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Bishop’s visitation finds culture of bullying and blame at Sheffield Cathedral

22 March 2021

Sheffield Cathedral

THE environment at Sheffield Cathedral last year was one in which bullying and blame were tolerated, leading to a fear of speaking out, an official visitation has found.

The visitation was commissioned by the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, on 1 November, after rows about the summary disbanding of the cathedral choir led to the resignation of the Dean, the Very Revd Peter Bradley, last October (News, 22 July 2020; 31 July 2020; 25 September 2020; 9 October 2020).

The visitation team consisted of four independent commissaries. It was carried out — entirely remotely because of the pandemic — between 1 November and 28 February.

Its confidential report has gone only to the Bishop, to be made known to the cathedral Chapter. Details of the report, however, were published on Monday in a Determination by Dr Wilcox.

In this, he says that the full report made “undeniably uncomfortable reading”. He acknowledges his own responsibility, and regrets having “failed to find a swifter, more effective way to address matters of which I was being made aware”.

The visitation team was asked to consider areas of concern around the cathedral’s culture and human resources (HR) ethos; safeguarding questions; the Chapter’s handling of complaints; the disbanding of the cathedral choir; governance; cathedral strategy, and financial sustainability.

The visitation team had found “a pattern of people who had fallen out of favour at the cathedral subsequently exiting the organisation, and the perception of this from onlookers among the staff and volunteers has only served to reinforce their fears and concerns,” the Bishop writes.

Chapter members were, he suggests, “genuinely unaware of this pattern. They have expressed to me in the strongest possible terms their abhorrence of such behaviour and their readiness to work energetically to prevent any further recurrence of it. I welcome this.”

A lack of cross-department engagement had meant weak relationships, “which have in turn resulted in poor interaction and have created room for distrust and misunderstandings”. Senior managers, some inexperienced, had been over-stretched, and had not been given adequate supervision, development, or training.

Progress had been made on safeguarding since 2019, and C of E policy and guidance on the running of the cathedral toddler group and online activity of the music department were deemed to have been “appropriate and proportionate”; but the “unnecessarily high cost of implementation” had ultimately resulted in the closure of both.

Moreover, interventions applied to the Master of Music had been “inappropriate and disproportionate” — something in which the diocese of Sheffield had also played a part. The visitation team “found no evidence of a strategic approach to improving and embedding safeguarding, and some real confusion about the purpose and function of the Music Department learning-lessons review”.

The seven directions to Chapter in this area include revising the membership of the review panel to exclude members of Chapter and its officers. As “a step to enabling the whole cathedral community to move on”, it should “express its regret that in the case of the former Master of Music there was some confusion of HR and safeguarding processes”.

Senior managers are identified as being placed in an invidious position in regard to the cathedral complaints procedure — something that the Chapter, with its task of objective oversight, failed to see. The visitation team noted: “Life could become difficult for some people who raised complaints or grievances.” The Bishop makes three recommendations on this issue to the Chapter, including ensuring that any complaints against cathedral staff are “handled with an independence and thoroughness not evident in the cases reviewed by the visitors”.

There had been “no meaningful consultation with stakeholders concerning closure of the cathedral choir”, the report found. “This failure, together with the failure to deliver a clear and consistent message about the reasons for the decision, compounded the reputational and relational hurt.

“Moreover, the visitation team found that, according to the testimony of choir parents, the disbanding of the choir impacted on the young people, not only on their mental health, but also on their faith.”

As “a step to enabling the whole cathedral community to move on and to the repairing of relationships”, Dr Wilcox directs the Chapter to “give serious consideration to issuing an unreserved apology for the unintended hurt that has been caused by the closure of the cathedral choir and in particular to former choristers”. It should also “explore the possibilities for some process of mediation” with former members and chorister parents.

On governance, the Chapter has not been “curious enough, or challenging enough” in fulfilling its role. “There is a natural propensity in Cathedrals to accept without scrutiny information and advice from the Dean, the residentiary canons and the senior managers, but that only makes proper scrutiny by the executive members of a governing body all the more essential.”

The Bishop orders a thorough review of the governance arrangements, to include a more open approach to Chapter membership which includes publishing members’ names and the (redacted) minutes of meetings on the cathedral website. It should also “re-engage with the college of canons”.

The visitation found “no evidence of any approach” to considering the full ramifications of the published vision of the cathedral to be “a place for all people”: “No objectives or targets have been set, and accordingly there is no means of monitoring progress towards the objective.”

The report finds one achievement to be celebrated: the cathedral’s response to the challenge of Covid-19 means it will end the financial year in a better position than originally budgeted. It notes that the cathedral “remains highly dependent” on the annual grant from the Sheffield Church Burgesses, and that the incoming Cathedrals Measure “will require tighter financial governance”.

The Bishop endorses the recommendations of the visitation, and directs the Chapter to “reflect on the events of the last 12 to 15 months and the circumstances that gave rise to the visitation, and consider how such contention and disharmony might be avoided in the future”.

The Acting Dean, Canon Geoffrey Harbord, and the Cathedral Chapter have welcomed the Determination. A statement by them mentions that this has been “a demanding period” for the cathedral community, owing to the pandemic, and begins by highlighting a passage in the Determination in which Dr Wilcox says that the visitation report “overlooks or downplays the many successful and valued aspects of the cathedral’s life”.

Canon Harbord reports that “in many of the areas identified we are already making positive and constructive progress. . .

“More, however, needs to be done by us all as we learn the lessons from the past.” He promises to be “open and transparent as we travel through this journey. . . We will build on our strengths and learn from our collective mistakes to create a stronger future for Sheffield Cathedral. We look forward to doing this in partnership with our Bishop and the new Dean.”

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