Thinking Anglicans

Can the dons sack their dean?

Modern Church has published an interview in which Professor Linda Woodhead interviews Professor Gillian Evans:

Can the dons sack their dean? An interview with Oxford historian Gillian Evans on Martyn Percy’s predicament

A PDF of the full text of the interview is also available via a link at the end of the above article.

Prof G.R. Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge. She is author of The University of Oxford: a new history and writes regularly on higher education policy issues. She co-authored Managing the church?: Order and organization in a secular age with Martyn Percy in 2000. She lives in Oxford.

Linda Woodhead MBE is Professor of the Sociology or Religion at Lancaster University. She has been President of Modern Church since 2014. She is author with Andrew Brown of That Was the Church That Was: How the Church of England Lost the English People. She is currently a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, USA.


  • Rowland Wateridge says:

    I find all this utterly baffling. The procedure for removal from office (not dismissal) of the Dean is clearly set out in the Christ Church Statutes. To quote from an earlier post on another thread on this subject:

    ‘ … … these are some salient points extracted from the redundancy and dismissal provisions: Part VII applies specifically to the Dean.

    “41. If it appears either
    (a) to the Governing Body; or
    (b) to the Chapter
    that the complaint is not supported by sufficient evidence of good cause for the removal of the Dean from office, the Senior ex-Censor may determine that no further action shall be taken upon it.

    42. If it appears both
    (a) to the Governing Body; and
    (b) to the Chapter
    on the available material that the complaint is supported by sufficient evidence which could, if proved, constitute good cause for the removal of the Dean from office, the Governing Body and the Chapter, exclusive of the Dean shall jointly appoint a tribunal to hear and determine the matter.”

    In Paragraph 41, note the crucuial “either” and “or”. By paragraph 42, to proceed with the complaint requires the agreement of the Governing Body and the Chapter. One assumes that everyone involved already knows this.’

    So, unless I am mistaken, the Chapter could have vetoed the Governing Body’s complaint going forward AND vice versa. But the announcement made is that the Governing Body and the Chapter have jointly appointed an independent tribunal.

  • If ever there was just cause for intervention by H.M. The Queen, surely this is one such. The confusion in the respective arguments for adjudication seem bound to foster a sense of injustice. If the Queen appoints, surely it is the Queen’s prerogative to dimiss one of her own staff.

    • Rowland Wateridge says:

      I should have made clear that my bafflement was over the seeming lack of understanding of the legal position in media articles about this matter. Did anyone trouble to find out before going to press?
      The words of the Statute are crystal clear. There is no confusion. No one loves lawyers (at least in England!) but they are necessary to interpret rules and implement legislation correctly.
      HM, as Visitor, will not intervene. She authorised the Statutes by order in her Privy Council, and their terms must be implemented. She would be the final ‘court of appeal’ if and when asked – but, to repeat, she will not intervene.
      We can’t, or shouldn’t, speculate or advise from the sidelines as the parties have gone to law. I have offered my thoughts purely to help, I hope, other TA contributors in understanding the provisions of the Statute.

      • Kate says:

        Rowland, it is easy to get hung up on the word “tribunal” but it isn’t legally a tribunal. See

        Your phrase that the parties “have gone to law” is, based on the information in the public domain, factually incorrect.

        • Rowland Wateridge says:

          I feel i can’t contribute any more to this subject. I used the words “gone to law” as meaning the procedure under clause 42 of the Christ Church Statutes had been implemented and that an internal independent tribunal had been set up which has legal force. Tribunal is the correct word; it has nothing to do with Employment Tribunals as most people know them. There is an appeals procedure in the Christ Church Statute. Initially that is not to the Visitor. An appeal to HM only lies in the very last resort.

        • Rowland Wateridge says:

          In the interests of everyone understanding the basis and procedure of the independent internal tribunal, here are clauses 43 – 45 to be read in conjunction with clauses 41, 42 and 46 already quoted verbatim from the Christ Church Statute:

          “43.(a) The Tribunal appointed under clause 42 shall comprise:
          (i) an independent Chairman; and
          (ii) so many members of the Chapter as may be nominated by the Chapter; and
          (iii) an equivalent number of members of the Governing Body to be nominated by the Governing Body.
          (b) In nominating members of the Tribunal, the Chapter and the Governing Body shall exclude the Dean, and any person who has been involved in or associated with the making of the complaint or any part of it, or who has been involved in any preliminary hearing or investigation.

          44. A charge referred to the Tribunal shall be dealt with in accordance with the procedure prescribed in clauses 17 to 19, provided –
          (a) that the Senior ex-Censor shall perform any duty and exercise any power there assigned to the Dean; and
          (b) that the only recommendation the Tribunal may make is whether or not the Dean should be removed from his or her office.

          45. Where a charge or charges have been upheld and the Tribunal finds good cause and recommends dismissal, but in no other case, the Senior ex-Censor shall consult the Governing Body (from which the members who made the complaint shall not be excluded) and may then dismiss the Dean.”

          • So RW, with all that you know (and all you have kindly set out before us), what would you advise if you were asked?

          • Rowland Wateridge says:

            I have no idea at all what is alleged against the Dean. Much of the media coverage seems to have been speculation. In more than one way it’s like the Bishop Bell case (I also made that connection), and it’s another situation where we can only “wait and see”.

      • Rowland Wateridge says:

        Thinking further about Father Ron’s comment, while the provisions of the Statute (authorised by HM, who is the Visitor) must be followed, yet another unique facet of Oxford is that the Bishop is the only C of E bishop who is not the Visitor in his own Cathedral!

  • Rowland Wateridge says:

    One further, and probably final, purely factual contribution by me. This is the provision for suspension of the Dean, again copied from Part VII:

    46. Where a complaint is to be referred to a Tribunal under clause 42, the Senior ex- Censor, after consulting the Governing Body (from which the members who made the complaint shall not be excluded) and the Chapter exclusive of the Dean, may, if he or she considers that the House might otherwise suffer significant harm, suspend the Dean from his or her duties without loss of salary.

    • T Pott says:

      Does a “Senior Ex Censor” have any other responsibilities? How does one become a senior ex Censor? What advice might be given to a schoolboy or schoolgirl whose career objective was to be a Senior Ex Censor?

  • Iain mclean says:

    The Charity Commission is likely to take a close interest. I foresee it requiring the two foundations to be split, as it did a few years ago with the Thomas Coram foundation. Founded with the support of Handel and Hogarth to look after foundling children, it became an art gallery and music library (Hogarth’s picture and a conducting score of Messiah). The Cc regarded child welfare and a museum as too disparate to come under a single charity.

    • Rowland Wateridge says:

      I keep saying this will be my last word! Why won’t people take on board the legal reality that the Christ Church Statutes have force of law – whether or not people are happy about the way they have been implemented. (There is a world of difference between the Christ Church Statutes governing a Royal Foundation of both a Cathedral and an Oxford College and the situation of the Thomas Coram Foundation.)

      I urge people to take the trouble to read the relevant Statute provisions for themselves – they aren’t overlong. Kate provided the link to the Christ Church website: The Statutes (2016) are at the foot of the list of Downloads, and that link will bring up the Statutes document.

      Then scroll down to page 52 where you will find Part VII – ‘Removal of the Dean from office’. Clauses 39 to 48 set out in the plainest language the answer to the question “Can the dons sack their Dean?”. It’s not apparent that these have been considered (possibly not even read) by the journalists or, indeed, some of the Academics who have made their views public.

      There is much else of interest in the Statutes, including the appeals procedures and, as I have said several times on the earlier thread, an ultimate right of appeal to Her Majesty as Visitor.

      The preamble on page 1 might also help people’s understanding of this unusual and unique body.

  • Rowland Wateridge says:

    The 2016 Statutes say this:

    “5. The powers reserved to the Dean and Chapter

    (a) There shall be excepted out of the powers assigned to the Governing Body under clause 4(a) of this Statute, and reserved to the Dean and Chapter, all powers hitherto lawfully exercised by the Dean and Canons or the Dean and Chapter in respect of:
    (i) the Cathedral Church and its fabric and appurtenances, including the Chapter House; and
    (ii) … …
    (iii) the residentiary houses at the date of these Statutes assigned for occupation by the Dean and the Canons together with Cloister House.”

    Not all the buildings, if I understand correctly, but certainly the significant ones!

  • Kate says:

    There has been talk in the comments here and elsewhere about the desirability of splitting the two bodies but, I reread the Statutes, and the House is a single entity with two purposes. Given the structure, I can’t begin to imagine how the House could be split into two separate bodies.

    As to simply splitting the role of Dean and appointing two people, obviously one of the two resulting posts would need to be the senior, and one the junior. Neither the canons nor the academics would accept that their leader was junior to the other party. Again, I can’t see how anyone could split the role.

    • Rowland Wateridge says:

      Agreed. One finds seeming anomalies at every turn. The Dean is “Head” of the House and both head of the Cathedral Chapter and the College Governing Body. I think I have worked out that the Chapter, i.e., the Cathedral Canons are also members of the Governing Body, but all other members of the GB are not, of course, members of the Chapter.

  • Simon Bravery says:

    Does Dean Percy still have permission to officiate elsewhere in the Diocese( or in any other diocese)? If I were an incumbent in the Oxford area I would be tempted to invite him to preach. It would be a pity if his homiletic talents went to waste.

  • Anthony Archer says:

    As has been attributed to Henry Kissinger (and probably others), “academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” Unfortunately, the stakes are somewhat higher for the person who is the target of such behaviour, and our thoughts go out to Martyn in this situation. Many Oxbridge governing bodies (though by no means all) are parochial and petty. The Fellows have far too much time on their hands, leading to overmuch idle gossip, which seems strange when the purpose of academia is to debate issues and gain insights and wisdom generally on matters of import to the world. The seven or more complainant Fellows who have instigated this arcane process (we must be told who they are) will not have had the common sense to consider the consequences of their actions, as already the reputation of Christ Church has been seriously tarnished by their public action, whatever the underlying facts, and it needs to be observed that another facet of academic life is that memories are long, and in the days of social media nothing is eradicated from the record. I would be surprised if there is an independent chair of any stature available to hear this dispute. Better to withdraw and agree a process of mediation.

  • linda woodhead says:

    It is always attempting to appeal to the statutes as if that settles everything. As Professor Evans and I explain, there is a problem in the Christ Church statutes when it comes to removal from office of the Dean. We set out the historical reasons why this is.

    The statutes set out a lower standard for dealing with a complaint than normal practice (and natural justice) demands. As we suggest, given this circumstance, it is not necessary to follow the statutes slavishly. They do not rule out the possibility of acting to a higher standard than they set out (they set a minimum standard, not a maximum).

    It is also misleading to pretend that the statutes are engraved in stone. They can, and should, be changed in order to maintain their integrity. The Privy Council expects it, and will expedite it.

    There will always be fundamentalists who want to treat statutes – and all sorts of other texts – as infallible, inerrant, changeless and sufficient. In the US the ‘originalists’ treat the Constitution that way. Plenty of religious people treat scriptures like this. I don’t think it’s a defensible position in relation to either religion or an institution of learning. We are fallible, we need always to be self-critical and responsible, and we can’t deny the reality of change – which is occasionally for the better.

  • It appears Martyn Percy is not alone, historically, in having problems at Christ Church:

    In the 19th century there were “bitter theological feuds, the refusal of Christ Church to pay [Benjamin] Jowett’s salary as Professor of Greek because of his religious unorthodoxy, the suspension of [Edward] Pusey from preaching in the Cathedral…[Gilbert] Murray…generally recognised to be the most brilliant classical lecturer of his time…antagonised Conservative Oxford…the absence of undergraduates from Christ Church, to which his Chair was attached, was particularly noticeable”

    Source: “Oxford and Empire – The Last Lost Cause” [1986]

  • Simon Bravery says:

    In answer to my earlier question, Private Eye states the Bishop of Oxford had withdrawn the Dean’s PTO. This makes his assertion that suspension is a neutral act all the more questionable.

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