McDonald Centre Christ Church Oxford

Christ Church dons launch new attack on the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life

Christ Church Oxford and the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life have been working together in scholarly harmony for over 12 years. The Centre is a highly regarded academic institution which has brought the University considerable funds from the McDonald Agape Foundation, amounting to approximately £2.45m, all of which has facilitated and financed some highly distinguished speakers’ programmes, seminars and conferences on questions of profound theological and ethical importance. The Director of the Centre is Canon Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University, who was recommended to the Foundation’s donors in 2008 by Oxford’s former Vice Chancellor Sir John Hood.

Hitherto, there has never been the slightest whiff of dissatisfaction or disquiet about the Centre’s presence at the College. Indeed, the McDonald Agape Foundation generously bestows many $millions upon other distinguished universities, including Cambridge, Harvard, Yale and Duke: their mission is to encourage “distinguished scholars for Christ”, in order that their scholarship may flourish, and the world’s theological knowledge might be enhanced.

But a few weeks ago Professor Biggar received a letter from the College’s lawyers on behalf of the Governing Body, demanding that the McDonald Centre remove all references to Christ Church from its website, including the Centre’s logo, which has the appearance of the famous Tom Tower. The request was effectively to sever all association between the McDonald Centre and Christ Church.

It is curious, after more than a decade of harmonious scholarship and manifest fraternal accord, that that the Governing Body or ‘Censors’ of Christ Church would seek suddenly to censor this academic relationship. Curious, that is, until you consider that Nigel Biggar has been vocal and very public in his defence of Dean Martyn Percy, who is currently being bullied out of his job by a faction of Censors. Having failed to tarnish him with “conduct of an immoral, scandalous or disgraceful nature“, they have now turned for assistance to the Church of England to try and oust him for “a consistent lack of moral compass“.

That allegation is not only being vigorously contested (scroll down); the whole involvement of the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team will be robustly challenged as ultra vires.

It is a notable aspect of chronic bullying that those who defend the victim are themselves likely to become victims: the degradation of reputation and destruction of the human spirit are far easier in isolation, so all sources of succour must be identified and support-lines severed. And one of Martyn Percy’s undoubted sources of support has been Canon Nigel Biggar, who recently went so far as writing a letter to the Times which called for the Charity Commission to act. “Our Governing Body is divided”, he wrote. “The Charity Commission must intervene to impose an independent inquiry and its own interim management. Christ Church deserves to be governed by a body that will serve the best interests of a great institution, not just those of the incumbent tribe.”

And so the 41 members of the Governing Body who seek to oust the Dean are now harassing the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology. Funny, isn’t it, how the Censors are targeting two prominent Christians and eminent theologians: the battle appears to be between the malign forces of secularism and the Christian cornerstone (literally) of the College, upon which the McDonald Centre has built a thriving theological enterprise.

Quite why the University’s Chief Development Officer and fundraiser, Ms Liesl Elder, is apparently content to lose a stream of £millions is something of a mystery. Perhaps she sides with those who want the Dean removed? Perhaps she, too, believes that Martyn Percy displays “a consistent lack of moral compass”, and so removing him is worth many £millions of charitable funding? The partnership between Christ Church and the McDonald Centre isn’t one of casual academic cooperation, but contractual and legal obligation, and the demands being made upon Professor Biggar may well result in a further lawsuit against the College for breach of contract.

With Martyn Percy’s Employment Tribunal claim and all the negative publicity surrounding that, why would the Governing Body initiate another legal dispute with another highly respected academic? Why would they create more internal friction and cause more negative publicity to the University? Why, having spent an estimated £2million trying to get rid of the Dean, would they risk another expensive lawsuit with a very, very wealthy American charitable foundation?

The Rev’d Jonathan Aitken, an alumnus of the College and a member of the Advisory Board of the McDonald Centre, is in no doubt about the reason. The attack, he says, is “not because of any faults or failings in the Centre itself, but because leading figures in the Governing Body have been irritated by the views supporting the Dean, and criticising the Governing Body, that have been expressed by Professor Nigel Biggar and myself. There are no other known or expressed explanations for the attack by the Governing Body on the Centre”.

There is one, of course, though perhaps a latent explanation: that the Christ Church of Christian foundation is becoming subject to the same fundamental, cultural and religious forces of change which have been sweeping the nation. Secularisation is complex and secularity nuanced, but the Christ Church which is run by the religious Dean presiding over the religious society is resented and actively opposed by the Christ Church which is run by rational and enlightened Fellows or ‘Students’, as they are termed, and there is a ‘progressive’ need to distinguish between the Christian piety or religiosity of the Cathedral’s governance, and the serious academe of ‘neutrality’, of equality and secularity (which is not, of course, neutral at all). And so the Angel in the House has to go, or at least be put very firmly in its place, because Christ Church must be governed by the unanimity of minds inculcating the irrefutable, if not infallible normative rationality of modernity.

As a Director of The McDonald Agape Foundation, Jonathan Aitken says they would far rather be giving to the University than suing the University, but it is clear that the good legal and academic interdependent relationship between the McDonald Centre, Christ Church and the University has been severely damaged. The Censors owe the Foundation an apology, at least.

While Canon Nigel Biggar must have a certain and sure appeal to Oxford’s whistleblowing policy, if not to Christ Church’s anti-bullying policy, it must be understood that invoking either of these is a gruelling and all-consuming process, which, of course, the bully knows. Everything seems designed to grind Martyn Percy down, and drive his supporters to distraction. And so we return to the possibility of or necessity for an appeal to the Charity Commission. Given that the Governing Body of Christ Church has already spent a fortune on their dispute with the Dean, how can the Commission stand passively by as the Censors embroil the College in a further dispute which will cost the charitable funds of Christ Church £10,000s if not £100,000s more? How can they just sit and observe a further attack on the McDonald Centre which has no moral, academic or legal justification? How can they let such a distinguished charity smear its own reputation and that of the wider University with academic aggression which is motivated purely by petty spite and personal animosity?

Baroness Stowell, will you please intervene?