dean martyn percy christ church oxford
Church of England

Martyn Percy is challenging an entire cultural mindset of establishment privilege

Reflecting upon the developing Dean Martyn Percy story, I called to mind the famous observation by Abraham Lincoln upon the institution of slavery which was defended at the time by a wide cross section of people, on a variety of grounds, none of which we would accept today. Lincoln dryly observed: “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

At present, the Church House team is busily defending current decisions and practices of the Church of England complaints procedures in safeguarding cases. These have been the subject of careful analysis and criticism over many years, and the subject of various reviews, most have which have not found their work expressed in the structural, procedural and cultural change which the authors intended.

Accordingly, we continue to have cases like those of Martyn Percy, in which problems may be evidenced and presented without being taken sufficiently seriously to cause Church House to acknowledge the need to alter course either in the immediate case or to enact rapid overhaul, even when the need is obvious.

We find Church House resolutely asserting but not explaining their position on jurisdictional problems, declining to offer a fully reasoned legal opinion for consideration and, if appropriate, challenge. Communications staff participate in the all important Core Groups, both making the decisions and strategising the defence of the processes. The Secretary General holds overall responsibility and will offer his advice to the House of Bishops as and when required, and at every point Martyn Percy is urged to trust them. Many of the Church’s victims who have experienced these processes in various ways are urging him not to do so.

There is a considerable irony in this. If a complaint were to be raised against any of these office holders, justifiable or not, they would enjoy multiple protections and rights not available to the Dean or to other clergy.

I do not begrudge our staff good process – far from it: if a complaint were laid against them they would, and should, be protected by many layers of good practice, including access to the Human Resources department, ACAS offering free expert advice, Freedom of Information requests, the Employment Tribunal – all set within a body of legal precedent which is shaped by principles of natural justice, the common law, and with due regard for the principles of the Human Rights Act. There is, however a jarring disconnect between the integrity of process which Church House staff happily enjoy for themselves, and the deeply flawed process which they are required to impose on others and defend at General Synod and beyond.

Just as it took the insider John Newton to bring home the full horrors of the transatlantic slave trade by giving a detailed account to the UK Parliamentary Commission, so it has taken the subjection of a courageous and principled cleric to the Church of England’s quasi-judicial processes for him to break ranks and describe the cruel and unjust culture operating out of Church House, administered by those better protected against injustice than he.

Dean Percy could have taken the easy route. His critics have tried and failed to discredit him through bringing 27 charges which were all dismissed by an independent investigator. Alleging safeguarding mismanagement late in the day, and as a final throw of the dice, and despite lacking a single complainant witness, those malcontents were suitably rejected when they attempted to interest the police and the University, but undaunted, they turned to the Church of England where ‘who you are’ still cuts some ice. Oxford dons get privileged access.

Martyn Percy might have played the game. The Dean of Christ Church Oxford is quite a big cheese. You have to be security vetted by MI5 before you are appointed, and the Bishop of Oxford and both Archbishops take lower precedence when they attend the Cathedral. He enjoys the status of ‘Ordinary’ within that peculiar jurisdiction. You don’t quite grasp this jurisdictional status point until you appreciate that when the Queen attends the Cathedral in her role as the Visitor, she walks neither in front nor behind the Dean, but beside him. They enter and leave as equals in jurisdiction.

Knowing there were no actual complainants offering evidence against him, and that according to the last report laid before General Synod, every Clergy Discipline Measure complaint against a serving bishop had resulted in ‘no further action’ being taken, the Dean might have played the game and submitted himself to the process, confident that the Devil Establishment looks after his its own.

Having supported many abuse survivors who have suffered their own injustices within this process, he resolved to resist and expose its deficiencies. His case encapsulates so many of the features of injustice suffered by others. He feels obliged to make a principled stand both against Church House culture and the bullies of Christ Church Oxford. Offered a six-figure severance package by the College (partly to settle his huge legal fees in defeating the malicious allegations made previously), he rejected the easy way out, and with it he confounded the calumny that he was financially motivated. He stands up to bullies and against injustice. Good for him.

The more one learns, the more one becomes convinced that the integrity of both Church and College are challenged by this case, and the outcome matters a great deal.

New information has now emerged.

Church House has been happy to assert that it has jurisdiction over the Dean of that peculiar institution which is Christ Church Oxford. Having already had to correct one such claim, another has just bitten the dust. Whilst he was suspended pending the dismissal of the false claims against him, the Bishop of Oxford was kind and gracious enough to grant the Dean ‘Permission to Officiate’ so that he might exercise ministry outside the College. Less gracious was the opportunistic claim by the Church House team that this kindness functioned as a poisoned apple: by accepting that kindness, they said, the Dean had inadvertently accepted the jurisdiction of the NST and lost the immunity he might otherwise have enjoyed. That argument left a bitter taste in the mouth: if Church House were a restaurant, few would eat there twice.

Yet, again, we find a claim to jurisdiction misconceived, for the PTO expired in August 2019. The complaints were not brought until February 2020. This claim for jurisdiction thereby falls, and one must inevitably ask where was the due diligence before making it? This is a serious matter. How can anyone blame the Dean for not trusting a process and an institution where such basic errors pass unnoticed?

At the virtual General Synod on 12th July, another extraordinary fact emerged. In answer to my own supplementary question set in the context of the Percy case, our new Lead Bishop for Safeguarding Jonathan Gibbs was visibly nonplussed when I asked him to explain the appeal process for challenging a Core Group decision if it were tainted by bias, non-disclosure of conflict of interest, or other impropriety. He did not know – for which I do not blame him: the penny had only just dropped with me a few days prior, and I have spent four years working intensively on these matters. As an intelligent man of integrity, Bishop Jonathan instantly saw the problem: natural justice required such a procedure, he reasoned, which was good thinking under pressure. It confirms his basic fairness – but where was the concept of fairness in those who created a system that neglected to provide for such an appeal mechanism?

None of the possible answers to that question reflect well on Church House culture. The original structure was created by the current office holders, and it was approved by an earlier Bench of Bishops and the General Synod: it is a historic problem, but defending it is certainly ingrained. Maybe somebody, somewhere, did consider including an appeal policy, but then rejected it. That is surely unlikely. Perhaps they have never heard of such checks and balances. Surely not. The most likely scenario is that it never occurred to anybody at the outset or since that one would ever be needed, for either there was what I have already identified as the arrogance of power – “We never make mistakes”; or simple pride – “Good people like us would never do anything so wrong as to require a formal policy.”

Such reasoning also probably accounts for the absence a proper conflict of interest policy document. Such an absence has been checked and confirmed. The Bishops’ 2017 Guidelines are plainly deficient; they briefly touch upon avoiding such conflicts of interest, though when it comes to the Church publishing the advisory Parish Handbook for Parochial Church Councils, some care was clearly taken:

Policies relating to the operation of the PCC:

A conflict of interest policy is designed to ensure that the discussions and decisions of any group of Trustees (in this case, the PCC) are not influenced by hidden loyalties or factors that are not known to all members.  Here’s a sample policy that you might find helpful as a basis for constructing your own.

You may not get many complaints, and most of those that you do receive can be settled informally. However, occasionally complainants will wish to pursue their complaint more formally, and having a policy in place guides you through this. Our sample policy also clarifies the differences between formal complaints about clergy and readers and about other matters to do with the church.

The powers that be clearly thought the little people needed such guidance and policy, but failed to notice their own deficiencies in this regard. I am currently drawn to the conclusion that this has all came about because the primary purpose of the process was never to offer a properly structured process to all parties; it was primarily devised to defend the reputation of the Church – to address the public perception of cover-up, but in such a way that there should not be too much outside scrutiny or accountability. This explains why there is so much ‘flexibility’ built into the system.

Who can attend a Core Group? It’s flexible. Who can have access to documents? It’s flexible. Who gets named early and who suffers early public exposure? It’s flexible. Who can ask for procedural disclosure? It’s flexible. There plainly comes a point where flexibility and discretion morphs into institutional power unfettered by well established legal principles. Our Church does not set out out objectively to give balanced rights and liabilities, etc., irrespective of person.

Early in my Synod career when I began asking these awkward questions, a very senior Churchman chided me for my approach. I was trying to import legal standards into these matters, he observed, but “we” need a system suitable for the Church of England. I think there was honesty in that observation, but the proverbial cat was thereby let out of the bag.

What Martyn Percy is doing – at great personal cost – is challenging an entire cultural mindset; one that somehow believes ordinary standards of good behaviour in these matters do not apply, and that it is ungentlemanly to call out the system for what it is – unjust, arbitrary, unprincipled, institutionally over-defended, and indefensible.

This latest case confirms the enmeshment of the Establishment in this case. Effectively the inquiry has become a joint CofE/Christ Church enterprise at entirely at the Church’s financial and reputational expense. Our inadequate processes have been exploited by outside interests to the detriment not only of the Dean but to the wider Church.

When I previously raised concerns, Bishop Pete Broadbent had the integrity to describe the picture as “Kafkaesque”. Sadly this is not a novel; it is the habitual behaviour and culture of the Church of England which believes this manner of conduct, with life-shattering consequences for real people, is normal and acceptable.

Let me briefly remind you that we have already established that the Christ Church dons have been given privileged access to our processes on the strength of rumour, not evidence; that the Core Group was peopled by those who were ineligible under our current (inadequate) guidelines; that there was nobody present to hear, challenge and advocate for the respondent; and that the idea that there was “no case to answer” was neither considered nor even put.

This is beyond outrageous, and poses searing questions. Is there no malpractice we will not overlook? Is there no litigation advantage to the complainant’s lawyers which we will not furnish? Is there no point at which the Church of England will turn and admit that it has been wrong?

I do hope that the Church House team will reflect upon the contrast between their entirely properly protected position in the event of complaint, and what they are happy to inflict on Dean Martyn Percy (and, let us not forget, on retired Archbishop George Carey and many other victims).

This is all overseen and defended by those who never expect to be personally subject to such arbitrary treatment. Imagine for a moment if you heard that chefs would not choose to eat in their own restaurant. Would that not be a significant indicator that something was amiss? I seriously doubt that the Church House team would never choose to suffer under the policies which they inflict on others – and publicly defend. As for the Bishops, the declared record of benign outcomes for those who have not yet lost their utility indicates that the judicious application of all those discretions which have been built into the Guidelines are doing their job for those currently in favour. That may be a tad on the cynical side, but try telling that to the safeguarding victims who are uniformly scathing about how the system operates at present.

They told their stories at IICSA, whose judgment will be delivered in the near future. But do remember, you heard it here first.