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Deans defend cathedrals’ independence

13 January 2017

Peterborough Cathedral

Elevated: part of the highly decorated sanctuary ceiling at Peterborough Cathedral

Elevated: part of the highly decorated sanctuary ceiling at Peterborough Cathedral

THE financial troubles at Peter­borough Cathedral should not be used as “a stick to beat the rest of the cathedrals with”, the Dean of Lichfield, the Very Revd Adrian Dorber, has declared.

Dean Dorber was reacting to a suggestion, published last week by the Bishop of Peterborough, the Rt Revd Donald Allister, that the independence of cathedrals posed “serious risks” to the reputation of the Church.

The comment came at the end of a legal charge by the Bishop after his visitation of Peterborough Cathed­ral. This was prompted by the dis­covery, in July, of a cashflow crisis at the cathedral, which meant that staff were in imminent danger of not being paid (News, 29 July). A loan was secured from the Church Commissioners, but it was an­­nounced at the same time that the Dean, the Very Revd Charles Taylor, was resigning.

Dean Taylor’s final sermon con­tained a scathing criticisim of those who, he said, were envious people at the centre of the Church of England who re­­sented “uppity” cathedrals and wished to impose a “mono­chrome blandness” on the Church (News, 7 October).

In the charge, Bishop Allister re­­hearses the lack of financial controls at the cathedral, and lists a series of measures to remedy them, and in­­crease diocesan involvement in the cathedral’s running.

At the end, he writes that the situation at Peterborough “has con­vinced me that the high degree of independence currently enjoyed by cathedrals poses serious risks to the reputation of the whole Church and thus to our effectiveness in mission. A closer working relationship of cathedrals with their bishop and diocese would be of benefit to all, both practically and spiritually.”

He urges the Archbishops’ Coun­cil, the Church Commissioners, and the House of Bishops to consider revising the Cathedrals Measure, which makes, he argues, inade­quate provision for accountability, scrutiny, and safeguards.

Bishop Allister argues that cathedral chapters are exempt from scrutiny by the Charity Commission or Church Commissioners, that the diocese has “absolutely no stand­ing”, and that the bishop has no powers “except the draconian one of Visitation — and that process has major legal complications and difficulties”. The cathedral council and the college of canons did not necessarily have the expertise or specialist staff to allow them to exercise “real scrutiny” of the accounts, “and they have no powers to mount an effective challenge to the Chapter”.

Several deans, however, have re­­jected Bishop Allister’s analysis. In a blog, the retired Dean of Durham, the Very Revd Michael Sadgrove, argues that provisions for account­ability are already in place, in­­cluding giving a significant place to the bishop. The chair of each cathedral council was appointed by the bishop, and the bishop had a statutory right to attend the coun­cil’s meetings. The Cathed­rals Measure stated that bishops and chapters were to liaise regularly, and, in the appointment process for a dean, the bishop had a veto.

”No system is better than the people who inhabit it,” Dean Sad­grove writes. “A cathedral, a parish, even a diocese, can get into serious financial, compliance, or reputation­­al difficulties if its senior officers take their eye off the ball. The only an­­­swer is close collaboration, mutual respect, and accountability between people as well as committees.”

Dean Dorber, who chairs the Association of English Cathedrals, agreed. “I do not believe that the current quasi-autonomy of cathed­rals is a threat to the Church of England,” he said this week.

”What went wrong at Peterbor­ough cannot be used as a stick to beat the rest of the cathedrals with. Cathedrals are complex places. Their foundation was to be partly a foil to an emerging Puritan hege­mony in Elizabethan times, to keep a window open to the beauty of holiness, and to preserve a musical and artistic tradition. In our own times, we are faced with some amaz­ing mission opportunities.”

Cathedrals were not always ad­­equately resourced, he said, and had not always been able to afford the “key management skills” required.

”I hope the Peterborough affair causes us not to panic and rush into confrontation, but encourages a thorough dialogue between the National Church Institutions, the bishops, and the cathedrals about a way forward.”

Bishop Allister’s charge at Peter­borough includes a list of legally binding directions “to help put the cathedral’s governance and financial management on a more secure footing”. It states that the cathedral is “the Bishop’s Church”, and that the bishop must be notified of all chapter meetings, invited to attend and speak, and sent copies of all chapter papers. Noting “a culture of small groups within Chapter mak­ing decisions”, it directs the chapter to make decisions “corporately”, and orders that the use of the “out­dated phrase . . . Dean and Chapter” be stopped.

Other orders include the appoint­ment of a vice-dean and the em­­ploy­ment of a cathedral adminis­trator and a bursar.

The cashflow problems at the cathedral are rooted in deeper prob­lems, Bishop Allister writes. There is “a substantial operating deficit; most of the Cathedral’s properties are mort­gaged; there are no free reserves; and there are serious levels of debt”. He recommends an urgent review of expenditure, and a freeze on recruitment. In an effort to raise income, he recommends “regular” teaching to congregations on Chris­tian giving.

Although it is legally binding, he offers his charge, he writes, “in a spirit of co-operation and support”.

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