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Bishops, leave those deans alone

03 February 2017

CATHEDRAL deans are meeting on Monday to discuss the fallout from last year’s cash-flow crisis at Peterborough Cathedral (News, 29 July 2016). The immediate outcome was that the Bishop, the Rt Revd Donald Allister, stepped in and held a visitation, and the Dean was forced to leave.

The Bishop’s recently published legal charge sternly directs the cathedral to change its ways, while also offering reflections for others to consider (News, 13 January). He recommends the extension of the Cathedrals Measure to ensure tighter episcopal and diocesan control. This would effectively remove the cathedrals’ powers to manage their own affairs.

Anticipating this, the Bishop instructs the cathedral Chapter to ensure that the Bishop has a significant part to play at Chapter meetings; that the diocesan board of finance (DBF) scrutinises cathedral accounts; and that the cathedral does all that it can to maximise revenue.

No one is any doubt that there was poor governance at Peterborough. But the Bishop’s reflections are, in reality, a naïve but worrying bid for power. They reveal the expectation, mostly from Evangelical bishops, that the cathedral ought to be the flagship church of the diocese — a shop window for the Bishop’s priorities and mission.

The charge is adamant that the cathedral is “the Bishop’s church”. This is both true and not true in Church of England polity. It is true in the sense that the cathedral is the seat of the Bishop’s authority. But it has never been true that the Dean and Chapter are mere functionaries of the Bishop. Cathedrals represent a different ecology, and a cathedral dean is sometimes the only priest senior enough to speak truth to episcopal power.

Some recently appointed bishops simply do not seem to understand this. They see no virtue in any separation of powers in English church life. Formed in a sub-culture that emphasises strong leadership, they expect cathedrals to do their bidding, and are genuinely puzzled when they don’t.

History would teach them that the root of cathedrals’ governance is in the monasteries. Their mission is worship. They welcome worshippers, but do not need to control them. They offer space to those who do not wish to be hugged into church either metaphorically or literally.

The independence of cathedrals has been an enormous blessing to the English Church, not least in enabling a flourishing choral tradition. Attendance at cathedrals is holding up, and even increasing, but with the DBF scrutinising the accounts — could we just drop a few tenors to balance the books? That is what is at stake here, and the Deans realise it.

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.

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