May 4 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Parish pains over data protection

A new EU directive has The Bow in the Heavens looking at the unseen challenges of church management - By Fr John Bollan

My unwanted celebrity in the wake of The Sunday Herald ‘Exorcist’ piece continues to grow. While I had consoled myself that not many people read The Herald (at least not round these parts), I was dismayed when a so-called friend of mine sent me a photograph of a page of The Sun with a condensed version of the interview and another mugshot of yours truly, pilfered from the parish website. “I always knew you’d end up in The Sun! Lol,” was the accompanying message. Gee, thanks.

To make matters worse, our local newspaper, The Greenock Telegraph, ran a whole page spread on the story the next night. Now things were really beginning to hot up. Like Our Lord, I found that I could no longer go about openly (cf. John 11:54). I was being pointed at and whispered about: “That’s him!”

Even though Jasmine and I have started hiding behind our matching sunglasses, I fear we may have to leave the district.

Despite these obstacles, one major bit of progress was made this week: after five months ‘locked out’ of our new parish email address, I finally gained access to this treasure trove of information. And it was quite a revelation, let me tell you. Although some emails had been forwarded to another address, the vast majority—hundreds of them—were news to me.

There were a couple of pastoral letters I had never seen, dispatches from HQ which required a time-sensitive response, notices for the bulletin which had gone unpublicised, and meetings unattended.

Sometimes, here above the snow-line, we get the feeling that we are a little bit ‘out on a limb’: that sense of isolation is only heightened when you discover there’s been a whole host of activities and bits of information to which you’ve been oblivious.

Realistically, however, I’ve been asking myself if I had known about all those things, would it have made much discernible difference? As I’ve said in the past, my record of response and participation in diocesan affairs is a little ropey.

Now that I have untrammelled access to my emails, I will have to come up with another excuse for being the Scarlet Pimpernel of Paisley.

A hefty chunk of our email correspondence, and I’m sure this will be same across the country, is taken up with the implications of ‘GDPR Compliance.’ This is an EU-wide directive on General Data Protection Regulation (hence the acronym) and refers to the way businesses and organisations store information about you.

If you’re like me, you will have been receiving communications from banks, shops, charities and other organisations over the past few months asking you to decide whether to opt in or out of their records.

This is a particular challenge for the Church, because so much of our pastoral work relates to the keeping of informal records—the names and addresses of housebound parishioners, for instance—to more formal ones, such as the paperwork associated with getting married in Church. What this will mean in practice for parishes is gradually becoming clearer and there is no way of disguising the fact that this involves adding another layer of complexity to the running of our churches and related associations.

Here’s an example of a quandary I have: when we arrange a funeral, I fill in a short form with details of the deceased (for the purposes of entering in the parish register), but also the details of the next-of-kin or the person arranging the funeral. Normally, this would be an uncontentious step and I wouldn’t think of asking if it is alright for me to take a note of this information. So, when the annual Mass for the deceased of the parish is coming up in November, I can write to those families and extend an invitation to them.

Given that, up until now, I haven’t obtained express permission for these details to be kept, it looks as though I have to make contact with those people for clearance to retain those details or I will have to destroy those records. And that’s just one example of many. For a church which relies on notes of names and numbers scribbled on post-it notes, this will have significant knock-on effects for St Joseph’s. GDPR is the administrative equivalent of health and safety legislation: although one can see the point of it, it is nevertheless one more thing to worry about.

An effective way to deal with stress, so they say, is exercise. To this end—and to halt the advance or a burgeoning midriff —the other day I allowed myself to be talked into going for a run with my friend, Stephen. He is something of an athlete, whereas I haven’t had a proper run since I left school. Well, I tell a lie: last year I did break into a sort of trot to escape the attention of a scary dog (and its equally scary owner) while padding about the cemetery with Jasmine.

While the sensible option would have been to have a gentle introduction to running on a level surface, I was plunged in at the deep end—almost literally—by being made to yomp along the Greenock Cut in driving rain. The Cut is a Victorian aqueduct, originally for the purpose of transporting water to the long-gone mills, but now a meandering waterway high above the urban sprawl of Inverclyde. The views on a clear day are breath-taking, but the only thing which was taking my breath that evening was the high wind and my Olympic-sized stitch.

To add insult to injury, the obstacle course of mud and puddles proved too much for my tired legs on the home stretch. I skidded and slipped in the mud, almost ending up in the cut.

Jasmine and Stephen ran on, heedless of my Aramaic imprecations. To make matters worse, I’m sure I could catch a distinct note of laughter on the wind. Not very compassionate for a physician, I’m sure you’d agree!

Once the mud had washed off, I discovered that I had suffered a serious injury and was badly grazed below the knee. Apparently, that didn’t merit sutures, but I insisted on a substantial plaster. I’ve yet to decide if have the confidence to run again.

Before I go, a little coda to the ‘St Joseph’s and the arts’ theme of recent weeks. Last Friday we were delighted to welcome the latest adornment to the parish: a stained-glass window of St Joseph. This was gifted to us in memory of Mr George Thomlinson, who passed away last year.

The window itself was made by George’s son-in-law and his dad, so it’s kept within the family. I’m really pleased with it and it draws the eye as soon as one enters the Church from the side door. It is a fitting tribute to quiet men of Faith: both George and St Joseph.

Next week, God willing, I’ll be back in Rome, off to the Eternal City with 50 S3 pupils from St Columba’s. I’m beginning to think these trips are becoming victims of their own success: clearly, one group returns with such enthusiastic reports about their Roman experience that the year below signs up in even greater numbers. There will be some logistical challenges, I reckon: not least of which will be getting them the traditional post-audience pizza near the Vatican. Please say a prayer that we stay safe, happy—and together!


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