We are supposed to believe that a Christ Church undergraduate was casually surveying the website of the Very Rev’d Professor Martyn Percy, as students at the University of Oxford regularly do, and chanced upon a piece written by the Dean in which he reflects on Hannah Arendt’s classic phrase ‘the banality of evil‘, which is concerned in part with the non-thinking complicity of those who knew of the Holocaust but played the role of bystanders. The Dean’s essay also looks at the dysfunctional kinds of trials that are scripted in other literature such as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, along with works by Kafka and Orwell; the kinds of trials which took place under apartheid, which can be found in certain countries even today.
Perhaps the student who was reading this essay had an assignment to write about political oppression, and instead of trawling academic journals online or surveying the Bod, he (or she) thought the Dean, being an eminent theologian and distinguished author, is bound to have written about complicity, collaboration and cowardice in the face of evil.
And the student not only managed to find an essay entitled ‘The Red Triangle’, in which the Dean reflects on the Holocaust, but also where he compares his own incarceration, isolation and chronic injustice to that endured by victims of Nazi political oppression:
Perhaps the student was so shocked and egregiously offended by this that he (or she) completely missed “tiny taste”, or maybe the tininess of the empathy; the minutest glimpse of soul-to-soul compassion simply didn’t matter. Here was the Dean of Christ Church audaciously comparing his personal experience of injustice with those who suffered far greater (which “tiny taste” manifestly acknowledges, but that didn’t matter).
And then we are supposed to believe that this student ran straight to the Chairman of the Junior Common Room to report the Dean’s offence against proportion and reason in such an animated and impassioned manner that his (or her) distress was impossible to ignore. The JCR Chairman duly read the essay but somehow also managed to miss that “tiny taste”, and thought it merited a formal statement of denunciation on behalf of the whole undergraduate body.
We are supposed to believe that the JCR Chairman then ran to see his (or her) counterpart in the Graduate Common Room, who also read the Dean’s essay but also somehow missed “tiny taste”, and he (or she) thought this merited a formal statement of shock, horror and condemnation on behalf of the whole graduate body. And so, quite extraordinarily, we have a totally spontaneous joint statement from the Christ Church JCR and the GCR – two bodies which rarely have much to say to each other at all – condemning the Dean in the strongest terms, for they are:
..both adamant defenders of the natural rights of freedom of thought and speech, and these impart the right to condemn actions which we find to be offensive. As a JCR and GCR, we find this rhetoric abhorrent. Attempting to draw a parallel between the Holocaust and the investigation regarding the Dean trivialises the suffering of victims of Nazi persecution. Martyn Percy’s essay is deeply offensive to all groups targeted by Nazi persecution, including the Jewish community, the Polish community, people with disabilities, people of colour, and the LGBTQ+ community, groups to which the Dean refers in his essay.
Surely this must be worth a mention in The Oxford Student, the University’s biggest student newspaper, where all articles are written by students? Indeed it was very swiftly published, and, as if by magic, the Diocese of Oxford chipped in with:
The article posted on Martyn Percy’s personal website is a misappropriation of the Holocaust and is unacceptable. Whatever his complaints about an investigation of a sexual harassment complaint made against him, the Dean should not compare it to genocide. We fully acknowledge the complexity and pain of the present situation for the Dean and the complainant also. Despite his claims otherwise, significant support continues to be provided for all of those involved. Meanwhile, the ongoing legal processes must be allowed to take their course, and Dean Percy remains suspended from cathedral and college duties. We are glad to see the link to the article has now been removed from his website.
Curiously, the Diocese didn’t put out such a statement when the Archbishop of Canterbury misappropriated the Holocaust and compared the looming failure of COP26 to Nazi genocide, but honesty, integrity and consistency aren’t the Bishop’s chiefest virtues. And note that this statement is not only rather patronising (“the Dean should not compare..”); it effectively questions his truthfulness (“Despite his claims otherwise..”).
This is the Bishop of Oxford impugning the honesty and integrity of the Dean of Christ Church; indeed, trashing his reputation by calling him a liar.
If anyone ever says publicly that they are giving you “significant support” while simultaneously feeding student rags with statements questioning your integrity, honesty, intellect and state of mind, you might be forgiven for suspecting their support to be something of a PR sham.
But we are supposed to believe that the Bishop of Oxford authorised Diocesan staff, on the casual inquiry of the JCR and GCR chairs at Christ Church (that is, two students) or because of an email from the Editor of The Oxford Student (that is, another student), to issue such an astonishingly condescending and condemnatory statement without even having the courtesy to discuss the matter with the Dean, or, indeed, bothering to balance their condemnation with “tiny taste”.
Enter the Financial Times’ chief features writer Henry Mance (remember him?), who just happened to be reading the website of The Oxford Student – as busy journalists do – and was conveniently poised (within minutes) to tweet about the Dean (again):
And so the story was churned by the other student newspaper, Cherwell, where we read:
The common rooms encourage students who have been affected by the contents of Percy’s essay to reach out to welfare support. “Our shared goal is to build a community where people of all identities are safe and supported,” they continued.
Extraordinary. It’s almost as if someone were trying to manufacture “conduct of an immoral, scandalous or disgraceful nature incompatible with the duties of the office or employment” which is necessary to dismiss the Dean.
And then, of course, we get a spokesperson for Christ Church:
Martyn Percy is currently not carrying out his duties as Dean of Christ Church. Christ Church cannot comment on ongoing disciplinary processes but is keen that they are dealt with as speedily as possible, in fairness to the accused and to the complainant.
We have been made aware of comments made by the Dean in a recent article, and the subsequent reaction to them, including amongst our student community, whose open letter captures the essence of the problem with Martyn Percy’s text. While Christ Church supports free speech, it strongly condemns any potential breach of the Equality Act, especially where it creates a hostile, alienating or offensive environment for other members of Christ Church, or in the wider University.
Layer upon layer of intrigue: perfectly-timed presentational harmony between the JCR, the GCR, The Oxford Student, the Diocese of Oxford, an FT journalist (a college alumnus), and Christ Church, all apparently conspiring to establish conduct of an immoral, scandalous or disgraceful nature. It’s almost as if a member of the Cathedral staff had urged a few students to get offended by the Dean’s essay, and then a professional PR company had been engaged to guide and shape the concentric circles of “subsequent reaction”.
The Daily Mail picked up on the story, as did the Times:
It’s worth remembering that for the past three years Martyn Percy been subjected to (in his words) a “public impugning of [his] reputation, and personal attacks resulting in severe trauma and life-changing injury”. And this sort of chronic bullying is indeed life-changing. He explained: “I am expected to live and act as though I am a convicted sex-offender, and subjected to draconian restrictions that would have raised eyebrows had I been a paedophile on bail.”
He is an Oxford Head of House, an educator by vocation, but has been prohibited from teaching or even interacting with students for three years. He is Dean of a Cathedral, a theologian and minister of the Church of England, but has been prohibited from officiating in his Cathedral for three years. All he really had was his writing, but even that must now be censored, or self-censored. He dare not move left or look right for fear of putting a foot wrong or casting a glance which might be misinterpreted. And now his every written analogy or metaphor or simile or empathetic allusion must be reflexively screened lest it constitute a “potential breach of the Equality Act”.
Yes, this experience might indeed give him a tiny insight into how others have suffered a living hell, and it is not misappropriation to meditate upon or write about those in history who have been forced to wear badges of shame. It is, rather, empathy, which is a profoundly Christian exhortation, if not vocation.
On Good Friday, do we not sit and meditate at the foot of the Cross? Is it then “unacceptable” for the Bishop of Oxford to presume to say of Christ’s agony that the meditation gave him a tiny insight into the Lord’s suffering? When Jews gather for the Passover, they assemble the tastes, sights and sounds of an ancient holocaust: “At the Seder, every person should feel as if he or she were going out of Egypt… recalling their suffering and persecution.” Is it “unacceptable” to say this gives them a tiny insight into their ancestors’ suffering?
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
Is it “unacceptable” or “misappropriation” for a Christian migrant from Iraq to cross the Channel while meditating upon the communal lament of Psalm 137 from his place of despair and desolation, and then to say that his personal suffering gave him a tiny insight into how it must have felt to have been a Judaean migrant to Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem, with all the atrocious dashing, decapitation, mutilation and burning of little children? Is such a meditation not what the Psalms are for? Why, then, is it so very dreadful for someone suffering abuse, injustice, isolation, and betrayal to understand the Holocaust more acutely in a tiny way when viewed through the prism of their own lived experience?
Perhaps Luther Pendragon might meditate upon this.