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Press: Martyn Percy’s post-traumatic college-induced stress

13 May 2022


IS THERE such a thing as PTCIS? Stephen Parsons, a retired priest living in Cumbria, discussed post-traumatic college-induced stress in an article on his Surviving Church blog last week. He is in no doubt (as, I expect, are many others) that it does exist in subtle and not so subtle ways: “The sufferers may be those who carry a false accusation around their neck and find that the church justice system gives them no opportunity to clear their name.

“Accusations against one’s integrity are left there forever so that permanent stress and fear become part of their way of life . . . certain church cultures create stress for individuals by the expedient of changing church vocabulary.”

So, controlling becomes mentoring, coercion becomes persuasion, and brainwashing turns into instruction. And, of course, in extreme cases such as that of the ghastly, sadistic John Smyth of the Iwerne Trust, discipline becomes abuse.

ONE cleric who sounds very much as though he is a survivor of post-traumatic college-induced stress at the moment is the Revd Professor Martyn Percy, lately Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, who, having emerged from a five-year ordeal at the hands of a faction of dons at the college, gave a long interview in Saturday’s Times to Andrew Billen, who has been covering the case for a long time.

Church Times readers will know that, as Dean, Professor Percy was harassed in a most personal and unpleasant way by dons anxious to get rid of him for reasons that have never been entirely clear; one accusation followed another as each was held to be unfounded.

I should declare an interest here, because I came to know Martyn when I covered religion for The Guardian, and he was particularly helpful in advising on a book I wrote about the gay row in the Anglican Communion. I have a deep well of sympathy for him.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the interview was his account of the apparent lack of help that he received from the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, whose cathedral, of course, doubles up as Christ Church’s chapel.

“I really had a pretty serious breakdown with this,” Professor Percy told Mr Billen of a complaint made by a woman that he had briefly touched her hair — a charge which the police and Dame Sarah Asplin, President of the Church of England tribunals, dismissed as unproven (News, 4 June 2021) — “and that was largely triggered by the Bishop of Oxford writing a very public letter when people were trying to defend me saying that it was inappropriate for people to be defending me in public when I was being attacked in public. . .

“I was despairing because I felt that actually you would want your bishop to be a person of courage and integrity, somebody who might actually stand up against, pardon the expression, the forces of darkness and oppression, and he just colluded with them.”

The diocese has a different account of the Bishop’s refusal to comment publicly on a live investigation of the hair-touching allegation. A response was sent to Mr Billen last week, but Mr Billen’s news story to accompany the interview, which included the response, did not appear.

Most of the online responses to the article were supportive of Professor Percy’s account, but there was also an interesting contribution from the Sub Dean of Christ Church, Canon Richard Peers, on his blog, Oikodomeo, under the headline: “Where are the evil dons? Life in community at Christ Church.”

Canon Peers has been at the cathedral only since 2020, well after the Percy row started, but he writes that, since his arrival, he has met “the same wonderful, bewildering, fascinating mix of good and evil as any collection of human beings. . . The truth I experience in this community is of kind, generous, fascinating people trying their best.”

In an article published in the latest issue of Prospect magazine, Professor Percy wrote that he had decided to leave the Church of England: “I had discovered that the Church of England lacks transparency, accountability, external scrutiny and, as far as I am concerned, integrity.”

MEANWHILE, The Observer had a story about the Church of England’s holding an ecumenical service — in Christ Church this weekend, as it happens — to apologise for Christians’ shameful treatment of the Jews in the Middle Ages, culminating in their expulsion in 1290. The paper quoted Tony Kushner, professor of Jewish/non-Jewish relations at Southampton University, saying: “Accepting that blood libels, massacres and expulsions were wrong is straightforward . . . accepting that Jews have a validity of religion is more challenging.

“The CofE didn’t exist (then) so it is apologizing for things it wasn’t responsible for? But if it regards itself as the leading voice of Christianity in Britain today, then the apology has some merit.” What a pity it has taken 800 years to apologise for something it didn’t do, when people alive today are still waiting for apologies, too.

Stephen Bates is a former religious-affairs correspondent of The Guardian.

Andrew Brown returns next week.

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