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Visitation finds ‘pain’ at Chelmsford Cathedral

12 May 2023


Chelmsford Cathedral

Chelmsford Cathedral

A VISITATION of Chelmsford Cathedral has advised steps for improving the music department, internal communications, human resources (HR), and co-ordination with diocesan structures.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, presented the panel’s recommendations at an open meeting in the cathedral on 24 April.

She said that the report “recognises many good and encouraging things in the life of our cathedral”; but, “at the same time, it acknowledges the pain and disturbance that some have felt under the recent pressures of cathedral life and especially since the pandemic.”

Staffing in the music department was identified as an issue of concern by the panel: in particular, the absence of a full-time Canon Precentor since 2017, which, Dr Francis-Dehqani said, “has led to some fragility developing” in the department.

She summarised the difficulties facing the cathedral: “In a very large diocese like ours, with its huge demographic spread from inner-city east London to rural north Essex, a cathedral is bound to be stretched if it seeks to be a place where very different cultures and communities can find a spiritual home. . .

“The very loyalty, collegiality, and sense of shared spiritual purpose that animates the cathedral community seems also to have functioned as pressure to accept unsustainable workloads and stressful work contexts, without complaint. At the same time, unwelcome behaviours have sometimes gone unchecked in the absence of accountability and solid processes.”

The visitation panel heard evidence from almost 60 people, along with 30 written submissions, Dr Francis-Dehqani. She explained that she had decided not to publish the full report, to protect the anonymity of those who gave evidence.

Furthermore, because the report had been prepared for her, as the Bishop, “full publication would run the risk of the Panel’s observations being misinterpreted or misunderstood out of context,” she said.

The visitation panel was led by the former Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens. A former Dean of the Arches, Charles George KC, was part of the panel, along with Canon Jessica Martin, who is a Residentiary Canon at Ely Cathedral, and the chief executive of the leadership consultancy Starfish, Juliet Taylor.

The ten recommendations, all of which have been formally adopted by Dr Francis-Dehqani, include: the introduction of specialist HR advice and support; closer co-operation with the diocese in relation to HR and safeguarding; the reintroduction of cathedral wardens; and that steps should be taken to improve internal communications.

A recommendation “to strengthen music-making” at the cathedral includes a direction to appoint a permanent Canon Precentor “as soon as is practical, together with the appointment of a sub-organist and organ scholar”, alongside steps to recruit new members of the choir.

A recommendation that a “culture of equity, trust and respect at all levels” be implemented will, Dr Francis-Dehqani said, involve a “degree of culture change” and therefore “require some targets and milestones so that change can be measured at an appropriate speed”.

Dr Francis-Dehqani acknowledged that progress towards meeting many of the recommendations had already been made, moving the cathedral “towards a culture of greater transparency, accountability, and professionalism”.

The relationship between a diocesan bishop and his or her corresponding cathedral could, Dr Francis-Dehqani observed, be a “delicate” one: despite not having a formal leadership or governance role, the bishop remained intrinsically connected with the cathedral and its life.

“I hope this cathedral can feel at home with its bishop, and that my prayerful presence here can help you to feel at home with me,” she said. She concluded that she was “hopeful for the future of our relatively small but immeasurably precious cathedral”.

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