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Christ Church, Oxford: Next dean should be head of the cathedral only, says review

18 May 2023

istock

Christ Church, Oxford

Christ Church, Oxford

A GOVERNANCE review of Christ Church, Oxford, has recommended that the dean cease to be head of the college.

In a review published on Wednesday, Dominic Grieve, KC, rejects suggestions that the foundation, which dates back to the 16th century and treats the college and the cathedral as one body, should be split. But he recommended changes to the statutes that would make the dean responsible only for the cathedral while a separate head of house would be responsible for the academic body. The head of house would not need to be ordained.

Among Mr Grieve’s finding was “a marked reluctance of many members of the Governing Body to return to any model of ecclesiastical headship except temporarily, even if largely symbolic”.

The review was commissioned by Christ Church last year (News, 24 June 2022) after a widely publicised breakdown in confidence between the last Dean, Dr Martyn Percy, and the Governing Body of Christ Church. The four-year dispute ended when Dr Percy agreed to leave (News, 11 February 2022). In addition to paying Dr Percy’s legal fees, thought to have been about £1.5 million, and a seven-figure pay-off, Christ Church spent £6.6 million in its attempts to remove the Dean, three times what had been publicly reported.

In July last year, the Charity Commission issued an official warning to the trustees of Christ Church, concluding that, at minimum, they were guilty of “mismanagement because substantial charitable funds have been spent in connection with the dispute and some of the Charity’s trustees were clearly unaware of the extent of the expenditure” (News, 10 November 2022).

In his review, Mr Grieve writes of his belief that Christ Church is “overall a friendly community that inspires high levels of loyalty and affection from most Governing Body members, staff and undergraduate and graduate students alike, even when they might have significant criticisms of its functioning”. But he concludes that, while governance has improved in recent months, weaknesses remain.

“To make progress, Christ Church needs to change,” he writes. “The current structure of governance is holding it back. . . It means reforming the existing 156- years-old governance compromise of the House to ensure that the Cathedral and the academic body can work together with mutual respect and harmony. There must never be a return of the unmanageable, costly and damaging disagreements that have marred recent years.”

Mr Grieve notes that many of the problems of governance pre-date recent events: tensions between deans and the academic body have long existed. The Christ Church, Oxford, Act of 1867 — which the current structures closely mirror — was intended to “curb the power of the Dean and Chapter and create a diffuse headship through the role of the Censors”, the small group of Governing Body members with executive powers.

This Act placed the assets and administration of the Christ Church foundation in the hands of a new “Governing Body” consisting of the dean, the canons, and fellows, termed “Senior Students”. The governance of the cathedral was reserved to the Dean and Chapter. Current statutes include the provision of officers of the House including the Senior and Junior Censor, elected by the Governing Body, who are, in effect, the leaders of the academic community responsible for the welfare and discipline of undergraduate students. The dean is chosen by the Governing Body, which he or she then chairs. The current Governing Body numbers about 65 members. Since the Charities Act 2011, all members of the Governing Body have the same obligations as any other charity trustee under the Act.

In his review, Mr Grieve considered three potential models for reform of the leadership structure, having discovered an “almost universal opinion at Christ Church, as amongst those consulted from outside, that the status quo in terms of its leadership structure needs reform”.

Splitting the foundation to separate the work of the cathedral from that of the academic body would be an “extremely complex project not only to achieve but also in its short- and long-term consequences”, he concluded, with the sharing of the endowment potentially “controversial and divisive”.

A second option would see the dean remain the “monarchical” head of the foundation and responsible for the cathedral but a new head created for the academic body. Lord Grieve concluded that that the possibility of appointing an academic head of house from a open pool of talent — one of the aspirations of those consulted — might be undermined if applicants felt that the post did not confer on the head of house the status enjoyed at other Oxford colleges.

He writes: “It is also the case that, as a result of recent events, there is a marked reluctance of many members of Governing Body to return to any model of ecclesiastical headship except temporarily, even if largely symbolic.”

His recommended option is a creation of a new head of house for the joint foundation with no requirement that they be a Clerk in Holy Orders. This would “likely be a lay person and could be selected from the widest pool of suitable talent”.

The review includes careful consideration of concerns about this change of governance. Mr Grieve stresses that the cathedral dean must be a member ex officio of the Governing Body, and that “their work in and in relation to the Cathedral protected from interference”. He or she would remain a Crown appointment and the beneficiary of an ecclesiastical freehold, entitled to remain in office until the age of 70. The activities of the cathedral would “continue as a very important part of the charitable purposes of the joint Foundation”.

The dean should have a stipend “fixed at a figure reflective of but not less than that of other deans and be provided with accommodation, and an appropriate allowance for entertainment and the performance of their functions”, Mr Grieve writes.

Having received some suggestions that the deanery ought to become the residence of the new head of house and the dean moved elsewhere within Christ Church, he concludes: “Because of the volume and nature of the hospitality that falls to the Dean and will continue after the creation of the office of Head of House, the Dean should remain in occupation of the Deanery.”

He or she should also be provided with “a written document setting out the terms of the office and the duties expected of them”.

Mr Grieve is clear that the autonomy of the cathedral must be protected: “It is essential that the principles of autonomy and protection from interference for the Dean and Chapter or Dean and Canons in the management of the Cathedral and its associated functions, provided for in the current Statutes be maintained.” He notes that the cathedral also functions as the college chapel.

He acknowledges representations from the diocese of Oxford and the wider Church seeking for the cathedral “alignment more closely with the changes envisaged in the Cathedrals Measure 2021 (News, 4 December 2020) and to enable its governance to include lay representation . . . It was suggested that some form of episcopal oversight of the Cathedral might be considered such as exists in other Cathedrals.”

Christ Church is expressly excluded from the 2021 Measure, under which the diocesan bishop attends a meeting of the Chapter at least once every year and appoints a senior non-executive member. Mr Grieve writes that greater formal episcopal oversight would be “difficult in practice to implement without undermining the independence that the joint Foundation enjoys, subject always to the Visitor’s authority”.

But the cathedral must be “enabled to evolve to meet some of the needs of being a working Cathedral in the 21st century”, he writes. “The Dean and Chapter should act in a manner that is mindful of the Cathedral’s presence within an academic community and in a joint Foundation.”

He recommends that the statutes be amended to enable the Dean and Chapter to set up a board as a committee of Chapter “to help with the operation of the Cathedral and bringing in non-executive members in line with the principles in the Cathedrals Measure 2021. Any Board set up should have some Diocesan representation.”

And he notes that, while “the Dean should be the Ordinary of the Cathedral and the Crown the Visitor to the entire Foundation. . . there would be good reason for the Crown to delegate any matter in the Cathedral requiring intervention to the Bishop of Oxford if appropriate, and the Statutes could state this explicitly.”

Mr Grieve considered concerns from existing members of the Governing Body. Some were worried about being trustees of the foundation without complete control over part of its operation (the cathedral). Mr Grieve concludes that the “carefully crafted compromise” of the foundation, bringing together cathedral and college, is not “difficult to maintain, let alone unviable” in today’s environment.

“My general conclusion is that, despite the recent problems between the former Dean and the Governing Body, the intersection of the two elements of the joint Foundation functions well.” He stresses that parallel reviews have been taking place of both bodies’ HR, safeguarding, and sexual-harassment procedures, and that recommendations will be implemented across the foundation.

Among recommended changes to the statutes are a new statute imposing “a general obligation for the Head of House and the Dean and Chapter to mutually facilitate and support the operation of Cathedral and the collegiate life of the House”, and changes to “cover the potential for a major difference arising between the Head of House and Governing Body and the Dean and Chapter over their relationship under the Statutes.

“It should provide for one or other party to ask for the appointment of a mediator that the Visitor is required to choose and, if mediation fails, an Arbitrator again appointed by the Visitor, the decision of which arbitrator will be final.”

In the wake of the four-year dispute, Mr Grieve has recommended amendments to Christ Church’s disciplinary and grievance code. All members of the Governing Body, including the dean, should be subject to it and there should be two additions to grounds for dismissal: “wilful disruption of the life of the College” and “wilful disobedience of any of the Statutes or By-Laws of the House in force for the time being”.

The head of house should be able to bring a complaint under it, and the “double lock” of requiring a vote by the Chapter as well as of Governing Body to approve proceedings should be removed and the matter left to the Governing Body inclusive of its Chapter members. However, to bring proceedings against the dean, the double lock would remain in place: the dean would be removable only for “good cause” and by a process involving the consent of the Chapter as well as that of the Governing Body.

While noting that Christ Church has done much recently to improve the effectiveness of the Governing Body, Mr Grieve concludes that “not all trustees at present have all the appropriate basic skills and knowledge or enough time to be effective in their role. This can then translate into acquiescence in the effective decision-making being made by others.” He notes a “lack of interest” by some members in taking on trustee responsibilities, and that levels of attendance at its meetings are currently two-thirds of those eligible to attend.

When it came to handling the dispute with Dr Percy and the sums spent on litigating it, Mr Grieve writes: “It’s an inescapable fact that fear of leaks led the Governing Body to restrict access to all the relevant information that trustees ought normally to have had made available to them in their role. . . Many trustees had a lack of awareness of the actual amounts being spent.”

There is, he suggests, “a gap in governance resulting from the practical gap between what a Governing Body of 65 members can do when normally meeting three times a term and what is needed to oversee a complex organisation with no CEO.” The present system lacks transparency, he warns.

His preference is for a move to a Governing Council model, similar those those that exist at some Cambridge colleges. Authority would rest with the Governing Body, which would elect the Censor Theologiae as deputy to the head of house and members to serve on the Governing Council.

Mr Grieve’s 43 recommendations include a salaries board made up wholly of independent persons, and the establishment of an audit-and-risk committee with an independent chair and members. The volume of legal work at Christ Church justifies recruiting a part- or full-time legal counsel to provide advice, he suggests, noting that “a trend has developed in which lots of relatively minor issues end up requiring the involvement of external lawyers”.

While noting the damage to Christ Church’s reputation, leading to a reduction in donations from alumni, Mr Grieve writes: “Overwhelmingly, the feedback from those I have consulted has been positive about the experience of working or learning at Christ Church, despite its problems, and that undergraduate students appear to have been largely unaffected by the recent disputes between the GB and the Dean.”

But he also suggests that “trauma” resulting from disputes with Dean Percy has “left some members of Governing Body defensive. There remain, in my view, difficulties, for some, in making objective assessments of how the House is externally perceived and what is needed to restore its reputation and make it function well for the future.”

A statement on the college website on Wednesday said of the review: “The Governing Body will consider its conclusions and the changes necessary to ensure that Christ Church has an effective system of governance in place.”

The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, said: “We remain fully committed to Christ Church as the Cathedral of the Diocese and to the further development of the governance of the Cathedral. It is good to note that the Review has been published in full today. We look forward to engaging with its conclusions in the coming months.”

Dr Percy said on Thursday: “I am encouraged by Dominic Grieve’s report recommending clarity, transparency and accountability in governance throughout the Foundation. His proposals will be broadly welcomed and significantly improve the governance of Christ Church.

“Although the report is forward-looking, it does recognise that there had been a lack of transparency in some key areas of operation and oversight which led to concentrations of unaccountable power operating without proper scrutiny.

“Proposals to professionalise a number of key roles — including Senior Tutor, and the leadership in legal, finance, HR and safeguarding matters — are especially welcome. This report, once implemented, will serve the institution well — and its charitable objects and stakeholders — as it moves forward.”

Changes to the statutes of Christ Church do not require primary legislation, but would have to be approved by Parliament and the Privy Council. “It follows from the above that the process of changing the Statutes will take some time,” Mr Grieve writes. “But provided the Governing Body, by the necessary majority there, has a settled desire to bring about the changes, then I have little doubt from the work I have done on the review that there will be goodwill in all relevant quarters to try and move the matter forward as fast as possible.”

The current Dean of Christ Church, the Very Revd Professor Sarah Foot, has made clear her intention to step down once new governance arrangements have been instituted (News, 17 March).

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