Christ Church Cathedral block Angela Tilby

The hypocrisy of the Canons of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

Yesterday, the Rev’d Angela Tilby, an Emeritus Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, was blocked on Twitter by someone in the Cathedral. This wasn’t the first time she had been blocked, but this time all she had done was highlight a ‘tension’ in one of the Cathedral’s promotional tweets:

Christ Church Cathedral Oxford peacemaking Angela Tilby Christ Church Cathedral Oxford peacemaking

There was no abuse, no incitement, no insulting or crude language: just a courteous question, and that was it. Blocked.

Perhaps she had touched a nerve.

This petulance and pettiness came just a few days after a Lenten sermon on Psalm 130 by the Rev’d Jonathan Aitken, delivered at Pusey House, St Giles, Oxford. His theme was penitence: “Spurgeon got it right when he said: ‘Psalm 130 contains the essence of all Scripture’.” Indeed it does: sin, cries from the depths for mercy, waiting, tears, watching, tears, forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption. And his sermon challenged with a direct question: “How do we help others when we see a friend, relative, neighbour going through the depths?” He answered:

It takes courage to cope with such depths, which are best endured, as Verse 1 of the Psalm suggest, by prayerful crying out to God.

But there is a second challenge implied in this Psalm, perhaps particularly to those who profess the Christian faith and who should be obedient to its second great Commandment.
‘Love thy neighbour’.

How well do we honour that Commandment when we see our neighbour struggling in the depths?

Now I am going to dare to be controversial here.

I want to pose this question close to home right here in Oxford.

As I ask “How well did some prominent Oxford Christians obey the ‘Love thy neighbour’ Commandment during the:

− longest,
− costliest,
− nastiest
− and worst reputation destroying scandal in living memory to stain the honour of this University and its most celebrated College?

I’m referring here to the four-year Civil War at Christ Church so unsuccessfully, so expensively and so self-destructively waged for the purpose of destroying the Dean of Christ Church, Martyn Percy.

He survived with honour upheld thanks to his own prayerful courage.

But what did the most prominent Christians in the Cathedral or in the Diocese of Oxford do to help him survive this epic war?

Did they pass the: ‘Love thy neighbour’ tests when their Dean was going through the depths?

I am sorry to say that they failed miserably.

The Church Times, in an editorial on 11 February on Christ Church Civil War said this:

“The Church too must review its conduct, for there were long stretches of inaction during the dispute, which were as harmful as some of its actions. Church communities may feel complacent because they are not as openly hostile as academics can be, but there is a culpability beneath the failure to support, intervene and challenge.”

Now, by the restrained standards of the Church Times this editorial probably rates as a savagely critical indictment of the Church of England hierarchy in Oxford.

But I am afraid it is an understatement.

The Christ Church civil war was a horror story with many villains.

But what about the part played in it by Oxford’s Christian leaders?

Surely they must expect to be measured by higher standards.

Let us leave aside to the devices and desires of their own hearts the secular anti-Dean plotters on the Governing Body of Christ Church. Especially those who are now mightily embarrassed by the publication of their repulsive emails and by their recklessly irresponsible extravagance in blowing £20 million of charitable funds on fees to lawyers, PR companies and lost donations.

Let’s leave those dead to bury their dead or more likely to be buried by surcharges and suspensions ordered by the Charity Commission.

But the Christian community needs to recognise that there was spiritual warfare in these depths.

That’s why searching questions need to be asked of the Bishop of Oxford and of some Cathedral Canons.

Have any of them, in the spirit of Psalm 130 expressed a single cheep of contrition, a single phrase of penitence for what The Church Times rightly calls their “failures and culpabilities” in this saga?

Their silence so far is deafening.

It wasn’t just a matter of passing by on the other side in the manner of the Priest in the parable of the Good Samaritan – although there was plenty of that.

Just read former Canon Angela Tilby’s devastating article in The Tablet of February 5 to get the inside story of how badly some of her fellow Canons behaved – with the honourable and courageous exception of Canon Professor Nigel Biggar.

When I read that article, the thought came to my mind that T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral deserves a Christ Church sequel: ‘Reputational Murder in the Cathedral‘.

For what some Canons attempted to do was to weaponise a sexual harassment scandal that never happened – and which they well knew never happened

− into barring the Dean from his own Cathedral, into using a fraudulently authored risk assessment to blacken his name
− and to demand for a second £1 million Tribunal; All with the objective of destroying the Dean – which failed.

By the way, don’t take my word for it that the so-called sexual assault never happened.

The definitive judgement on this matter, after three investigations, was handed down by the President of Tribunals, the senior High Court Judge Dame Sarah Asplin.

She ruled, when dismissing the CDM against the Dean, which had been initiated by Canon Graham Ward, that it would not be proportionate to refer this “extremely short” incident to a Tribunal because “the language and the conduct as a whole was not overtly sexual” and “because the complainant had accepted that she was not upset in any way perturbed”.

End of non-story you might think.

But the weaponisers of this incident thought differently.

They actually pressed on with their demand for another tribunal costing another £1m of the charity funds to attempt a prosecution of the Dean until they were finally halted in their tracks by strong advice from their own lawyers and by a powerful intervention by the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor.

But then on the day when the settlement with the Dean was announced the Censors put out a statement on the College website which misleadingly implied that the allegation of sexual harassment had been settled by the Dean.

Completely untrue.

So that was a low blow.

So was the refusal to publish, as is the normal custom, the Dean’s own dignified and magnanimous statement after the settlement.

Yet another low blow has been the Chapter’s refusal to allow the Dean back into his Cathedral or to permit the traditional leaving service for a departing Dean.

Such hostile acts are surely the antithesis of the ‘Love thy neighbour’ command of the Christian Gospel.

So where does this leave my once distinguished old College?

Where does it leave those senior Governing Body members who are also Canons of the Cathedral Chapter?

Answer: Sinking in the depths, and alas showing now signs of wanting to get out of the depths.

For hunkering down in their bunkers, or rather in their palatial Canonical residences in Tom Quad, staying in silent denial about their obvious failures and hoping that the storm will blow over simply will not do.

Now that the civil war has ended with the vindication of the Dean, the public interest priority must be to clean up the Augean Stables of the College and the Cathedral.

This can only be done by outside forces, of an independently chaired and administered inquiry and an independent chaired and administered governance review.

In the meantime given the horror story I have surmised at least three Canons should resign. I need not name them today in this service for everyone will know where the caps fit.

But this service began with the obvious reminder on the first Sunday of Lent we are in the season of penitence.

If Oxford’s Christian leaders who have made such a disastrous mess of their part in this four year civil war at Christ Church show no signs of penitence yet say that they want reconciliation, as they now claim, then they will have to learn.

First there can be no reconciliation without truth.

Just as there can be no penitence without pain.


That is also the message of Psalm 130.

If there is no clean up and clear out of those who should be held accountable for their actions, which caused and prolonged the Christ Church Civil War, then that “full redemption” promised in the final verse of the Psalm will be agonisingly and noisily delayed as those “watchmen” wait longer and longer for the morning.