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Angela Tilby: A reforming dean may be unpopular

16 November 2018

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Christ Church, Oxford

Christ Church, Oxford

THE Head of House of an Oxford or Cambridge college has very little power. The part that he or she plays is to be the public face of the college; to offer hospitality; raise funds; and to chair internal committees.

Christ Church, Oxford, has been in the news because of a complaint made against the Dean, Martyn Percy (News, 9 November). He is awaiting an internal tribunal that could lead to him losing his job. The complaint is very serious, although the causes of complaint seem, from an outside perspective, trivial: they centre on a bad-tempered internal spat about salaries.

But behind that are tensions that are unique to Christ Church. Its ancient constitution requires the Dean to be both Head of House (75 per cent of his time) and Dean of the Cathedral (25 per cent), which is also the college chapel. Inevitably, these days, some of the “Students” (as Fellows are known at Christ Church) resent the link to the Church. Some also question the position of four academic canons who are members both of the Cathedral Chapter and the Governing Body, and who happen to occupy very beautiful (if cold) houses in Tom Quad.

When I was Diocesan Canon at Christ Church, I came to realise that there was an unwritten contract between the College and the Dean. The Dean’s clerical position was accepted as long as he agreed not to interfere with the real running of the college.

It is this arrangement that Dr Percy may have challenged. It is not entirely his fault. I was a minor part of the appointment process, representing Chapter, and it was clear that Dr Percy had an agenda of speeding up reform. He wanted Christ Church to be more inclusive, more open to the outside world, and, perhaps, more aware of its wealth and vested interests.

Outside mediation might help, but this is difficult for institutions that are used to running their own affairs — even these days, when no institution can truly behave as a world unto itself. Those who graduate from Christ Church will find that they have to adhere to externally set standards in working life.

I valued my time at Christ Church, and I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation and hospitality of the House. I am really sad about the current impasse. But the structure of the double institution is simultaneously fragile and indissoluble. It makes for an environment in which highly intelligent individuals are not always able to retain emotional insight, and are capable of extraordinary vehemence — even calculated deception. I certainly experienced occasions in Christ Church when that was true.

It happens. In the Church, in academic life, in government; where the structures are simultaneously unstable and unchangeable, there is always a threat of hostilities.

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