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A threat to cathedrals’ collegiality and independence

29 March 2019

The General Synod should be wary of the Working Group report’s more far-reaching recommendations, says Michael Higgins


Peterborough Cathedral

Peterborough Cathedral

WITH growing congregations, massive contributions to education, music, and the arts, and to civic and community life, cathedrals constantly buck the trend of the modern Church’s declining influence. In many ways, they are the Church’s goose that lays the golden egg. No surprise, then, at the great consternation that was unleashed when financial disaster hit Peterborough Cathedral in late 2016, coupled with determination that any further such problems in the high-profile cathedral world must be prevented (News, 7 October 2016).

The Archbishops’ Council moved fast. In 2017, the Cathedrals Working Group was set up with the specific brief of tightening cathedral financial structures. The resulting report was completed in June 2018 and presented to the General Synod the next month (News, 19 January, 13 July 2018). It returns to the Synod this July for its recommendations to be implemented.

The report is a careful piece of densely worded writing, and its early pages contain indications that many other cathedrals face severe financial pressures — although, oddly, there is no definitive appendix showing how widespread is the problem. Cathedral accounts are in the public domain, and it would have been helpful to see an appendix showing how many regularly operate deficit budgets, and the capital reserves that each holds, even if the information was presented anonymously in each case.

Many church folk will be unfamiliar with the workings of cathedrals and could welcome some public debate on the Workings Group’s recommendations, on which there has been an eerie silence during the past few months. What follows is an attempt to remedy this situation.

THE specific recommendations to strengthen the financial accountability of cathedrals are wise and timely. It is surprising that no one has commented in the past that cathedrals, although charities, are not accountable to the Charity Commission. This clearly must change.

It is also vital that every cathedral has a strong Finance and Audit Committee, chaired by a person of proven financial expertise — another recommendation which is to be welcomed. The move to Quinquennial Financial Assurance Reviews is also a recommendation that will be helpful, as are several other specific financial proposals made.

The report also contains some more far-reaching proposals, however, which may not be as welcome. Primarily, it is sad to see the centuries-old tried-and-proven monastic system of collegiate government replaced by the modern business system used by most other charities, and taken straight out of the secular book.

There is something precious about collegiate government, which is still used by Oxbridge colleges as well as monastic foundations, and which has served cathedrals well. At its heart lies the simple fact that all the senior members of the foundation are of equal standing, whether abbot or monk, Fellow or Master, canon or dean. The abbot, master, or dean is simply the first among equals, primus inter pares, charged with producing a Chapter consensus through his or her skilled leadership and emotional intelligence.

In the system proposed by the report — which plays lip service to collegiate government — the residentiary canons are made directly responsible to the dean. He or she is also charged with conducting an annual review of each canon’s work, forwarding this to the bishop. The dean, in effect, becomes the cathedral’s chief executive, with heightened powers — a strange move, when it appears to have been the dean at the centre of the problems at the troubled cathedrals which gave rise to the report.

This proposal will effect deep change in Chapter relationships as canons feel demoted. En passant, the proposal that the bishop should appoint a vice-chair of Chapter, who will conduct an annual review of the dean’s performance and forward it to the bishop, will not do a great deal to enhance the spirit of collegiality. Introducing a modern business-reporting structure in place of the traditional system ignores the fact that much secular management has moved away from hierarchical systems to “flat” management, with an emphasis on creative teamwork. This loss of the collegiate system will inevitably result in fewer specialists in liturgy, music, education, or mission being attracted to cathedral canonries.

It has been said that the daily offices are the “engine room” of cathedral life, with the senior clergy who pray together each day and work together as a close team forming its government. This part of collegiality is undermined by the proposal that the non-resident members of Chapter –— described tellingly in the report as the “non-executives” — will, in future, hold the majority on the Chapter. At the same time, out go communars, administrators, and receiver-generals, and in come chief operating officers and chief financial officers, completing the secular picture.

THE Bishop of Peterborough’s Visitation Charge dealing with the serious financial crisis — which led to the commissioning of the report — calls for a strengthening of the bishop’s cathedral powers in a way that is foreign to the long history of cathedrals. The report duly obliges. After many pages of “theological-speak” establishing the cathedral as “the seat of the bishop”, provision is made for him or her to attend and speak at Chapter, to appoint a vice-chairman of Chapter reporting to him or her, and by charging the bishop to conduct the annual ministry reviews of the dean and canons.

But hard cases make bad law. Most bishops and deans already enjoy good working relationships, while many bishops may not have either the time or the inclination to respond to the much-increased episcopal involvement proposed.

Overall, the picture painted by the report paves the way for the dean to become the bishop’s chaplain for the cathedral, assisted by three curates and with the Chapter as a species of episcopal sub-committee. At the same time, the part played by the cathedral in the diocese is heightened, with strong commendation of canonries where the holder has both cathedral and diocesan duties, and the suggestion that, where possible, diocese and cathedral should share office facilities.

MARK WOODWARD AND DANIEL EASTONThe Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, presents the cathedrals report to the Synod, in July of last year

Down the ages, cathedrals have enjoyed a degree of autonomy from diocese and bishop, while at the same time existing to serve both as a central pillar of cathedral ministry, all woven into that web of intricate checks and balances that makes up the Church of England. This system is in danger of being lost and replaced by secular business practices — not just in cathedrals, but throughout the Church. There is a close symbiotic link between the entrepreneurial spirit that pervades cathedrals, and the autonomy which they enjoy — a spirit that is in danger of being quenched by the present proposals.

A MAJOR proposal is the separation of governance matters from management matters: the former to be the province of Chapter, and the latter dealt with by a new senior executive team which will meet frequently — again, a system straight out of the secular charity world.

This suggestion will simply lead to more meetings, a vast increase in minutes and paperwork, greater burdens on the dean, and much new expenditure (in a report on finance, it is strange that these changes have not been costed).

Many cathedrals already have “special” Chapter meetings when required to deal with matters of mission and strategy, while at the same time the line between governance matters and basic management issues can often be blurred. For example, a proposal to house a massive temporary children’s helter-skelter in the nave, or to hold a dinner dance in the Lady Chapel are both, at one level, simple management issues of a practical nature, while also raising significant issues of principle relating to the cathedral’s public profile and mission.

IT WOULD be good if the General Synod agreed to legislate on the specific proposals for increased financial accountability, but showed far greater wariness in dealing with these wider recommendations. My guess is that many people will be sorry to see the more far-reaching legislation proposed by the report, particularly in the areas outlined above.

If this does happen, the goose that lays the golden eggs will surely die a slow death.

The Very Revd Dr Michael Higgins is a former Dean of Ely.

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