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Wounds licked, diocese of Winchester is ready to move on

08 September 2023

It is two years since a revolt in Winchester forced out its Bishop. Madeleine Davies asks whether things have improved

HARVEY MILLS

Dr Dakin presides at the ordination of deacons, in 2020

Dr Dakin presides at the ordination of deacons, in 2020

TWO years ago, Bishop Richard Frith started visiting the diocese of Winchester, shortly before his appointment as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Episcopal Commissary. The term that he uses to describe the people he met is “shell-shocked”.

In September 2021, the month of the first visits, just two months had passed since the resignation of the Bishop of Winchester, Dr Tim Dakin (News, 23 July 2021). He had “stepped back” in the previous May (News, 20 May 2021), after the threat of a vote of no confidence in the diocesan synod. The motion referred to “allegations of poor behaviour and mistreatment on his part of a number of individuals”, and described the governance and financial management of the diocese as “unfit for purpose”.

“It was pretty unknown for such a thing to have happened,” Bishop Frith recalls. “What on earth was going to happen next? There was a lot of uncertainty.”

These were, indeed, unprecedented events. More than 40 members of the diocesan synod had supported the motion, while one of Dr Dakin’s appointed suffragans, the Bishop of Basingstoke, the Rt Revd David Williams, had presented concerns to Lambeth Palace and the Bishop of London.

The task of Bishop Frith, who retired as Bishop of Hereford in 2019, was to help the diocese “to move forward from the events of the recent past, to enable a process of reconciliation and healing, and to recover confidence and joy in the service of Christ”.

Two years have now passed without a diocesan bishop. It was announced two months ago (News, 6 July) that the present Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, would shortly move to the diocese. What state will he find the diocese in now?

 

FOR Bishop Williams, who has served in Winchester for 21 years, the headline is a diocese “in good heart”. He speaks of an “unprecedented number of ordinands”, many of whom are self-supporting and returning to serve in their sending parishes, which he describes as a “real joy”.

After a very serious crisis in leadership and a period of uncertainty, there are signs of an irresistible work of God going on across the diocese, he says. “God is at work in this resilient community. The lay and ordained leadership are exercising a remarkable ministry, often alongside other community leaders. They are responding imaginatively to the post-pandemic challenges and also the cost-of-living crisis.”

This Petertide, 34 deacons and priests were ordained (and four more are due to be ordained at Michaelmas). Attendance at the chrism eucharist in April was the highest in a decade. A total of 92 lay ministers were commissioned at Winchester Cathedral last year, and there are currently 474 people with the “Bishop’s Commission for Mission”, having completed a six-week training and discipleship programme for lay people. When it comes to ordinations, the Caleb Stream, at St Mellitus, is enabling the diocese to “move quickly”, Bishop Williams says (Features, 4 March 2022).

The assessment offered by the Rector of Thorngate and Blackwater, the Revd James Pitkin, was echoed by several of those interviewed. “The diocese has come a long way in the past two years,” he said. “It seems to be coming out of the dark into the light. . . Someone described it as a continuing journey with more laughter, more relaxed clergy and people when meeting together, greater openness, and more working together.”

But, when it comes to the restoration of morale and the nurturing of reconciliation — two of the priorities given to the diocese by the Archbishop of Canterbury — he believes that they remain “works in progress”.

“Work has been in place to enable people to have conversations together,” he says. “This is deep cultural work that takes time to build trust, which was destroyed in many. The question might be: reconciliation with whom? There is trust between clergy, people, and parishes. The trust between these ‘stakeholders’ and the diocesan hierarchy is what was damaged, if not destroyed. The very real feelings of paranoia, fear, and distrust are diminishing, but may never disappear.”

 

THE exact causes of this breakdown in trust, and the resignation of Dr Dakin, remain unclear for many outside — and some within — the diocese. There has been no official public account of the events that prompted it. Some of those interviewed by the Church Times had had only positive encounters with Dr Dakin, or said that their ministry had been unaffected by recent events.

“Many — including myself — do not feel that they fully understand all of the factors that led to [Dr Dakin’s] resignation,” the Vicar of the New Forest Edge Churches, the Revd Dr Ben Sargent, observes. He is “convinced” that an independent review may have been needed nearer the time, “not least to clarify what sort of ministry Bishop Tim might be able to have in the future”.

Diocese of WinchesterClergy and Readers at this year’s chrism eucharist

“One of the hardest things for some of us involved in what happened is that it [Dr Dakin’s departure] can only be referred to as ‘stepped down’,” says one priest, who was among the whistle-blowers, and requested anonymity. “There’s no proper way of dealing with the situation, and no proper accountability: nothing on paper, no CDM, no grievance, no public naming or investigation or review. There were loads of rumours in papers and online, but nothing really got close to naming what many of us experienced.”

Although the priest went through mediation with one of the suffragan bishops, and agrees with Mr Pitkin that progress has been made in the past two years, they consider themselves to be “still in recovery . . . still saddened at the abuse of power, the lack of accountability, which, for me, makes me fearful for the whole institution”.

Their experience has left them conscious of the vulnerability of clergy as office-holders rather than employees. “If I were employed, I had sufficient evidence to take [the diocese] to an employment tribunal on probably four different things.”

 

WHEN it comes to concrete examples of what led to the threatened vote of no confidence, a key concern was Dr Dakin’s approach to clergy deployment and appointments. It is alleged that he blocked the appointment of clergy who were not “in favour” with him. Some were unable to move on to other posts or take up posts of responsibility.

This was related to a lack of due process, Bishop Frith says. “We all know how the Church can be bedevilled by endless processes and debates and discussions, but this was almost to the other extreme: people being told their face didn’t fit any more, or they wouldn’t get a job in the diocese, or their time was up.”

Among those he interviewed were clergy who had to be reassured that, despite having signed what they regarded as a non-disclosure agreement, they were allowed to speak to him.

In 2020, with the pandemic under way and an underlying deficit of £2-million, Dr Dakin, with the support of the diocesan board of finance (which, unusually for a diocesan bishop, he chaired), commissioned a “Resilience Task Group”, which recommended a £750,000 cut in funding for central posts, and a £1.25-million reduction in the budget for clergy stipends and housing. In total, 22 posts were cut. This was described by one priest in the diocese as an act of “vandalism”.

“It was very hard to negotiate or discuss with Bishop Tim solutions to what were perceived as financial problems,” Mr Pitkin reports. He describes the cuts as “top-down”, and regrets that no space was permitted to discuss the alternative of asking congregations to give more. “Many of us felt that Bishop Tim hadn’t been out in the parishes, and wasn’t really aware of their characters and needs and resources.”

This point — that Dr Dakin wasn’t seen at parish level — was echoed by others. “The phrase I have used conversationally with people . . . is that sporting cliché about the bishop having lost the dressing-room,” Bishop Frith says. “He had some pretty radical ideas — some of which, I think, there was a lot about them — but he didn’t sort of sell them. . . People just felt they didn’t know him.”

The reorganisations “dented morale in many parishes”, Dr Sargent says. “Perhaps for the first time, vacant parishes in locations many would consider desirable are struggling to attract clergy applications.”

In his resignation statement, Dr Dakin said: “In trying to secure a sustainable future for the growth of the diocese, it is clear that I’ve not done enough to acknowledge what we have lost in this process. To those I’ve hurt or let down, I am sorry.”

 

AMONG the four priorities set by Archbishop Welby was “ensuring financial confidence”. But the diocesan secretary, Colin Harbidge, acknowledges that financial challenges remain, and refers to a “significant decline, post-pandemic, in weekly attendance”. This, together with the cost-of-living crisis, has made an impact on giving — and, in turn, on the commitment given by the Bishop’s Council and diocesan synod to avoiding further cuts to stipendiary clergy numbers.

While the average weekly giving per giver grew from £15.68 to £17.02 between 2019 and 2021, the total collected in Common Mission Fund has fallen, from £9.4 million in 2019 to £8.5 million in 2022 — the lowest figure since 2009.

The finance committee and the Bishops’ Council have proposed using £2 million of restricted funds (where the original purposes are no longer relevant) as a “contingency fund” over the next five years. The sale of 40 houses has also generated additional annual income of about £500,000, which will be used to support parish ministry costs.

Diocese of WinchesterBishop Sellin at the lay licensing service, October 2022

“We hope and pray these steps will give our diocese — under the leadership of our new Bishop — time to work together to discern a new vision for sustainable mission and ministry, seeking to regrow our churches as we serve our communities,” Mr Harbidge says. He took up his appointment after the departure of the diocese’s chief executive, Andrew Robinson, who announced that he was stepping down three months after Dr Dakin’s resignation. Mr Harbidge’s patient and transparent approach was praised by several of those interviewed.

“The complaints about the diocese being not trusted are diminishing,” Mr Pitkin reports. He also singles out for praise for the parish-support manager, Jayne Tarry, and the operations-and-governance manager, Cathy Laird.

 

ANOTHER individual praised by those interviewed is the Rt Revd Debbie Sellin, who had been the Suffragan Bishop of Southampton, in the diocese, for only two years when she was asked to be Acting Bishop in 2021.

“I think the atmosphere is considerably different,” the Dean of Winchester, the Very Revd Catherine Ogle, says. She has spent the past year visiting deanery clergy chapters. “I feel that is largely down to Debbie’s leadership. . . She’s been very, very careful to establish . . . an atmosphere of mutual respect, to allow people to have their feelings and hold them, but encourage us to listen to one another and move on.”

She notes, as others have, that Dr Dakin’s resignation and its aftermath coincided with the pandemic. The two causes of turbulence presented the cathedral with a similar challenge, she suggests: “To keep being a profoundly reliable place of prayer and worship and welcome”. She was pleased to hear that one priest we spoke to described the cathedral as having “lived up to its Benedictine vocation for stability”.

There is still healing to be done, she says: “If we don’t mention that, the individuals concerned will be very hurt, as though they have been forgotten.”

 

TWENTY miles from the cathedral, Andrew Orange, a lay General Synod representative and a member of Save the Parish, is “full of hope for the future”. But he remains concerned about prospects for the parish system — “the nerve-endings of the Church” — in Winchester and beyond. “So much of the dialogue comes from the diocese to the parishes — and, as it seems, not much in the other direction.”

In 2021, it was proposed that the village church that he has attended for 17 years, St Peter’s, Appleshaw (part of a five-church benefice), should be united with the neighbouring benefice of Pastrow (11 churches). The proposal entailed creating a single parish with one PCC.

“To me, and to almost all the members of the PCCs in my particular benefice, this was the wrong direction,” he recalls. “If you widen the area of the church to be a large area benefice, it’s really risky, because people will then look at an entity that isn’t really their local entity. They won’t give so much money. Or they won’t travel to neighbouring villages.”

He regards the proposal as “a little bit of an illustration of the way the old diocese was rather apt to do things autocratically, without much consultation. This proposal had gathered a kind of momentum, which we had difficulty stopping. And, in the end, the only way we could stop it was by taking it to appeal to the Church Commissioners.” Last September, the Commissioners agreed with the appellants, after, Mr Orange says, “a lot of work and heartache . . .

“Honestly, I think it’s reflective of a diocese that still even a year ago wasn’t completely listening. The comments made on the consultation call were all pretty clearly worried about the proposal. And yet the diocese couldn’t find reverse gear.”

He remains conscious of further reorganisation ahead, and highlights a disparity between the funds invested in rural parishes, some of which have been in vacancy for years, and resource churches. “It’s a bit like all the goodies are going to the resource church. Very little is going in the other directions.”

And he expresses concern about the possibility that a dominant model is emerging. The approach to worship and ministry of Holy Trinity, Brompton — the diocese’s partner in launching resource churches — is not to everyone’s taste, he points out.

“It’s good if the Evangelical Church is flourishing in Winchester — that’s fine, but not if it quashes others. I’m sure nobody in those churches would say that was the intention, but it is the consequence, sometimes.”

 

BETWEEN 2017 and 2021, Winchester’s mission action plan — total project cost: £20 million — was awarded more than £9 million in Strategic Development Funding. Not all of its ambitious goals were met. Plans for three “pioneer hubs” that would launch 30 lay-led Fresh Expressions did not come to fruition, and the project was wound up, leaving pioneer curates without pioneer posts to take up and feeling “let down by the diocese and the Bishop”, Mr Pitkin says.

Resource churches seem to represent a success story, however. St Mary’s, Southampton (News, 4 May 2018), has a worshipping community of 618, in excess of its target of 500, and the other four also report impressive growth that is at least threefold. They remain central to the diocese’s strategy, though the impact on neighbouring parishes has not been fully assessed.

While the language of church-planting is no longer used, the diocese’s recent bid for £4.5 million of Strategic Mission and Ministry Investment funding (News, 28 July) envisages launching up to six “parish revitalisation and renewal partnerships” in Bournemouth and Southampton, in which resource churches will partner with parishes near by during “times of significant transition”, such as vacancies. The bid emphasises that these will be “entirely mutual” — and they make up a small proportion of the diocese’s 255 parishes.

 

IN ANDOVER, a rapidly growing town in North Hampshire, St Mary’s was launched as a resource church in 2019. The congregation has grown from 92 to 415, and, in May, the new parish of Andover was created, bringing together three smaller parishes. The Revd Chris Bradish, now Vicar of Andover, served as an assistant curate in Winchester, and came to lead St Mary’s in 2019, having spent a year at Holy Trinity, Brompton.

“The question we asked time and time again was: what kind of church does Andover need us to be?” he says. “We tried very hard to listen as best as we could to the town, and really build mission and ministry from there.”

Armed with a 55-page integrated-needs analysis commissioned from Winchester’s public-health department (the church works closely with the local Primary Care Network), and extensive conversations with local leaders and the PCC, one of the most fruitful things that have emerged is a social-action project, the Lighthouse, which offers debt counselling, mental-health courses, and support with life skills, among other things. “We’ve found a lot of people want to know the goodness of Christianity before they want to have a conversation about its truth,” Mr Bradish observes.

While the main service on a Sunday is in the familiar HTB style, the church also offers a weekly eucharist with a choir which was established after Mr Bradish’s arrival. “These are expressions of church which I love, and I think we would be impoverished to lose them,” he says. “As far as I’m aware, Gen Z are equally drawn to the spirituality of liberal Catholic worship as they are to contemporary expressions of worship. . . What we find at St Mary’s is that we have young and old in both expressions of worship. It’s not a binary here. . . I think people are much more interesting and complicated than we sometimes imagine.”

 

GROWTH at resource churches has followed significant investment. A total of £950,000 has been invested in St Mary’s, so far, half of which came from the SDF. The new parish has three full-time stipendiary posts funded through the diocese (representing one stipend per 13,000 people), in addition to several curates and a staff team of 12. Against a backdrop of cuts to stipendiary posts, vacancies, and amalgamations, questions about the fair distribution of resources remain.

For Bishop Williams, it is important to recognise the extent of the turnaround. Before the resource-church launch, he reports, despite “faithful and godly ministry”, church attendance in Andover’s Anglican churches was less than 0.4 per cent of the population. But he also wants to highlight SDF investment in rural parishes, which make up 60 per cent of the parishes in Winchester.

Three benefices piloted the “Benefice of the Future” programme. A total of £550,000 has been spent on on the project to date, which involves almost 30 churches.While the ambitious goals for growth (15 per cent, or a total of 160 new or returning Christians) were not met, the diocese reports that worshipping-community figures “showed considerably more resilience than other rural multi-parish benefices in our diocese”. There are plans to add nine more benefices to the programme over the next three years.

Diocese of WinchesterBishop Williams and Bishop Sellin at the lay licensing service, October 2022

The Revd Simon Butler is Rector of one of the three pilots, the North Hampshire Downs Benefice, of 12 churches, and tells a story of transformation. Before the project, ministry was overstretched (“leaving one service during the last hymn to arrive at the next one for the first hymn”). The SDF money enabled investment in an assistant curate, administrative support, website creation, and communications. But, more than that, he observes, it communicated to the parishes that the diocese saw them not as an “inconvenience”, but a source of “real potential”.

A “big culture shift” occurred, he reports, from “reluctant benefice” to a recognition of the strength to be found in numbers. The change was evident in the approach to the new youth pastor, who has been asked to concentrate on two or three places rather than spread themselves thinly across them all. “Just because youth work isn’t happening in your village doesn’t mean it’s not your youth work.”

The clergy team has grown from four to nine, six of whom are “home-grown” self-supporting or house-for-duty ministers, meaning that each parish now has a “primary pastoral lead”: a priest present three Sundays out of four who is the “go-to” for pastoral care. An “enormous groundswell” of vocations has also produced three new licensed lay ministers, and about 100 people attending the Winchester School of Mission, an initiative established by Dr Dakin. Sunday attendance has returned to pre-Covid levels, and the benefice currently engages with 150 children and young people.

“Resourcing gave us creative space and time to invest in people who clearly had a call into authorised ministry,” Mr Butler says. The numbers are part of a broader success story when it comes to vocations: across the three pilot benefices, 39 new leaders emerged.

 

THE word “unprecedented” often accompanied reports of events in Winchester two years ago. But to what extent might it also set a precedent? This was a worry expressed by one or two bishops in touch with Bishop Frith. After all, Dr Dakin was not the only diocesan bishop to grapple with declining numbers and strained finances, or to offer a radical vision for change.

One of the questions that Bishop Frith weighed up was “where things in Winchester were different in degree, and where they were different in kind”. Some of the issues explored in this feature are “subjects for debate and controversy all over the place”, he says. “But, having said that, they tended to have a Winchester twist to them and also a Winchester interpretation. People would think ‘This is because of Tim Dakin.’ Well, no, actually, it may not be. It felt as though it was.”

Nevertheless, the Bishop of London was presented with 29 witness statements from people affected by their interactions with Dr Dakin and dating back eight years. Together, they reported a harmful pattern of behaviour, described by one priest as a “maverick, almost cruel, style”. Church Times’s reporting prompted more people to come forward with evidence, some from Africa.

Mr Pitkin, who says that he was able to truly relax only once Dr Dakin retired in February 2022, is not convinced that other bishops need worry: “I am not really aware of other dioceses where pastoral relationships have broken down to the same extent.”

As a member of the vacancy-in-see committee, he was involved in drafting the request for a new Bishop “who knows themselves, their strengths and weaknesses, who understands that they cannot bear the weight of their calling in their own strength and that they need to work collaboratively to fulfil their call”. Clergy are looking forward to meeting Bishop Mounstephen, whose talk of “love and hope” has been “well-received”, he says.

Since his time in Winchester, Bishop Frith has reflected deeply on the use of power in episcopal ministry. “I think we don’t always reflect on where is power in a particular situation, and how are we using it, and are we misusing it?” he concludes. “There’s not a contradiction between a sort of strong, clear leader, and somebody who is consultative and takes people with them and genuinely listens and consults. . . That must be the principle we are after, I think.”

Dr Dakin was approached to respond to elements in this story. No reply had been received by the time of going to press.

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