Letters to the editor

by
26 January 2018

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Is it time to reconsider terms of priestly tenure?

Sir, — I am a male Reader who has suffered several years of emotional and spiritual abuse from my female incumbent. I did not realise this at the time; I only realised what had actually taken place after I left the parish last year. Your leader comment (12 January) is right: “spiritual abuse” is a very imprecise term. It does, however, fairly describe what happened to me.

My incumbent consistently tried to undermine my faith and my ability in various ways over several years. She “corrected” a sermon during a service, saying that she had to “rescue her congregation”. She criticised a funeral service and sermon in front of the mourners. She questioned my faith on several occasions. She questioned my com­mitment at a time when I preached or led more than 40 Sunday services a year, and spent another two to three days a week on other pastoral and outreach duties, both within and without the parish.

Her criticisms reduced me to tears on more than one occasion — as someone who used to run a small company with a multi-million-pound turnover, I am fairly resilient.

My incumbent was totally hung up on her own authority. She could never accept that as a Reader I had a separate licence and authority that did not stem from hers. I did not challenge her authority; I knew she was in charge of the parish. I always tried to be as loyal and supportive of her as I had been of her (female) predecessor. But it proved impos­sible to work with someone who always thought she was right, never made a mistake, and never felt the need to apologise.

I believe the root of the problem is that she has a serious but unacknow­ledged mental illness. I have no medical qualifications, but I know two qualified members of my former congregation who agree with this. This mental problem has allowed the enemy to get into her and into the church. A major spiritual battle is now taking place for the souls of the congregation.

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Sadly, my departure only ac­­celerated a previous decline of the church into something near to a freefall. I know many members of the congregation are very unhappy with what is now happening because they have continued to turn to me for pastoral support, even though I have not solicited this.

The area bishop is well aware of the situation, and has been very supportive to me personally. The archdeacon has explained to me just how limited are the powers open to the bishop and him to deal with issues such as this. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the terms of service of common tenure to enable the church authorities to deal positively with incumbents who are, in the words of your leader, “overbearing, dicta­torial, partial, or simply neglectful”.

I know that there is no easy solution to this, but surely bishops need the ability to intervene in cases where the problems of an individual priest pose a potentially existential threat to a whole parish congregation.

Name & Address Supplied

 

Report on cathedral governance draws fire

From Canon John Searle

Sir, — The Cathedrals Working Group (News and Comment, 19 January) has accurately identified the “vulnerabilities and weaknesses” of the governance and management of cathedrals. The Howe report opened the potential for poor governance, muddled lines of manage­ment, and inadequate accountability. The Group has made essential recom­menda­­tions on finance, build­ings, and safeguarding. The report also makes the crucially important recommendation that there should be “a clear separa­tion of governance and manage­ment”, governance being the re­­spons­­ibility of an enhanced Chapter or board, and the day-to-day cathedral operations being overseen by a senior executive team.

Then, however, the report goes on to muddle these two distinct func­tions. The dean is to chair both the board (that is Chapter) and the senior executive team. Furthermore, the residentiary canons have signifi­cant operational responsibilities but are “trustees”, that is, members of the board.

Notwithstanding the increase in the number and the expertise of non-executive members of Chapter, this arrangement perpetuates the weak-ness of the present governance structure, greatly increases the power of the deans, and makes it more difficult for Chapter robustly to monitor their performance as well as that of the residentiary canons.

Worship, prayer, mission, and pastoral care must always be the very heart of cathedral life. It is, therefore, perhaps understand­able that the report wishes to retain something of the centuries-old pattern of running cathedrals. This, however, is the 21st century, when these core functions are necessarily carried out in the context of a complex corporate institution and all that goes with it.

Governance must ensure that the ecclesial, civic, and business func­tions of a cathedral are carried out Christianly and effectively. This will be more difficult unless there really is a clear separation between Chapter and the executive team.

JOHN SEARLE

Belle Isle Lodge, Belle Isle Drive

Exeter EX2 4RY

 

From Dr Richard Austen-Baker

Sir, — The Church should be wary of implementing the governance changes suggested by the Cathedral Working Group.

It has become accepted wisdom that public and quasi-public bodies ought to be governed by governing bodies with a majority of “lay” mem­­bers — “lay”, in this context, usually meaning people who know little or nothing of the purpose, running, or daily life of the type of institution in question. We have seen this with univers­ities. Most have, under government pressure, adopted gov­­ern­ing bodies with “lay” majorities, generally by the simple ex­­pedient of ridding these bodies of practising academics, leaving them consisting of students (who know little about running universities); lay members (such as politicians, businesspeople and local clergy, who know even less); and “academics”, who are really the management themselves: vice-chancellor, pro-vice-chancellors, and so on. These last know a great deal about what is going on, and are often notable more for vaulting ambition than for prudence and self-restraint.

These governing bodies, which are meant to supervise the manage­ment are, then, entirely dominated by the management, who have all the in­­formation and knowledge.

The scandals about excessive pay for vice-chancellors have emerged after these reforms, and there will be more scandals and embarrassments to come, one can be sure. The NHS provides plenty of examples of the failings of governance by people who don’t know one end of a thermo­meter from the other.

One does not, of course, allow the lunatics to run the asylum. But the assumption behind democratic self-governance of bodies such as uni­versities and cathedrals, where the people who make up the institution run it, is that they are not lunatics — that they are of rather higher than average intelligence, and that they tend to have the best interests of the body itself at heart; an assumption which has not been disproven.

Given that it is not disproven, then it is likely better to continue a model that has worked reasonably well (in many instances, extremely well) for hundreds of years in the context in question, rather than importing models from alien con­­texts, which are already malfunc­tioning, sometimes spectacularly, in the new contexts into which they have been transplanted.

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RICHARD AUSTEN-BAKER

Gallows Clough, Abbeystead

Lancaster LA2 9BE

 

From the Very Revd Richard Lewis

Sir, — When the Working Group on Cathedrals was begun, I voiced the opinion that this was an exercise in command and control. So it has proved. If implemented — and we are enjoined to accept its recom­­menda­tions without variation, as oracles set in stone — our cathedrals will become parish churches: the dean will be the vicar; the canons will be the dean’s curates.

At present, the Chapter of clergy and lay canons take initiatives, and the associated risks. In future, the risks will pass to the bishop and his or her appointees. With their boards and non-executive controlling com­­mittees, cathedrals will be so risk-averse that they must now be recon­­ciled to the fact that the golden years are done; decline will follow. Sad to say, the politics of power and envy will do their worst.

Reading the report, I wonder when the clergy will find time to pray, with so many new tiers of manage­­ment, many requiring funds that are already in short supply.

There is always a need for new thinking and refinement, and, had the recommendations for good gov­­ernance already in place been followed, no doubt much present anguish could have been averted. Things will go wrong — they always do, for that is the human condition.

In your leader comment (19 January), you mention Carillion. I would point out that Carillion failed without single dean or Chapter in sight. The company, as with RBS or BHS, to mention but three, was run by well-qualified persons; no doubt some of those persons are looking for new work. Many will note, too, that auditors must be chosen from a prescribed list. I dare to wonder whether KPMG, the auditors of Carillion, will be allowed.

RICHARD LEWIS

Dean Emeritus of Wells

(Member of the Howe Commission on Cathedrals 1991)

1 Monmouth Court, Union Street

Wells, Somerset BA5 2PX

 

The letter of the law followed, but not its spirit

From the Very Revd Gerald Stranraer-Mull

Sir, — The excellent and fair report on the controversy caused by the appointment of Canon Anne Dyer to be Bishop of Aberdeen & Orkney (News, 12 January) does, rightly, highlight issues of importance, some of which seem not to have been addressed by the Scottish Bishops.

First, those who signed the letter of protest (News, 5 January) have, correctly and courteously, insisted that this is not aimed at Canon Dyer personally, but concerns the decision of the four bishops currently in office.

Second, those signing the protest acknowledge that the very letter of the canonical process has been followed, but maybe not its spirit. Under Scottish canon law, the Episcopal Synod can make an ap­­­point­ment when the Preparatory Committee — which consists of people from the diocese, others from across Scotland, and two of the Bishops themselves — cannot find the necessary minimum of three can­didates whom it is willing to present to the Diocesan Electoral Synod.

The Bishops, in their reply to the protest letter, say, however, that the diocese had every opportunity to make an election. It did not; since the Electoral Synod, representing the diocese, played little part at all, the Preparatory Committee having failed to find sufficient candidates for an election.

Also, in appointing a priest who conducted a same-sex marriage soon after it became possible in the Epis­­copal Church, the Bishops clearly decided to set aside the view of the diocese, as expressed by its Synod, on same-sex marriage.

Some of those signing the letter of protest support the principle of such marriage, and this indicates that the concern is, indeed, over the process that the Bishops followed rather than the matter of same-sex marriages. I understand that those signing the letter — some or all of them, I do not know which — believe that commit­ments were made which subse­­quently were not kept.

The third issue is that members of the Diocesan Standing Committee, immediately after Canon Dyer’s appointment in November, asked for an early meeting with her. This request was declined, but, had such a meeting taken place perhaps some, most, or all of the concerns might have been allayed. One of these is that Canon Dyer is, re­­­por­­tedly, not a car-driver — and the question how she proposes to travel the far-flung diocese remains as yet unanswered.

Far from seeking to subvert the canonical process by asking Canon Dyer to consider withdrawing her acceptance of the Bishops’ appoint­ment, as has been suggested, those who signed the letter, it seems to me, recognise that a bishop is, or should be, a focus of unity within a diocese and that, largely, the diocese of Aberdeen & Orkney was at peace with the decision on same-sex marriage made by its Synod. Only a bishop willing to work from that perspective is likely to be a focus of unity.

I think this was the reason that those signing the protest letter asked Canon Dyer to consider whether she should come to the diocese. I did not read it as any kind of personal attack on her or an attempt to subvert the canonical process.

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I wish the diocese of Aberdeen & Orkney, which I served for 36 years, well; and Canon Dyer, too, should she be consecrated as its bishop. But I regret very much that the manner of the Bishops’ decisions has led to two resignations from the cathedral Chapter. The Very Revd Emsley Nimmo has been one of the finest deans any diocese could hope for; Canon Ian Ferguson has served the people of Westhill wonderfully for decades, and its congregation has grown from small beginnings to be the largest in the diocese.

These two priests come from very different parts of the ecclesiastical spectrum. Their opinions were always respected and valued by the whole Chapter during the years I was a member of it, and the Chapter will miss their wisdom.

GERALD STRANRAER-MULL

Dean Emeritus of the diocese of Aberdeen & Orkney

4 Loch Lann Avenue

Culloden IV2 7AT

 

One person’s hope may be another’s apprehension

From Mr John Swanson

Sir, — Your story about the possible lifting of the 50-per-cent cap on faith places in new schools is headlined “Hopes rise for lifting of faith cap” (News, 19 January).

Funny, that. Some of us would feel it is a case of “Fears rise . . .” — fear of how sections of the Church would seize the opportunity to extend faith-based admissions criteria.

Schools that become socially selective; church attendance becom­ing something done for worldly gain; the message that we serve ourselves before the community: these are not things to be hoped for.

JOHN SWANSON

9 Randalls Road, Leatherhead

Surrey KT22 7TQ

 

Stealing is OK if it’s from the best

From the Revd Claire Wilson

Sir, — As a conventionally busy retired priest who provides cover around London, I enjoy the occas­ional Sunday off when I get to hear someone else preach.

Yesterday, after church, I told the minister in question: “I admired your sermon, and I will be nicking it for use elsewhere.”

He replied: “Feel free. I nicked it from Rowan Williams.”

CLAIRE WILSON

26 Frognal Lane

London NW3 7 DT

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