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General Synod welcomes cathedrals reform but plays for time

10 July 2018

Mark Woodward and Daniel Easton

York Minster, where Synod members attended a Sung Eucharist on Sunday

York Minster, where Synod members attended a Sung Eucharist on Sunday

PROPOSALS to change the way in which cathedrals are run were welcomed by the General Synod on Tuesday after the Cathedrals Working Group sought to reassure the Synod that its recommendations would not undermine the “appropriate distance” between dean and bishop, or the potential for cathedrals to take risks.

But the Synod agreed to delay the consideration of a draft Measure until next July, owing to disquiet expressed by cathedral canons outside the chamber.

The draft report, published in January, spoke of cathedrals as “an attractive brand, often understood better by the wider community than by the Church”, but suggested that “serious governance mistakes” had been made (News, 19 January). It spoke of a “self-review threat” arising from the involvement of a significant proportion of Chapter members in the operation of the cathedral, and identified a lack of “effective independent scrutiny”.

“Cathedrals can easily turn inwards and be organised for the best interest of Chapter, or staff, or volunteers, and not for the needs and hopes of those outside their doors,” wrote the Bishop of Stepney, the Rt Revd Adrian Newman, who chaired the group. “Chapters can be too protective of the spiritual capital of the cathedral, resisting opening their hearts and the cathedral’s giftedness to bishop and diocese.

“Bishops, sometimes lacking experience or understanding of cathedrals, can fail to understand the riches the cathedral can offer, fail to receive the gift of the cathedral with grace, or fail to find in the cathedral a fount for mission. These failings are to the detriment of the whole Church.”

The group’s recommendations included the retention of the Chapter as the governing body, but with a majority of non-executive members, at least two-thirds of whom should be lay, and a “Senior Executive Team” carrying out operational work, with a Vice-Chair drawn from outside the Cathedral (News, 15 June).

On Tuesday, the Synod was asked to welcome the recommendations and to request that the legislation necessary for implementation be brought to the Synod next year.

Although residentiary canons were the most critical respondents to a consultation on the report, a number spoke in favour of the proposals during the debate.

Canon Simon Taylor, Chancellor of Derby Cathedral (Derby), described the report as “a comprehensive and really well thought-through piece of work” that his cathedral had welcomed “broadly”. The clarity it offered “could and should enable cathedrals to be models for the whole church of how to hold those in authority to account, without disabling them as leaders and managers of the Church”.

Canon Paul Rattigan, of Liverpool Cathedral (Liverpool), suggested that “overall the direction is very workable and much needed,” although, while appreciating the need for “clear bishop’s representation” that could aid communication between Chapter and Bishop, he did not see the need for that person to be Vice Chair.

Most speeches welcomed the report, while urging those charged with implementation to avoid various dangers, including the risk of failing to recognise the centrality of prayer to the life of the Cathedral.

“A cathedral is a praying church community led by a Dean: nothing else looks or feels right,” the Archdeacon of Halifax, the Ven. Dr Anne Dawtry (Leeds) said.

The events that triggered the formation of the working group were alluded to in several speeches: it was set up last year by the Archbishops’ Council after the episcopal Visitation of Peterborough Cathedral, where a cash-flow crisis led to the involvement of the Church Commissioners, forcing out the Dean and making several staff redundant (News, 13 April 2017).

In her presentation as vice-chair of the working group, the Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, until recently Dean of York, observed that recent problems in the sector had involved “complex issues around relationship breakdown, confusions over accountability and responsibility, and the frustration of some stakeholders who wanted to intervene and help with problems”.

Delivering the final speech of the debate, the Bishop of Peterborough, the Rt Revd Donald Allister, emphasised that the cathedral was “a place I love very much”.

“I encourage and support the relative independence of cathedrals from bishops, as I do the relative independence of parishes,” he said. “We are not a franchise Church. . . It’s best that we are different.”

But, he emphasised, “If something like the working group proposals had been in place, the problems at Peterborough would not have arisen.”

He was among several speakers seeking to quash the rumour, originating in a Daily Mail report, that cathedrals might be put up for sale. It was evidence of a “great misunderstanding” among the public, he suggested: “People just don’t get and understand cathedrals, and that is a shame.” More education was needed.

The financial precariousness of many cathedrals was, however, never far from the Synod’s mind. Several speakers drew attention to the financial cost of implementing the report’s recommendations, particularly for those cathedrals with limited assets.

Several cathedrals face significant financial challenges, and the report emphasises that the Commissioners “cannot be considered in any way as a backstop if and when a cathedral gets into difficulties”.

The recommendations include seeking greater financial support from the Government, and the Third Church Estates Commissioner, Eve Poole, confirmed that a Cathedrals Support Group had already been established.

Moving an amendment to delay the first reading of legislation until next July, the Revd Neil Patterson (Hereford), noted the presence of “a degree of disquiet” about the report. The amendment was carried.

This was most firmly put across by the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn, who said that the failure to consult residentiary canons on the report had caused “a huge amount of upset”. When he had received the draft report it had been presented as “all or nothing”, and the Chapter at Southwark had decided against it, for reasons including the desire to protect the “creative distance” between cathedrals and bishops.

If the Bishop of Southwark had been present at the Chapter meeting, he suggested, it would not have been possible to agree to march during Pride, flying the flag from the tower of the Cathedral. The current agreement enabled the Bishop to say “That’s nothing to do with me.” He would be reluctantly voting for the motion as amended.

The tension between the need to defray risk, and the importance of cathedrals as a “safe place in which to do risky things in Christ’s service”, as Liverpool Cathedral advertised, was an undercurrent during the debate.

The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, lead bishop for cathedrals and churches, who moved the motion, said that the vice-chair would not be the “Bishop’s mole”, and the Dean would continue to lead the “praying heart” of the cathedral. An “appropriate distance between cathedral and bishops would not be threatened”, he said. Cathedrals should be “laboratories”, places where “risk is enabled to be taken”.

He concluded by quoting the future Pope Paul VI, who, after visiting nine English cathedrals, described them as “very ships of the spirit”.

The Synod voted to:

a) welcome the recommendations in the Report of the Cathedrals Working Group (GS 2101A);

b) request the Archbishops’ Council to bring forward a draft measure for First Consideration at the July 2019 group of sessions to give effect to the recommendations that involve legislative change; and

c) call on all concerned, including bishops, cathedrals and the National Church Institutions, to give effect to the recommendations that do not involve legislative change as soon as practically possible.


Read the full debate, here, and find reports on every other General Synod presentation and debate from York 2018, here

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