically been excluded.(1) The FWB is no exception, so my remit includes advocating for better practices in faith-based workplaces on gender, disability, LGBT, and ethnic minority issues. Within the branch itself this means raising awareness of our own smaller groupings, such as Catholics, Muslims and Jews – and women! The majority of the membership are ordained Anglican or Methodist clergy so there is a need also to represent lay employees and ensure that their needs are taken into account. There is plenty of work to be done.

What membership of a trade union has meant to me is having a voice. Quite literally, the training I have received has enabled me to ‘Speak up’ on behalf of others. As a Catholic woman I see multiple problems in our local churches that could benefit from more women finding their voices and being put into positions where they can be part of the solution. I am an advocate for Catholic women being ordained, but I am also an advocate for women and men gaining the necessary skills and experience to challenge those in authority, be they men or women, to find better outcomes. As a Christian I believe that the qualities of forgiveness, mercy and compassion, alongside truth and justice, mean that change for the better—for everyone involved—is possible even in the most intransigent of situations.

I am a member of Catholic Women Speak in the hope that through the great variety of means with which we are engaged, many more Catholic women will be encouraged to speak in every environment, both within and without the Catholic Church, where our voices need to be heard.

Note (1)  key objective of Unite the Union is: ‘To promote equality and fairness for all, including actively opposing prejudice and discrimination on grounds of gender, ethnic origin, religion, class, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, caring responsibilities; and to pursue equal pay for work of equal value. See more at: http://www.unitetheunion.org/unite-at-work/equalities/#sthash.wg0eKwfx.dpuf