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Press: Christ Church threatened with nuclear option

17 September 2021


THE TIMES had the best news story of the week, from Christ Church, Oxford: “The charities regulator has threatened to take action against one of Oxford’s most prestigious colleges over a dispute between its governing body and the dean.

“The Charity Commission has written to the trustees of Christ Church to express its concern that the long-running row with the Very Rev Martyn Percy was damaging the reputation of the college, which was founded in 1546 and is a registered charity.

“Helen Earner, the commission’s director of regulatory services, writes that the body is ‘now considering whether it is appropriate to use our regulatory powers’, which could involve replacing trustees, effectively giving the regulator some control over the management of the college.”

This is the nuclear option, because it threatens the set-up under which all Oxford colleges are run as charities, with all the Fellows acting as trustees. It would appear from the statutes of Christ Church that the only person outside the college who can intervene is the Queen (and possibly Queen Victoria, at that).

Now it turns out that the Charity Commission is taking a hostile interest in the machinations of the dons. That sets a precedent that threatens the interests of all the other self-governing colleges. Everything in this struggle happens slowly, and this threat may never be acted on. But, even as a threat, it should concentrate the minds of its targets. Andrew Billen writes that “Earner has asked the trustees to respond by September 30. After that date, the regulator will discuss with them ‘the next steps’.”


THE ECONOMIST had an uncharacteristically tentative article about the troubles of the Church of England, and the row over the Myriad church-planting initiative (News, 2 July, 16 July). “Something must be done. Exactly what is disputed. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has been criticised as too corporate, but Robert Ekelund, an emeritus professor of economics from Auburn University, Alabama, argues that when looking at religion, economics has its place. ‘When you get down to it, you’re selling a product,’ he says. There are customers (the congregation), running costs (churches) and a product (salvation). If the product is not shifting, ‘these entrepreneurs have to figure out a way to differentiate their product’ to maximise attendance.”

But, at the end of the piece, the author goes to one of the churches where The Vicar of Dibley was filmed: “In St Mary’s, there is neither sofa nor telly. There is old stone, and there are King James Bibles and prayerbooks by the door. Be fruitful and multiply, their pages say, and ashes to ashes, dust to dust. In the air, there is silence.”

And how do you put a value on that silence?


TWO obituaries of American churchmen to finish: Jack Spong got a surprisingly charitable showing in the Telegraph: “Spong’s arrogance and self-satisfaction, and his apparent carelessness about the unsettling effect of his views on believing Christians, did not represent his whole character. He was also a man of extraordinary energy and generous impulses, who took a firm stand on civil rights at a crucial period of American history, and who conducted himself with dignity and fortitude in the face of tragedy in his personal life.”

The paper recounted the story of how, in one of his first posts, in 1959, “he announced that he expected black children to be protected by the police as they presented themselves for entry to a previously all-white school, and put himself at their head to ensure that they were.

“The local sheriff, a member of Spong’s congregation, was shamed into acquiescence. In consequence Spong gained the honour of being named Public Enemy Number One in Edgecombe County by the Ku Klux Klan.”

This paired nicely with another bishop in a different church, memorialised in The New York Times: “Carl Bean, who in 1977 recorded “I Was Born This Way,” a disco song of L.G.B.T.Q. pride that became a much-remixed club favorite — and who then became a minister and AIDS activist, founding a church in Los Angeles that sought to serve the spiritual needs of gay people and others who were marginalized — died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 77.”

He had left the music business after Motown wanted him to follow up his gay hit with songs aimed at the straight market: he had been clear about his sexuality since the disaster of his adolescence. As a 13-year-old Baptist, singing in the choir and helping in the church office, his life was shattered when he was discovered with another boy. He attempted to take his own life, leaving a note that said “I’m sorry I couldn’t be what you wanted me to be.” When he recovered, a therapist persuaded him that he could accept himself, even if his parents could not.

His start in the ministry coincided with the AIDS epidemic. He worked through that as a minister, and, in the 1990s, became a bishop and then an archbishop in his Pentecostal denomination. So far as I know, he wrote no books of theology.

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