Tuesday, 18 October 2016
Trouble at York Minster
*** Updated Friday 21 October
There have been a lot of reports of the decision taken by the authorities at York Minster with respect to the Minster bellringers. The BBC’s coverage begins here with the headline “York Minster bells silenced after bell-ringers axed for ‘new team’”. In a letter shown on the BBC page, the Precentor of York, Canon Peter Moger writes to the ringers:
Chapter will recruit a Head Bell Ringer, who will then oversee the recruitment and activity of a new team of volunteer bell ringers. In order to begin this process, all current bell ringing activity will cease at the Minster, from today, Tuesday 11th October.
The York Minster Society of Change Ringers responded with this statement in which the Ringing Master, Peter Sanderson, commented:
I was appointed to the position of Ringing Master by Chapter in 2006 and have remained fully accountable to them ever since, always implementing Chapter’s policies as requested and being willing to work co-operatively with Chapter to resolve any issues as they have arisen. … You have also referred in the media to the review of the operation of the bell tower which raised health and safety concerns. That review was commissioned by Chapter, undertaken and completed without the knowledge of the bellringers and with no opportunity for them to provide input. Nor have the results ever been shared with us. I’m afraid that this is typical of the secrecy with which the Minster operates under the current leadership team under your direction. … When you arrived as Dean in 2012 the ringers invited you on several occasions to visit the bell-tower and meet the team. You declined all of those invitations and have never to my knowledge ascended the tower. As significant grievances between the ringers and Chapter have arisen over the past 18 months I have made numerous offers to meet with you and to work together to resolve them. You have rejected every one of those offers.
On Monday in a further brief statement, the Minster said that the issue was about safeguarding:
Earlier this summer, it was necessary for the Chapter to take action regarding a member of the bell ringing community on safeguarding grounds. … Some members of the York Minster Society of Change Ringers have consistently challenged the Chapter’s authority on this and other important matters. … This is why the Chapter took the decision to disband the bell ringing team last week.
This statement was read by the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu (as Visitor) and has been released on video here. It is followed by questions and answers.
In their response, here, the ringers have again appealed to the Dean and Archbishop to talk to them:
We are deeply disappointed that Dean Faull and Archbishop Sentamu have decided to release their statement this afternoon without any prior communication or consultation with YMSCR. Now, more than ever, we feel the need to sit down and talk in private with the Dean and Chapter of York Minster to discuss these issues. We make a direct appeal to Dean Vivienne Faull and Archbishop John Sentamu to make contact and to arrange this meeting.
*** Update (Friday 21 October)
There has been a lot of press coverage of this story. The Church Times summarizes how the story unfolded in an article headlined Safeguarding issue silences bells of York Minster, and the Guardian does similarly under the headline How York Minster bellringers’ sacking blew the lid off bitter dispute.
Because of the nature of this story we ask all commenters to be especially careful in what they write. Comments containing ad hominem remarks will not be published.
Posted by Simon Kershaw on
Tuesday, 18 October 2016 at 7:43am BST
You can make a Permalink to this if you like
Church of England
The ABY seems in his loose-tongued way, to say that there are multiple 'survivors' and that they are vulnerable adults. He also made it unclear as to whether the investigation was ongoing. And continues to bundle Safeguarding in with Health & Safety which has been a hallmark of the statements made. I'm not sure that the Press Conference was helpful, especially as this only fuels further speculation.
Too late to shut the stable door, Archbishop, the horse has bolted. This matter has been shockingly badly handled and like the Bishop Bell fiasco in Chichester can only bring the Church of England into disrepute.
I am a bit anxious commenting on this one. I know that there are some serious safeguarding issues here. This I believe is nothing like the Bishop Bell issue.
IF safeguarding our people is an absolute priority, and policies and procedures arent followed, then action is needed.
The issue here seems to be communication and management of the required action rather than anything else.
It is hard to see how a safeguarding issue would entirely stop the ringing of bells any more than it would stop services themselves from proceeding. There might be a safeguarding issue, but the response still seems disproportionate and doesn't explain the separate action against the Carillon player.
How far back do the allegations go? How long has the Minster known about them?
The Minster has its own police force and can order anyone off its premises. Did that happen here? If not, why not? That power lies with the Minster, not its volunteers.
Meanwhile bells will not be rung for weddings, Remembrance Day, and Christmas.
It looks as though the Dean and Chapter have found a uniquely potent way of punishing many who are innocent.
Even though there has been an issue the response seems disproportionate. It seems that the Dean and chapter do not like questions.
The new safeguarding czar is a former police detective and rules with a desire to stop any further issues arising...
Dr Seitz, to whom do you refer as a "former police detective"? The CofE National Safeguarding Adviser, Graham Tilby, comes from a wholly different background to the police.
Did you catch the bit about a "significant grievance" between the ringers and Chapter for the last 18 months? As well as concerns about health and safety in the tower. And the Guardian reports that issues re. safeguarding go back 15 years.
This certainly could have been handled more gracefully , but ultimately Chapter and the Dean have to be able to decide if a particular volunteer ministry is functioning appropriately and if not, to take steps to fix it.
"Some members of the York Minster Society of Change Ringers have consistently challenged the Chapter’s authority on this and other important matters."
Sounds like they have played a vitally important role; no wonder they are disbanded.
I don't understand why Sentamu's size-nines were in this. I assume the second most senior priest in the church is perfectly capable of dealing with this herself...
The Times says that the Minster barred someone from the grounds back in July.
The other ringers seem to have been sacked because some of them, privately and politely, expressed disagreement with that decision.
If that's how the Dean and Chapter react to quiet disagreement, soon they won't have any volunteers left.
Oh, so after "health and safety" bit the dust, it's now about "safeguarding," is it? (And we all know what that's code for: less dog whistle than bullhorn.) And of course, unlike a safety report, this "safeguarding" can be masked in bulletproof anonymity.
I'll give the Minster benefit of the doubt, and accept it's kosher, but damn, are they *trying* to make it look suspicious?
My experience of bellringers is that they are one of the unaccountable breeds that include organists, choirs, vergers and flower arrangers. While PCC treasurer, I included a note in the accounts to the effect that the financial affairs of the bellringers were not included because, frankly, we were not allowed to see them. You would have thought WW3 had started as they thought this would end up with the HMRC on their backs. So at York Minster, they start 0-30 down in my book. Having said all that, this does seem to be a PR disaster of a high order. Can it really be true that the Dean has never ascended the tower? What kind of leadership does that suggest? I fear the damage has been done and as others have noted it leaves the CofE in the amateur basket once again.
"While PCC treasurer, I included a note in the accounts to the effect that the financial affairs of the bellringers were not included because, frankly, we were not allowed to see them."
Are you quite sure that the ringing group was organisationally part of your parish? There are many bell-ringing societies that are quite separate from the church--and proudly so. Indeed, many bell ringers are not church members and would never want to be.
The Minster's original statement speaks of governance. It seems that the Dean and Chapter are having trouble working with an organised society of independent volunteers.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for nobody.
Barchester Chronicles is not dead......
"Are you quite sure that the ringing group was organisationally part of your parish? There are many bell-ringing societies that are quite separate from the church--and proudly so. Indeed, many bell ringers are not church members and would never want to be."
The bell ringers are closely associated with the parish but their financial transactions are omitted from the financial statements as they are not controlled by the PCC. Massive irony, but reflecting the Charity SORP!
"[T]heir financial transactions are omitted from the financial statements as they are not controlled by the PCC."
If you concede this fact, then why is it a "massive irony" that the ringers' finances are not reported in the PCC's statement? If the ringers' group is independent of the PCC, then surely their financial statements are their own business, not the PCC's?
In having an independent organisation, by the way, the ringers would be quite different from the other "unaccountable breeds" you mention. Your concern seems to be that the ringers are accountable for their organisational finances--just not to you.
On reviewing the Archbishop of York's public statement, I am increasingly concerned that his references to an ongoing investigation may be completely inaccurate.
One of the basic principles of law enforcement is that if there is a criminal investigation going on, then law enforcement does not inform the targets of the investigation. Yet here we have the Archbishop of York announcing to the entire world that there is an ongoing investigation.
Did the Archbishop of York just violate the confidentiality of a police investigation?
Or is the "investigation" he keeps referring to merely an internal investigation by the Minster itself?
Or is there no real investigation by anyone at all?
I was confusing the safeguarding czar for the Diocese in Europe who served in Essex Police, and was previously in safeguarding in Chelmsford Diocese. Apologies to Mr Tilby.
Thanks to dr. primrose. I was wondering who would quote "for whom the bell tolls". Maybe the Belles of St Trinian's could lend a hand at York Minster.
Anthony Archer and Jeremy - it seems to me that whether the bellringers are church members or not, even if they are organised as a separate charity, the bells, bell-tower etc. are the property of the church and therefore under the control of the PCC, incumbent and churchwardens. Whatever they do on (or with) church property is therefore properly under the control of the church, however they organise themselves outside the church, and they are therefore subject to any safeguarding, H&S or financial controls which the church needs to apply. For me the question in these sorts of situations is "who will get sued, or plastered all over the local paper, if things go wrong?" The answer is the church, not the bellringers (or florists, choir, organist etc.)
My feeling about this story is that if the response seems disproportionate it probably indicates that we aren't being told the full story, and probably can't be told it.
On the face of it, the Minster's statement appears to me to be potentially defamatory. It does not name anyone but potentially all the bell ringers could claim they as individuals are being identified, viewed with suspicion and therefore denigrated in the eyes of those who know them and the wider public. The whole episode, including the statement, appears to have been mishandled.
Anne, the Guardian article seems to be the Minster's attempt to justify what it said and did earlier this week.
On Monday the ringers stated publicly that "we have challenged the Chapter on the fairness of some decisions."
The best the Minster can do to characterize the Society's conduct in any worse way is this, per the Guardian: "Some say there followed an attempt to frustrate the church’s safeguarding efforts."
In contrast to this "some say" report, the ringers publicly stated on Monday that "we strongly refute any suggestion that we disregarded the implementation of any of their policies. All of Chapter’s policies have been implemented in full, at all times."
Very interestingly, the Guardian article says nothing at all to contradict this. Despite the fact that the Guardian obviously spoke with anonymous sources at the Minster.
So.... If the ringers complied with "all of Chapter's policies," including safeguarding policies, then exactly what "effort" does the Minster think was somehow "frustrated"?
Or is this more hinting by the Minster at something that isn't really there?
Whether or not bell ringers' financial transactions are recorded in the accounts of a PCC is a matter of charity law and accounting (SORP). However, as Anne helpfully notes, they are deeply connected with the PCC, its buildings and, as per York Minster, its reputation. I contended that the bell ringers' finances should have been disclosed but to protect the PCC members as trustees included the note in the accounts. They pleaded some Bellringers' Association advice and were not for disclosure. I think because some of the money (fees from wedding couples mainly) got used for socials and the like. Back to my first point. Not the most transparent and accountable unit in the CofE. I suppose we could have fired them!
Anthony Archer, I trust that in that instance you did not intend to meddle in the finances of an organisation not your own.
Whether the Dean and Chapter acted with similar intent remains to be seen.
If the real problem here was that bell ringers had an independent organisation, the Minster could always have made that perfectly clear on its website. Nothing could be simpler.
The bellringers' funds (in a reasonably ordinary parish church) are usually their own money, in my experience. For example, at my church (where I am currently both churchwarden and tower captain) ringers at a wedding agree voluntarily to donate 20% of their fee to the tower fund. That fee is payable by the wedding couple directly to the ringers, even if it physically passes through the hands of the officiating minister, and is not money payable to the PCC, the diocese, or anyone else. It is the ringers' money to do with as they please. If they choose voluntarily to spend some of it on replacing broken ropes or stays or on other minor repairs then that is their choice. If the ringers also choose to spend some of the money on social events then that is also their choice, and none of this is subject to any PCC control. The PCC may quite properly decide that it doesn't want the ringers making minor repairs to the bell mechanisms, and would rather pay someone else to do so.
Whether the same funding applies at York Minister or other such grand places I have no idea.
Simon Kershaw, of course you are correct, and as a churchwarden and tower captain, you should know!
As you also know, the independence of bell-ringing societies is an extremely strong feature of ringing culture and tradition. The art of ringing requires a hierarchy, and in my understanding, most ringers are accustomed to choosing who is at the top of it.
That independence seems to be in question at the Minster. (Again, their first statement spoke of "governance" issues.)
If that is so, then I'm not sure the Minster will attract many bell ringers in future.
The Dean and Chapter of York have my full sympathy. I have run a cathedral which had a close knit group with its own unwholesome sub culture, only in my case it was the choir not the bell ringers. When the authorities are sure that there is an unhealthy atmosphere around someone they believe to be a sexual predator but there isn't sufficient evidence that would stand up in court and the witnesses dissolve away if ever called to repeat their concerns, and where the people the church must protect become the offenders greatest supporters, it is very difficult to know what to do and even more difficult to do it. Any action the Minster authorities take will be described as heavy handed and it may look so, but act they must and act they have - all credit to the Dean and Chapter.
Bravo disgraced. I too am with the D and C. I recently had similar issues with a church servant. It came close to a dismissal, or even my resignation. I was party to information that I could not pass on and I felt that should push come to shove I could not be sure of the pcc's support. It has left me with significant gastrointestinal upset.
For those of us on the outside, it's hard to evaluate the Dean and Chapter's policy decision here. We can all have our hunches, of course, but there's little point in debating them without fuller information.
Whatever the decision's merits, however, it does seem clear that it was implemented without any effort to engage the bellringers or even give them a meaningful explanation. (A 15-minute meeting and a disingenuous corporate-jargon-filled letter do not suffice.) Volunteers with many years of devoted service were told, by implication, that their ties to the Minster were meaningless, and that both their expertise and personal feelings were unvalued. All this was simply rude, and bound to lead to bad publicity.
When the Minster tries to re-form a band in the new year, what ringer will want to accept this poisoned chalice? Who could ever feel secure in so opaque and peremptory an environment?
I don't know more about what is going on at York Minster than what has been reported in the press, but I am deeply uneasy with the way that "safeguarding" is becoming a blank cheque for all manner of opaque and devious goings-on. At one level this seems to be a (perhaps understandable) overreaction to a tabloid culture of paranoia and fury, but at another it sometimes appears a cynical pretext for manipulative and controlling behaviour.I too have some experience of cathedral communities, and on the basis of my experiences I am less inclined to give my wholehearted support to the dean and chapter.
It should, of course, be a priority to ensure that all clergy and laity are kept physically safe in the church (emotional safety is, I would suggest, an entirely different matter). But it should also be a priority to ensure that individuals are not excluded from full participation in the life of the church without extremely good reason. "Inclusiveness," after all, is another of our favourite shibboleths, and when push comes to shove I tend to think that inclusiveness should take priority even over the perception of safety.
Disgraced and Fr William,
I wonder whether you (and the Archbishop) may be painting with too broad a brush.
Isn't the point here that the Minster had already barred the person at issue from its grounds in July?
And that the Dean and Chapter still have not identified any aspect of their safeguarding policy that the ringers did not implement in full, at all times?
In my only previous comment on this thread I made a bit of a joke about it. On reflection, when the word "safeguarding" is used in a particular situation, circumspection is the best approach.
Regarding funds I would ask dissenting PCC members to recall the last time they were asked for funds to maintain the bells. In my experience the bell ringers contribute weekly to their pot, visiting bell ringers contribute to the pot, a portion of wedding money goes into the pot, at one tower any ringing errors results in a voluntary fine - into the pot. The money from the pot pays for ropes, maintenance (time usually given free unless professionals required). At two towers the accounts are discussed with the vicar at the ringers' agm but the funds are kept very separate and for good reason. Sometimes if there is an excess with no further maintainance planned it may go towards an Xmas meal and why not? The vicar at one tower is a co-signatory to the account.
It has been well reported that an influential individual at York has been the subject of police investigations and no case has been found to answer. It is also clear from statements that the York Minster ringers embrace the CofE Safeguarding guidelines. We don't even know if any such alleged events took place in the bell chamber, and it is unlikely that any vulnerable person would be in that tower, and even more unlikely to be alone with someone. If, and I say, if, the complainant was not satisfied and continues to pursue the issue, whether fairly or not, what stance should the Minster take?
Couldn't agree more, Rjb, especially when "safeguarding" isn't given as the initial reason for the dismissals.
Regardless of the merits of the safeguarding complaint, and saying nothing about any particular person, this fiasco shows, yet again, the importance of due process, and limiting power. I see no reason why dedicated volunteers should be unprotected: no, it's not their livelihood, but for many, it's a vocation. Any dismissal should be for good cause shown, and appealable to an independent body.
"My experience of bellringers is that they are one of the unaccountable breeds that include organists, choirs, vergers and flower arrangers."
Might we add clergy to that list?
Excellent reporting by the Church Times which has in effect got to the bottom of this difficult case. Most of their sources have been only too willing to go on the record. I am no PR expert and continue to believe that it has been a PR disaster, but I completely understand why the Dean and Chapter have taken the steps they have.
Anthony: the Church Times gets us a lot closer to understanding what's been going on but I wouldn't say it gets to the bottom of it. We still don't know whether the bell ringers obstructed the Chapter even if they eventually complied. We still don't know whether the private representations made about process by some bell ringers to the Chapter were valid or indicated a failure to understand safeguarding issues. We still don't know how many of the bell ringers were directly involved. We still don't know whether it is true that the bell ringers had their privilege of being married in the Minster withdrawn and if so what lay behind that. We still don't know whether there was a valid reason not to let a ringer make the bells safe before being banned. We still don't know what efforts each party had made to build relationships.
We may never know those things. It may possibly be better for us not to know those things. But, as a (lapsed) bell ringer and (in a different, school, context) someone with safeguarding responsibilities, I do not think we can say we have got to the bottom of this.
The new revelations are tending to muddy this discussion a little bit, I fear.
According to the reports, the Dean and Chapter's decision to bar a certain individual occurred many months ago, and as far as we know he has not visited the tower since then.
But it is the *new* decision, to sack the rest of the bell ringers without any discussion, which still has not, to many minds, been adequately explained. Shifting the discussion back to the older issue doesn't really address the more proximate one.
Further to my questions above about what, if anything, the Archbishop was referring to....
Today the York Press reports that a ringer's lawyer stated that the Minster had told him, in writing and in September, that "The matter is closed."
So again I really do wonder about the accuracy of the Archbishop's verbal statements.