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Review recommends Bishop step back in ‘dysfunctional’ diocese

11 September 2021

SCOTTISH EPISCOPAL CHURCH

BISHOP ANNE DYER

BISHOP ANNE DYER

THE Bishop of Aberdeen & Orkney, the Rt Revd Anne Dyer, accused of bullying by multiple people, should step back permanently from the diocese, concludes a review that warns of “systemic dysfunction” in the diocese (News, 6 March).

The review, published on Saturday and conducted by the Revd Professor Iain Torrance, Pro-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen and a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, cites concerns about bullying, “strikingly increased centralisation”, and the Bishop’s interactions with St Andrew’s, Aberdeen, formerly the Cathedral church.

It is her treatment of the former Provost here, the Revd Dr Isaac Poobalan, that has “perhaps more than anything else undermined the credibility of the Bishop,” Professor Torrance writes. “It has become a scandal and I fear her position is irrecoverable.”

Bishop Dyer’s treatment of people at St Andrew’s is cited by Professor Torrance as just one example of “issues of governance, style and tone which have given me grave concern”.

“Behind all of these questions lies what to me is the simple and fundamental issue: Does the Bishop have the personal capacity to bring about healing and reconciliation in the diocese?” he writes in his conclusion.

“I am afraid I do not believe that the Bishop has these capacities. Nor do I believe she any longer enjoys the trust and confidence of a number of the priests in the diocese. . . Without colluding in what I much fear is a repetition of the past, I cannot recommend the continuation of a tenure in which I fear that more people will be made to feel diminished and discouraged. Consequently, I recommend that, for the good of the diocese, she be immediately granted a period of sabbatical leave and step back permanently from the diocese.”

He notes a submission to the review which reported that Bishop Dyer’s time as Warden of Cranmer Hall (2005-2011) was “not an entirely happy one”.

The review acknowledges that, when it comes to bullying, it is “notoriously difficult to be definitive in practice” but notes that eight individuals have made claims of being disadvantaged, treated unequally or diminished.

While Professor Torrance has declined to provide details of the alleged bullying, which are set out in a confidential appendix to be seen only by the College of Bishops, one quoted submission states: “I have been stunned by the lack of care and protection offered within the SEC. It seems intent to protect the hierarchy and its own reputation; people lower down the pecking order are expendable. . . I have witnessed my happy, confident and capable spouse be systematically destroyed.”

Professor Torrance recommends that the SEC set up a judicial committee entirely independent of the Bishops “to respond in an accountable way to accusations of bullying”.

Another submission describes Bishop Anne as “relentless, unyielding and intimidating from the first. . .

“Some have been so badly bruised by similar encounters that they have decided either to leave the SEC or definitely have no more to do with assisting in the running of the local church.

“Bishop Anne once said to me that she was of northern stock and had learned to speak with an honest candor. A phrase she has used regularly, and which illustrates her approach on these occasions, is ‘let me be clear’. To be victim of such robust ‘clarity’ is to feel bullied.

“I can only guess that for a woman to be in Bishop Anne’s position must be very difficult and that she will indeed have had to fight her corner carrying the cost of hurtful encounters. In defending her position she may well have learned to be both decisive and forceful. There is real danger for her in this as she may alienate those who could be her strongest allies . . .”

Professor Torrance also notes the experience of an ordinand approved by the interim bishop of the diocese (Primus Mark Strange), who “having acquired a degree, undergone training and made family sacrifices could have their well-founded expectations abruptly set aside by the incoming bishop.

“At a theological level, I am disappointed by such apparently arbitrary and ‘parochial’ behaviour by a new and inexperienced bishop setting aside what appears to have been the judgment of the Primus who acted as interim bishop and the judgment of the long-serving previous diocesan bishop.”

He observes: “There is a recurrent issue here. I do not think it can be denied that the Bishop is forthright and blunt. It cannot be denied that a number of people find this intimidating and offensive. Whether all her unhappy encounters can be glossed as merely the directness of a Yorkshire woman remains to be seen.

“From the beginning, it has been known that Bishop Dyer’s episcopacy would not be a lengthy one. I have asked myself if, along with a habit of brusqueness, her interactions are coloured by urgency from a realisation that she does not have long in office. This might partially explain the impression of haste one senses in her actions.”

A central concern in the report is that of “strikingly increased centralisation” in the diocese, and claims that Bishop Dyer “uses ‘canonical obedience’ and her canonical status as a way of settling disagreement”. After her election in 2017, Bishop Dyer became chair of the Standing Committee, chair of Finance & Property and chair of the Mission & Ministry Board, the last of which has not met since November 2019. She also became Provost of both St Andrew’s and St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral and de facto Assistant Director of Ordinands.

Professor Torrance writes: “A consequence is that it is felt that anyone exploring vocation may only proceed if their theological outlook matches that of the Bishop. At all meetings (so submissions inform me), the Bishop herself sets the agenda and usually any proposed additional items are rejected or ignored. This also applies at Synod, when no space was allowed for any other business and questions were only permitted if submitted in advance.”

The review contains a detailed account of events at St Andrew’s where the Bishop is chair of trustees. Her actions have been “little short of disastrous”, Professor Torrance concludes.

The Bishop’s decision to temporarily close the Cathedral, following problems with its heating system, was announced in June 2020. St Mary’s, Carden Place was elevated as the Pro-Cathedral and Bishop Dyer announced that she would assume the role of Provost of St Andrew’s, which must abstain from using the word ‘Cathedral’ on notice boards and letter heads.

An honorary canonry was offered to the former Provost of St Andrew’s, Dr Isaac Poobalan — who had gone to “some length” to welcome Bishop Dyer — but he declined it.

“Dr Poobalan is widely regarded as a good and holy man,” Professor Torrance writes. “I had many submissions praising him as an outstanding priest. He is a person of standing and integrity. He is also the only person of colour holding such office in the diocese. I find it extraordinary that he has had his title as Provost removed and has been diminished in the way described.”

There were fears at St Andrew’s of what a merger with St Mary’s might mean for the musical tradition at St Andrew’s. The critical incident occurred on a Sunday in October 2020, at which St Andrew’s director of music, Christopher Cromar, was barred by the Bishop from attending worship at St Mary’s. He had challenged an instruction to take a Sunday off and allow the St Mary’s organist to play for the entire service, and threatened to go to the media.

Mr Cromar attended worship at St Mary’s regardless, and came forward to receive communion from the bishop. On the following day, Bishop Dyer wrote to Dr Poobalan removing his licence as Assistant Priest at St Mary’s. She accused Mr Cromar of “deplorable” behaviour. “His intimidating and threatening manner to me at communion was unforgiveable [sic]. He also attempted to address the congregation without my permission. He has made written threats to me, Fr. Terry and has also threatened to bring the Church into disrepute.” Dr Poobalan was suspended.

“Suspension for eight months without a stated and appropriate reason cannot be nuanced as merely the directness of a Yorkshire woman,” Professor Torrance writes. “In my view, it is to do a serious damage to another priest and is a violation of normal procedure.”

An independent HR review commissioned by the trustees of St Andrew’s, who resisted pressure from the Bishop to fire Mr Cromar, found “insufficient grounds to recommend termination of Chris Cromar’s contract” and concluded that failure lay with the Bishop who had failed to produce “an agreed Statement of Intent with regard to the provision of music”.

It also found no evidence that Mr Cromar had threatened physical violence against the Bishop — something insinuated by the Chancellor — and Professor Torrance describes this as a “baseless and damaging allegation”.

He concludes that merging St Andrew’s and St Mary’s “without a comprehensively agreed plan or an understanding of the human dynamics was very ill-considered” and that Bishop Dyer’s responses to both Dr Poobalan and Mr Cromar were “intemperate and unrelenting”.

The author of the Pulse HR review, Sarah Grey, wrote of Bishop Dyer’s refusal to engage in mediation (having described Mr Cromar’s actions to be “unforgiveable”): “I find this difficult to reconcile with the Christian values espoused by the church and feel that the concept of ‘forgiveness’ is much embedded in the Christian faith.”

Professor Torrance describes it as “extraordinary . . . that, having made what appear to be such evident misjudgements, the Bishop has to this day not apologised or sought reconciliation.”

His review concludes: “I am very much afraid that there is systemic dysfunction in the diocese. There are accusations of bullying which the Bishop may or may not be able to rebut. . . I believe it is undeniable that individuals have been damaged. How and by whom their situation is to be remedied is, as yet, unclear to me. . . A just resolution for Dr Poobalan and Mr Cromar is only part (though a very important part) of a larger question concerning St Andrew’s.”

Among his recommendations is that “expert advice is applied for to clarify the relationship between charity law and canon law in the Diocese of Aberdeen & Orkney. I recommend that particular attention is paid to the fact that the current exercise of authority and apparent lack of accountability can lead to an impression of bullying. . .

“I suggest with regret that the Chancellor, Dean and Diocesan Honorary Secretary should all ask themselves whether, by not standing back and indicating boundaries to the Bishop, they have colluded in unsatisfactory behaviour.”

Professor Torrance begins his report by setting out the difficulties in the concept of the review. Engagement with the inquiry was voluntary — “those who wrote to me were those who wished to write” — and he had to discover for himself which documents were necessary to understand events. He adds: “I do not doubt that there is material I have not seen.”

A number of submissions were from people who reported that they had been bullied by the bishop and were afraid of retaliation and Professor Torrance warns that the small geographical area concerned would mean that even anonymisation would not prevent identification. He has chosen, therefore, to produce a “general” digest of his findings and a more detailed appendix only to be seen by the bishops. Even publication of the digest is at the bishops’ risk, he warns. ‘

In total he received 115 submissions, only one of which was anonymous (citing a non-disclosure agreement).

Professor Torrance rejects several suggestions put to him by some participants as to the cause of Bishop Dyer’s difficulties. It is “simply false”, he concludes, that “the diocese had been in disrepair for years and that the difficulties faced by Bishop Dyer all had their roots in the situation which preceded her.” A number of submissions described her predecessor, Dr Robert Gillies, as “a successful and loved pastor to his priests”.

He also considers the suggestion that “the root of all Bishop Dyer’s problems lay in her appointment under Canon 4 and that her critics were malcontents from that time.” Bishop Dyer became the SEC’s first woman bishop when she was elected by the College of Bishops in 2017 (News, 17 November 2017). This followed the failure by the preparatory committee convened for the election to produce the minimum number of three candidates, on two occasions (News, 12 January 2018).

The Chapter of the diocese had told the Primus that they wished for a “missional leader with a collaborative style of working” and that, as the diocese had voted against changing the canon on marriage, it “did not anticipate having a bishop who supported the marriage change”. This meant that the election of Bishop Dyer — who voted in favour of the change — “was received by some with disappointment and a sense that the diocese had not been listened to.” Among Professor Torrance’s recommendations is that in the election of bishops, “the needs of the diocese should be given priority.”

Professor Torrance also rejects the suggestion that “the root of Bishop Dyer’s difficulties lay in the objection of many in the diocese to having a woman as their bishop”, noting that “not a single submission I received objected to Bishop Dyer on gender-based grounds” and that it was the supporters of the Bishop who used “dismissive language: I was told that the Bishop’s critics are ‘in the shallow waters of Christianity and splashing about’, ‘dark misogynist stuff in the sewers of the diocese’, ‘blatant misogyny under a pretence of theology about same-sex marriage’.”

Suggestions that the root of the Bishop’s problems was her sympathy for same-sex marriage or her inability to drive are also rejected.

A statement from the College of Bishops published with the report says that it follows “a period of difficult and lengthy consideration by the College of Bishops”, who received it on 31 July. It notes that Bishop Dyer feels that it contains “major errors and omissions” including that her own voice is not heard and that she has not had an opportunity to hear or respond to specific allegations.

The College has only released the report, it says, because it had already been leaked to the press and to individuals in the diocese. The statement says: “The unauthorised circulation of the material is highly disrespectful to those whose submissions appear in the report, to members of the Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney, to Bishop Anne Dyer and to the College of Bishops. It has led to extensive comment in the press on a matter which should be handled in accordance with appropriate procedures in the Church.”

An Episcopal Synod, planned for 30 September, is to be invited to initiate the setting up of an independent mediation process “to help the diocese as a whole move forward”.

Professor Torrance’s report was commissioned by the College after Bishop Dyer said that she was subject to “unsubstantiated and anonymous allegations in the national media”. In a letter to the diocese published on Friday, Bishop Dyer says that the report does not “fully address the issue which I had originally raised with the College. Some, through the press, had raised concerns about how they felt they were treated by me.

“Elsewhere, many others had shared with me their own experiences of feeling unsafe or unwelcome in our churches. Alongside this, I had also felt myself, since I arrived, to be subject to significant bullying and harassment on a number of fronts.”

She writes of being subject to “repeated attacks on social media, some of which has been described as simple ‘harassment’, and others reported to the police as possible ‘hate crimes’. Many of us are feeling bruised at present.

“It is my earnest desire to seek to understand and take responsibility for my contribution to the present distress. I want to take very seriously the feelings and opinions of those who are represented in the report. I also want to understand the feelings and opinions of those whose contributions have not yet been included.”

Anticipating the mediation process planned, she writes: “I have felt a measure of bruising over the time I have been here, and others have felt bruised through me. I do not wish to deny the real responsibility I must have here. My sincere hope would be that these matters could be looked at by us, together, in the context of our common life, acknowledging Christ in our midst, who is our help and redeemer.”


News: What about those who bulled me, asks Dyer, alleging one-sidedness

Letter: Heed Torrance on the Bishop of Aberdeen & Orkney

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