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Press: Christ Church, Oxford, saga won’t go away

13 September 2019


The Cathedral of Christ Church, Oxford

The Cathedral of Christ Church, Oxford

FROM time to time, it is suggested that the secular world should learn from the Church how to solve disputes; so here is a round-up of this week’s church-related stories about dispute resolution.

The best story comes from the United States, as one might hope, but the Church of England is not far behind. First comes an argument about the ordering of cathedrals: Michael Feaney, aged 67, found himself in Medway Magistrates’ Court for denouncing the crazy-golf installation there.

According to The Independent, “He shouted: ‘This isn’t f***ing Disneyland! This is a f***ing cathedral! This is a f***ing disgrace.’

“Feeney pleaded guilty to riotous, violent, or indecent behaviour in a churchyard, and one count of common assault.” He was fined £85. The other thing I like about the story is the ludicrous official response with its bland refusal to engage: “‘The response to the crazy golf has been amazing,’ Reverend [sic] Nathan Ward said. . . He added: ‘The people who criticised the event probably didn’t attend to experience it themselves.’”

If you really want to make the Church look nasty and out of touch, however, it helps to have serious academic credentials. The Mail on Sunday carried the Revd Jonathan Aitken’s intervention in the row at the Christ Church, Oxford. The former minister alleges that the college spent £1.6 million (News, 30 August) in legal fees in connection with the failed and wholly unjustified attempt to force out the Dean, the Very Revd Dr Martyn Percy. He has written to Baroness Stowell, who chairs the Charity Commission, demanding that the 110-page report of the inquiry be published in full.

According to the Mail on Sunday, he wrote: “It is now known that some parts of the tribunal’s report . . . contain devastating criticisms of individual members of the governing body, particularly those officers of the college who led the attack on the dean.

“It is those same officers who are now fighting the battle to have the tribunal report redacted.

“They are, without the authority of the full governing body, instructing more expensive lawyers (paid for by charitable funds) to provide them with opinions to justify the attempted censorship.”

This is a scandal that won’t go away. The college is a charity, and it’s hard to see what charitable aims were advanced by the prolonged pursuit of Dr Percy.


OVER in the Washington Post, there was an interesting piece by an American Evangelical, Judd Birdsall, who lives in Cambridge, England, but returned for a family road trip across the US. “‘Everything is bigger in America!’ my daughter kept saying . . . and, yes, the people in the United States are noticeably bigger too, but we had coached our kids ahead of time not to comment on that out loud.

“Religion in America is also comparatively enormous. Even small towns have multiple large churches with expansive facilities and parking lots.

“The Mennonite church we visited during the Swiss Days festival in the small town of Berne, Ind., (pop. 4,000) is almost certainly larger in square footage than the cathedral in Berne, Switzerland — which we visited on our Easter holiday this year.

“A United Brethren Church in Huntington, Ind., (pop. 17,000) — with its vast sanctuary, Sunday school classrooms and indoor basketball court — rivalled London’s Westminster Abbey.”

On the other hand, as he goes on to point out, European churches tend to be at the geographical centre of their communities, which has a certain symbolic weight; American Evangelical churches tend to be suburban, as they have to be to make room for their car parks and other buildings.

The other thing that is bigger, or at least longer, is the sermon. The family attended one Pentecostal service where the pastor preached on reconciliation, powerfully, for a whole hour.


STILL, that is not all that goes on in American churches: Newsweek had a story about a dispute between the wives of the pastor and the youth pastor of a church in West Virginia, which culminated in an argument over a T-shirt worn by the youth pastor’s wife. So, naturally, the pastor’s wife walked back to her car and got her handgun out to strengthen her point. When her husband tried to take it off her, it went off, although no one was hurt.

There is a small part of me that wants to see this form of dispute resolution introduced to Christ Church: I see Emma Percy stalking with deliberate purpose across the quad towards a small knot of elderly dons, who push one of their reluctant number forward and press into his hands the college blunderbuss, as stipulated in the statutes of 1580.

No one, however, was quite as macho this week as Pope Francis, who was presented with a book by a French journalist which describes the workings of the right-wing American conspiracies against him, and responded that he was “honoured when Americans attack him”. Pity the poor spin doctor who had to deal with that. He did his best. The official line is that, “in an informal context, the pope wished to say that he always considers criticisms as an honour, particularly when they come from authoritative thinkers.”

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