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Staff and volunteers at Wells Cathedral speak of ‘unhappiness and fear’ 

18 March 2022

Alamy

Vicars’ Close in Wells, Somerset

Vicars’ Close in Wells, Somerset

THE culture for the 75 staff and 400 volunteers at Wells Cathedral is one of “unhappiness and fear”, and there is a power imbalance, suggests a report by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE), which independently audits safeguarding practice in Church of England cathedrals.

The Chapter commissioned the audit, believing that “Wells Cathedral will benefit from external scrutiny by measuring ourselves against current best practice in this vital area: so we understand what we do well, and where we need to focus attention and resource to improve and develop what we do.”

The Dean, the Very Revd Dr John Davies, described the culture to the auditors as one of “striving for happy excellence, with faith at the heart of everything the Cathedral does”. The auditors judged safeguarding provision for visitors, vulnerable adults, and children to be good, and safe-recruitment to be practised. They identified the good working relationship between the cathedral and the cathedral school as a particular area of strength.

But, in a thread that recurs throughout the report, “Staff themselves appear unhappy and some have developed vulnerabilities which have not been recognised.” Vergers had earlier described relationships with the Dean as difficult “because of standards which appear unattainable”.

The auditors consistently heard of the high degree of respect for the current Chief Operating Officer (COO), who is also the Administrator and Chapter Clerk. They heard of the commitment to safeguarding shown by the Dean, Canons, and other senior leaders. But the high number of written concerns revealed “an underlying but very evident message” that things must be completed in a certain way.

“Where standards fall short or are different from that expected, staff and volunteers report they are made to feel fear and unhappiness. This takes the form of loss of temper, shouting and a reported embodiment of the very power imbalance reflected as potentially abusive in the Leadership Training undertaken.”

A self-assessment of safeguarding submitted to auditors in advance of this audit showed “a definite sense that safeguarding is a priority in all that is done within the cathedral and this was reflected in conversations and the survey carried out prior to the audit. Conversely, however, many concerns regarding the culture within the cathedral were also highlighted.”

These included comments such as “a feeling of heaviness” when entering the cathedral; a “culture of fear”; being at the cathedral as “the most unhappy time of my life”; “power imbalance”; “misuse of power”; “treading on eggshells”.

“Similar comments were also tangible through the conversations held with individuals during the audits and were so prevalent as to be the dominant view of culture within the cathedral.”

Vicars’ Close, where the majority of lay staff live, and where there is noted to be “little privacy”, was seen by the auditors to raise several issues in terms of culture, and to “sound uncomfortably close to being a closed community”.

They noted that the lack of “strategic and operational oversight of safeguarding of the cathedral’s own staff, and challenge of hypercritical or punitive practice” — described as “unacceptable” and “beginning to cascade downwards from other managers, causing an extension of this culture” — was compounded by having staff living in close quarters within Vicars’ Close.

“The issue of Vicars’ Close was discussed several times during the audit, and it was hard to envisage a viable solution. At present the terms on which people live there creates dependency which then risks subtly infantilising people until they act out their feelings in a way that is not adult.”

The auditors reflected that it might be possible to create, over time, a more mixed economy, where staff houses were interspersed with privately rented houses whose occupants had no professional connection with the cathedral.

They concluded that “perhaps excellence has become tainted by perfectionism and standards that are too high to be maintained 100 per cent of the time, leaving too many people with a constant fear of failures.” They reflected that the Church of England’s document Responding Well to Victims and Survivors of Abuse, which includes characteristics of healthy and safe church culture, provided a useful comparison.

Late on Friday, the Cathedral Chapter responded, saying that it welcomed the audit by the SCIE. The statement goes on to say that the Chapter “recognises that it will benefit from external scrutiny by measuring itself against current best safeguarding practice: wanting to understand what the Cathedral does well, and where the focus of attention and resource needs to be to improve and develop what is done.

“While the audit report, which is only a draft at this stage, recognises many strengths in our safeguarding practices, the Cathedral Chapter (the governing body of the Cathedral) was nonetheless shocked and very saddened to learn of some of the feelings expressed. As a body, we are deeply sorry to hear of the unhappiness and anxiety felt.

“We want to listen and learn, and we take these concerns extremely seriously. We have already started to consider the helpful questions raised by the SCIE auditors in the full report.

“While we strive for happy excellence with faith at the heart of everything we do at the Cathedral, we need to do so within a caring and supportive environment and the wellbeing of all staff and volunteers is of the utmost importance. Wells Cathedral seeks to be a centre of welcome and well-being, where all can be embraced by the forgiving love and grace of God.

“When the report is finalised, it will be made available on our website with the action plan we are undertaking to create a healthy culture of care.”

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Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
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