christ church oxford martyn percy safeguarding purgatory winckworth sherwood luther pendragon
Church of England

Christ Church vs Martyn Percy: a conspiracy of lawyers, divine PR, and the purgatory of CofE Safeguarding

The story of injustice being inflicted by the Church of England upon Prof Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, has been grinding on now for over three months, and the reputation of the Established Church for justice, mercy and humility has been eroding with it every day. The reputation of the Dean, too, is being systematically destroyed: to be a high-profile leader in education under suspicion for breaches in safeguarding is profoundly damaging, if not career-ending.

Following the open letter to the General Synod from Martin Sewell and David Lamming concerning Christ Church’s abuse of the Church of England’s safeguarding process, an open response was made by Peter Adams on his ‘Talking Peace‘ blog, in which he told them stop “special pleading” for the Dean and encourage him to put his faith in the processes of the Church. The letter below is a detailed response to that, and will be sent to as many Synod members as possible before next week’s ‘Virtual Synod’. Questions will also be asked in the hope of leading the Church out of the Safeguarding purgatory into which its incompetence and pride are leading it once again.

Members of Synod should read both letters and ask themselves three questions:

1) Am I prepared to publicly defend the Church of England’s conduct in this ?
2) Would I wish myself or someone I care for to be subject to such processes?
3) What exactly am I going to do about this?

He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?‘ (Micah 6:8).

Some might find all this ecclesiastically insular, if not tediously parochial, but it really isn’t. This isn’t simply an internal Christ Church academic spat or a Church of England process error. Nor is it only one case. It evidences institutional delinquency, systematic injustice, and a chronic failure to bring remedy and restore justice. And any such remedy and restoration requires a huge cultural shift – the first being that the Church of England might hold its hands up and admit error.

This matter is being pursued because it is about far more than Safeguarding; it is about challenging the deferential culture toward the highly-connected networking elite, and shining some light on what happens to those who dare to intrude into their fiefdoms by speaking inconvenient truths.


Dear Peter,

Thank you very much for taking the trouble to respond to the letter which David Lamming and I circulated to General Synod members. You can be well assured that we have no problem with your raising your concerns in the way that you have, and in publishing this response to you on the Archbishop Cranmer blog, I urge everyone to read and consider what you say and take it seriously. This is precisely the kind of honest debate amongst Synod members which we have been seeking to encourage, for as you imply, this is not “us against them” but friends disagreeing well and exchanging views the better to understand and remedy the problems of the institution for which we collectively bear responsibility. Howsoever this open debate may unfold, we will continue to work together in good fellowship towards shared goals.

We plainly agree that the Church’s processes must be clear, well defined, equally and consistently applied in comparable cases. In human rights terms were call these principles “The right to a fair trial” and the need for “Equality of Arms”. When we fall from those ideals we agree that things should be changed. The charge here is that the Church fails on both counts.

Whenever any form of legislation is enacted, inevitably there may emerge unforeseen problems of substance or interpretation. As Napoleon observed: “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” So with our quasi-judicial processes; it is almost inevitable. That said, when the same problems recur we must correct them. You may, however, detect a certain exasperation in those of us who thought we had put ourselves back on the right track after the Bishop Bell fiasco.

You identify that there are “grey” zones where reform and clarification are needed; there are but the problems are even more serious than that.

In the Percy case, Christ Church Oxford has always been considered, and considered itself, within the class of “Peculiars” to which our Secretary General William Nye referred in his IICSA evidence where he carefully explained that not every clerk in holy orders is within our NST regime. He did reassure the Inquiry that clergy should nevertheless have our guidance applied within the regulatory context within which they find themselves.

This is neither time nor space to present a complex narrative on jurisdiction, but the NST justification for the Dean falling within its structures is now into its third iteration and Willian Nye has graciously acknowledged that his evidence to IICSA was inadvertently mistaken and has corrected it. Three months after the proceedings began, we are debating the implications of the latest explanation, which still may be erroneous. This surely ought to have been resolved before the process began.

This may look a very rarefied dispute, but it is not. You rightly urge that rules should be obeyed, but this means by all parties. As Dean and guardian of Christ Church, its rights and privileges, Dean Percy is entitled and even required to ask the Church on what basis it seeks to claim such jurisdiction for the first time. It took time to secure a comprehensive answer. He was only told that it was because he was a “national figure” (like Jonathan Fletcher?). In fact, during the process, the Church even invited him to explain the Christ Church Statutes to them! Never be a test case. It is hugely expensive and exhausting.

The Church of England’s safeguarding rules require our clergy to work to a standard which protects “vulnerable adults”, yet in other independent contexts chaplains are asked to work with a different definition. They have to comply with the 2014 Care Act definition of “adult at risk” which is quite different from our ‘vulnerable adult’, which could mean every adult with a pastoral issue. This is problematic. Working to one standard may breach one legislative code, and vice versa. Jurisdiction matters. People should not have to work under double jeopardy. By legislation or agreed protocol these trans-institutional conflicts must be resolved constitutionally and not on a haphazard ad hoc basis. The current NST Guidelines require persons employed outside the Church to have their issues resolved in their place of work before NST involvement begins. The only special treatment the Dean has received is to have been fast-tracked through the normal protective filters.

If the Church wants to extend its reach, as you suggest it should, that must be done after debate and primary legislation. The implications of this current case may have serious unintended consequences for others of the Houses of Bishops and Clergy, and chaplains working in prisons, hospitals, higher education and the Armed Forces. You may well be right that “There needs to be tightening up of the grey zones where exercise of the Church’s Authority is in question”, but attempting such an exercise by assisting one side in an acrimonious dispute at Christ Church is the worst way of doing this.

If we want to gather this all this under one roof it would be reasonable to call for a proper revision with all interested parties contributing. While this may be appropriate, for a variety of reasons practical and financial, this is probably not the right time to begin at the final year of an extended quinquennial.

You worry that David and I are special pleading for Dean Percy. On the contrary, it is the malcontents of Christ Church who have sought – and received – special treatment and privileged access from the Church in this extraordinary case. The College Trustees could have changed its disciplinary procedures. They could have removed the special status of its Dean. They could have given him a proper grievance procedure through which to seek investigation and redress of his allegations of bullying. They could have presented a fully argued legal opinion explaining why this case falls within our jurisdiction and responsibility. In the total absence of any person complaining that the Dean had mishandled a complaint, the College Trustees could have undertaken an exercise comparable to our own Past Cases Review where every parish was required to ask its parishioners in a comprehensive variety of forms if any of them had a complaint. The NST asked none of this of the Christ Church malcontents, who, it must be remembered, acted not in their capacity as College officials but as private individual complainants.

Christ Church is a much smaller enterprise than the Church of England but proportionately has huge resource. It has probably spent £3m so far and failed to convict its Dean of any wrongdoing. That was confirmed by the independent inquiry by retired High Court Judge Sir Andrew Smith, in which safeguarding concerns did not even feature. How hard would it have been for the malcontents to have pressed the College to use its student registers and Alumni Association to seek and locate evidence of safeguarding malpractice if any existed? Why should their grievance be funded by the folks sitting in our pews and not by those sitting at High Table on top of £500m worth of assets?

Allegedly, one case involved a 17-year-old girl at the time of an incident, though she is said to have only spoken to the Dean many years later. How many 17-year-olds do you think there are in the alleged pool of potential victims? It would not breach GDPR to make sure that any individual in such a small cohort was likely receive a generalised outreach, unless she had specifically opted out of receipt of all College communication. If she has, how will we ever find her? Adult at the time of her disclosure, it is for her to say if she felt the Dean had misused the confidence she reposed in him, not the complainants, with an ancillary agenda.

There is simply no evidence presented upon which to found a case: currently what the NST has received and acted upon is of no greater evidential weight than celebrity gossip. In answer to your own February 2020 Synod question (No 66), Bishop Peter Hancock – echoing the evidence of Stephen Slack to IICSA – replied that clergy must have “due regard” for our guidelines. Even if there be jurisdiction over the Dean, he has specifically explained that he complied with adult victim requests on how to handle their information. Compliance with that instruction cannot be other than a “Cogent Reason” for not passing the data to third parties which, under our rules, is what is required of him.

He has accordingly raised a substantial defence of immunity both of jurisdiction against a national complaint based upon the fact he works in a high-status location, and of substance under our own rules. Unless there exists actual evidence which could displace both limbs of that defence, there is no current viable triable case against him. The Christ Church malcontents could and should have been asked at the outset to address both the jurisdictional problem and their neglect of seeking proper evidence in support of their allegations. Had this been done, we would all have been in a happier position. Is it not helpful to refine the issues down to those two simple unaddressed problems? There is no better economy than doing things properly.

David and I cannot proffer that analysis without implicitly criticising those who have managed that side of the process to date. We are sorry for that. We are not entirely clear who ultimately makes these decisions but would not be doing our jobs as Synod representatives if, seeing these problems, we failed to seek correction. We have done so both privately and publicly. Neither of us has any interest beyond establishing due process and complying with Micah 6:8. Currently our Church does not do justice, is not merciful, and demonstrates precious little humility when problems are pointed out.

If anyone has had privileged treatment it is obviously the Christ Church Dons, three of whom were granted a seat at the Core Group table to influence the process and secure their primary purpose which was to inveigle the Church into instigating an investigation before the Dean knew anything about it. They immediately began leaking their success around the College to try to restore their reputation, tarnished after their comprehensive defeat at the hands of the College’s Independent Investigator. They reported their success to the College Trustees with the words: “Your wily Censors have spoken to the right people at the NST.” You will not be surprised to learn that the “right people” did not include David or me.

Yet that is not the worst of it. Put that privileged access into context.

In the George Bell case, the complainant’s lawyer was granted a seat at the Core Group but nobody was appointed to defend the long dead Bishop. The need for proper representation for the accused was a key recommendation of the Carlile Report. That recommendation to ensure a level playing field was ignored in the Percy case. Are we wrong to ask why?

George Carey, a retired Archbishop, was accorded no such privilege: two weeks after his Core Group met, he has still not been told the character of the allegations, yet the press were notified of the process within a couple of hours of his being advised something was afoot.

The complainant “Graham”, who first told Lambeth Palace about the John Smyth abuse in 2012, has never been invited to participate and does not know who sits on the Core Group responsible for instigating and receiving the Makin Review.

Complainant Matt Ineson was similarly excluded, only learning of the Core Group composition via his Subject Access Requests. The NST redacted the names from the minutes of those attending, but the Sheffield Diocese did not. Whilst Matt was excluded, each of the four Bishops of whom he complained was represented, and each had a communications officer at the table. He was not told that the ordained lawyer advising both the Archbishop and principal Bishop in his case had been the curate of his abuser.

Time and again reputation management intrudes, with communication strategy and PR trumping elementary considerations of fair play and justice. This is a recurring complaint I hear from victims.

Allegedly, in this case, the matter began when it was brought to the College Censors by an unnamed journalist and they took the concern to Lambeth Palace, even though there is no individual complainant. So how did that even come about? Do read His Grace’s post on the role of the PR firm Luther Pendragon who just happen to act for both the Christ Church Censors and the Church of England. The complainants need to undermine the Dean and in a timely manner an unknown complainant comes out the woodwork to tell an unknown journalist who takes it to the Christ Church Censors who need just such evidence to establish their assertion that their Dean is a wrong’un. Nothing fishy here, obviously; Christ Church is just blessed by providence. The wily Censors just struck lucky again in the lottery of who gets a seat at the Core Group table.

Given the above, you may understand why we fear that the decisions about who is invited onto Core Groups and who is excluded is at best capricious, and at worst manipulatively prejudicial.

There is a similar haphazard quality to how respondents are treated. The Church sometimes affords its respondents the dignity of anonymity pending process which was recommended by the Carlile Report. The Church formally rejected that one recommendation but applies it selectively. His Grace addressed this in his post on the management of the Archbishop-Elect Stephen Cottrell’s Core Group, yet look how the sensitivity and compassion which he received contrasted with its absence for Martyn a Percy and George Carey.

There is no way of disguising inconsistency which is laced with an unavoidable suspicion that some are accorded privileged access and compassion, whilst others, with an equal and fair case for inclusion, are excluded. Is this policy or ad hoc? Does anybody think this represents sound practice? Should we not seek an explanation and a correction to bring some order and consistency to an unhappy presentation?

But it gets worse still. The Percy Core Group was supposed to be that of the National Church. It turns out that is was an Oxford coterie, unleavened by outside balance. Strikingly, there was nobody from a BAME background. This is important. Perhaps, like me, few of our BAME brothers and sisters are experts on the Oxford University Statutes or College backbiting, but they tend to know a thing or two about institutional bullying, they are often alert to unconscious bias, and they are very good at spotting the kind of chumocracy that was on display around that Oxford Core Group table.

I considered appending the cast list to this piece but decided against doing so. If any General Synod member asks me, I will share it on an undertaking to hold it confidentially. The Bishops’ 2017 Guidance require Core Group members to recuse themselves either if they know the respondent personally, or if they might be required to be witnesses. This basic requirement to remove bias and conflict of interest was completely ignored. Had the rules been followed, only three of the 14 attenders at most would have remained including the Chair, who has since stepped down for undisclosed reasons.

In talking to the “right people”, the complainants had engaged the Diocesan solicitors Winckworth Sherwood as well the Church’s PR agency Luther Pendragon. Both the Oxford Diocesan and Provincial Registrars work for Winckworth Sherwood. The Bishops’ guidance attempts to protect the integrity of Core Group process from conflict of interest by requiring Registrars and their firms not to act for respondents; they are silent on the same firm acting for complainants. Is there is a proper rationale for this inconsistency? It has never been explained and certainly looks very unhealthy to me. Of the people around that table, 13 of 14 had professional links in varying degree to the complainants’ lawyers.

Private Eye has published an excoriating piece (‘Christ Church at War: Divine law’) on this aspect which must surely have alarmed and appalled people across the Church. We do not have permission to reproduce it but it is worth seeking out. Suffice to say that Winckworth Sherwood and the Church do not come out of it well. If I had paid a PR agency to undertake reputational management and ended up where we are right now, I’d ask for a refund. Our credibility as a Church of Justice is currently fundamentally in question. The Church can have my PR advice for free: manage the Core Groups fairly and professionally. If we managed our complaints better, we might not need so much PR.

So you may be seeing why David and I are reluctant to urge the Dean to follow your advice that he just submit to the present rules, and put this life-changing decision into the hands of such a dysfunctional culture. These 2017 Guidelines remained unchanged since the Bell case, despite the Carlile report explaining the difficulties. Welcome to Groundhog Day – see you next time!

Actually, in fairness, this time this important error is partly understandable. IICSA intervened, the entire NST changed, we have a new Director of Safeguarding and Lead Safeguarding Bishop. However decent and competent we see them to be, we have bequeathed to them faulty rules. They have just begun to see a toxic culture where even the Church’s lawyers, who are supposed to be professionally attuned to the ethics of conflict of interest, saw nothing untoward in how that Core Group functioned. The Core Group clearly did not even obey the rules as currently drafted, in important ways.

The position for the newcomers, innocently stepping into all this, is pretty invidious, and I should stress that neither the Director of Safeguarding Melissa Caslake nor our Lead Safeguarding Bishop Jonathan Gibbs was present at the Core Group and are having to cope with this remotely. It is a nightmare for them even to find the full picture.

Three months later it appears the minutes have still not been finalised. Given everything we know, I am almost ready to speculate that nobody thought to properly minute this crucial meeting. Lest you think that wildly improbable, we do know that the Dean was asked to agree a media statement and agree the Terms of Reference for an investigation into his alleged misconduct devised in a Core Group at which he was excluded but his opponents were present, having never been given a synopsis of the full case which he is expected to meet.

Currently Dean Percy, Lord Carey and indeed the Smyth complainant “Graham” are being told that releasing Core Group minutes is ‘Not how the Church does things’. As participants in the meeting, the Christ Church Censors will receive them. You have to be a senior Church insider even to consider defending this.

This must change. Both Dean Percy and Archbishop George Carey are accused of process error only. “Graham” is of equal complainant status to the Censors – except in the world of privileged access he isn’t; nor was the working-class northern priest Matt Ineson.

There is not the slightest proper reason for withholding the minutes. In the secular world, Child Protection Case Conferences routinely admit parents suspected of direct child abuse and neglect: they are listened to and given the minutes, which are occasionally redacted but rarely denied. Our current practice denies respondents access to the basic record of what happened and why. That denies them the fair opportunity to challenge errors within the process. Why would anyone want to do this?

Ms Caslake comes from an outside secular legal culture that knows how to run Core Groups properly. She must be empowered and encouraged to introduce the routine functionality of that world into our processes. Local Authorities never invite communications people into the room. Their role, if any, is to receive and present decisions after they have been fairly arrived at, not to deform quasi-judicial judgments in the corporate interests of the organisation. Allowing communications specialists to frame the narrative inside the room is surely where cover-ups can begin. There is a time and a place for PR folk, but it is not occupying the primary position they currently enjoy.

There are two important senior Church figures still in place from the time of the Carlile Report: our Secretary General William Nye and the Bishop of Lambeth, Tim Thornton. For entirely proper reasons both have hitherto had to stand back to let the Core Group function independently. Given the car crash that has emerged, they need urgently to take control of the wheel and put us back on the right track. If they don’t, the House of Bishops must. It seems only fair that responsibility is formally accepted at the highest level. That is presumably where the buck stops even if the errors are not personal.

We can have a fresh start by declaring that original tainted Core Group and its decisions void, and starting afresh. There is no shame in restoring integrity.

At present we have an institution which has been reluctant to explain its claim to jurisdiction; permits complainants and communications folk to shape the decisions; selectively denies equality of arms to respondents; was deferential to Oxford Dons and disinclined to require them to bring prima facie evidence for their claims; and will not subject the decision-making process to be scrutinised by publishing the minutes to those most affected by them.

As I write, these issues have been plainly identified but not appropriately addressed. This institutional disinclination to respond to legitimate questions has been a longstanding source of complaint from victims in various contexts. By not openly explaining itself, the Church demonstrates what US Senator Fulbright described as the “Arrogance of Power”. I am sure this is not personally intended, but when our own institution routinely deploys the principle “never apologise, never explain” where it has clearly mis-stepped, it exemplifies neither the accountability nor the transparency to which we say we aspire. We struggle with fairness and humility. Let us now look at mercy and empathy.

In a conversation at the end of last Synod I spent time with some of our BAME brothers and sisters who shared with me their insight that racism is a safeguarding issue. I found that enlightening, and I know the comparison and synergy between the two issues will speak to you, Peter, because of your work.

Just as institutions can be institutionally racist without most people wishing or intending it, so I know from long experience that safeguarding structures can be callously indifferent towards those within its power, without truly appreciating the terrible damage it does. I have seen this a lot in my working life, and I hear it now as I talk to those who engage with the Church in a safeguarding context. Our structural failures and imperious responses frustrate, harm well-being, and even lose people their faith. That matters.

I hear you say that Dean Percy should knuckle under and that David and I should, in effect, encourage him to take the risk of compliance with our faulty and unhealthy structures in which the bullies of Christ Church have placed their hopes. If they succeed in breaking him, the victim community will lose one of their best and most passionate champions.

David and I are so concerned about these things because we do the reading, the lobbying and the challenging. When we bring matters of such controversy to ordinary Synod members’ attention it is part of a bigger picture, and often we have tried quiet diplomacy without success. There is nothing in this for us except the satisfaction of righting wrongs. We want you to join us.

I am sure that in Montgomery in 1955 you would not have urged Rosa Parks to have obeyed the rules and gone quietly to the back of the bus. In the same way, Dean Martyn Percy is taking a stand against deep injustices because he knows he is just the latest in a long line of victims of our peculiar institution, which does not appreciate how cruel its behaviour is, or how it misuses the serious power we give it. Sometimes a disruptive challenge is the only right thing to do.

Best wishes,

Martin Sewell

Errata, 17 July 2020

I am very grateful to a professional colleague for pointing out an error and an oversight which ought to be corrected.

I had misremembered the composition of the Bell Core Group. In that case, the complainant’s lawyer was not a Core Group member, however she was accorded the right to offer a report on her client’s behalf, for consideration, and her representations and interactions with a lawyer present at the Core Group were reported to it. In that respect the complainant, through her lawyer, was accorded better input than others have enjoyed in similar circumstances.

Whilst Bishops rejected the idea of anonymous settlements if there was no formal acceptance of liability, I am reminded that they did initially accept that pending a specific finding of fact, respondents should not be named. I had missed that point.

I am pleased to record both helpful corrections. The overall point, that there should be consistency, fair access and a consistent anonymity policy remains, of course undiminished.

Martin Sewell