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Press: Christ Church conflict gets the FT treatment

18 October 2019


Christ Church, Oxford

Christ Church, Oxford

THE big story of the week was the Financial Times’s deep dive into the mess at Christ Church, Oxford (News, 11 October). I thought the piece, headed “Scheming spires”, was clearly more influenced by the forces (and sources) opposed to the Dean, the Very Revd Dr Martyn Percy, than by his side.

You can tell this by whether the piece starts with a discussion of his salary, which is quite the weakest part of his case. Obviously, no one deserves to be sacked simply for asking for a pay rise, but if that is made the most eye-catching part of the story, the misdeeds of his opponents become a little more indistinct. Somehow, the fact that the Dean wanted more than £90,000 a year becomes more significant than the fact that his opponents have been happy to spend more than £1.6 million of a charity’s money on lawyers to punish him for that request.

This is not to blame Henry Mance and Madison Marriage, the piece’s authors. Someone had clearly given them access to some, at least, of the Dean’s correspondence with the Salaries Board, and, of course, they used it.

“When the salaries board declined to immediately review his pay, the dean lost patience. Christ Church had a ‘culture of mean-spiritedness’, he wrote in an email. The academics had an ‘upstairs-downstairs’ attitude to administrators like him. He complained that, in dozens of pages of emails discussing salaries, ‘I have not received the smallest hint — not even a single sentence — of gratitude for my work’.

“The conflict broadened. The dean pitched himself as a reformer, raising concerns about the gender pay gap and whether old-fashioned college structures could provide modern student welfare. Both sides accused each other of bullying, conflicts of interest and breaking college rules.”

The real cleverness, though, lies in the use of Dr Percy’s background against him — the suggestion that any Anglican clergyman is going to be a second-rater: “The Christ Church saga has exposed how parts of Oxford remain trapped by their mediaeval origins. It has also thrown into relief the uneasy role of the Church in modern Britain. In an increasingly secular and multifaith society, the Church provides a dwindling talent pool for leadership roles. Some Christ Church fellows saw Percy as epitomising this dynamic — a low-key figure compared to the distinguished academics and civil servants who headed many other colleges.”


They hired him, after all.

Whatever the outcome, the situation in the college is dreadful. One member of the governing body has told me that people look at him “with hatred” as he crosses the quad.


I DON’T think things are quite that bad in the Vatican yet — but it has been a week of excitement there, too. The canonisation of John Henry Newman was the occasion for a well-informed piece by Tim Stanley in the Telegraph about the way in which both sides in the Church’s current dispute over the Amazon Synod are praying the saint in aid (Paul Vallely, 11 October).

He went to see Cardinal Burke, who “suggests that the Church can only properly consult communities on faith matters when that community is already Catholic” — in other words, you should only ever take notice of the people who acknowledge your authority. I think that is a real and significant difference with Pope Francis.

Stanley also spoke to the Revd Ed Tomlinson, a priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, who had a rather original take on the synod: “What we’ve really got is the boomer generation once again trying to sell us the sexual revolution . . . speaking through the mask of the Amazon because it a) hides their true motives and b) it means anyone who criticises them can be described as racist.”

It’s been known for centuries that when you want to know what the people of the Amazon really think, and not what patronising Western liberals think they ought to think, there’s no substitute for asking a parish priest in Tunbridge Wells.


THE other Roman Catholic story also originated in the FT, which had on Monday a splash about a luxury London property development, financed in part by the Vatican: “$200m in Swiss bank accounts controlled by its central administrator ended up financing a luxury property development in London’s Chelsea district that generated large profits for a company that managed the investment for the Holy See.

“This month, Vatican police seized documents and computers from the Secretariat in search of evidence about the project and suspended five employees pending the results of its investigation.”

That was on Monday morning. On Monday afternoon, Reuters reported that Domenico Giani, the Pope’s chief personal bodyguard, had resigned unexpectedly after 20 years in the post. Giani has signed a notice that was made up in the style of a “Wanted” poster, with pictures of the suspended five, banning them from entering the Vatican.

Christ Church still has a way to go to catch up.

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