Responding to Brian Martin’s Times Higher Educational Supplement (THES) Article (February 2022)

Censoring the Reign of the Senate of Ex-Censors

In Brian Martin’s THES article of February 19th 2022 (‘Christ Church, Oxford must separate church from college’), he asserts that the four-year ‘saga’ underlines “the need for the academic body to be led by one of their own”. As a general rule, a lack of insight and detailed knowledge usually makes for poor and naïve solutions to a complex nexus of issues.  To arrive at a solution – in any academic discipline – it is necessary to understand the problem that needs to be resolved. Otherwise, the answer is guesswork.  You may get lucky – but you probably won’t.

In many respects, Brian Martin’s article amounts to a diagnosis that confuses symptoms with causes. No patient with a persistent and streaming head cold needs their nose amputating. Equally, if the severe cold is experienced as “in the head” by the patient, and causing the body feverish shaking, decapitation is not the answer. 

Commentating on the Christ Church ‘problem’, Brian Martin’s advocates separating of the parts. But any complex body – whether an individual or an institution – is seldom well-served by amputation. A wiser approach takes a more integrative approach to the body.  It asks how it came to be, and what gives it life and purpose.  For what and for whom is it here for?

Christ Church Oxford is almost 500 years old.  Our roots lie in earlier forms of religious collegiality, outward-looking service, including civic, charitable and community benefit, to say nothing of its wider reach to the nation and beyond. Part of what drove Cardinal Wolsey’s vision for the re-founding of the much older and pre-Norman Priory of St. Frideswide was a desire to create a new institution for education and formation.  One that would critically engage with new European thinking (now generally described as emerging Erastian Protestantism).

It is ironic that Henry VIII would later embrace the very schools of thought that Wolsey had sought to combat.  And it is the slow evolution of Christ Church that gives it a unique identity.  The foundation comprises a Cathedral School (with a world-class choir), Cathedral Church (which is also a College Chapel), a College of the University of Oxford, with world-class art and library collections.

The complexity of the foundation is reflected in its charitable objects.  Education is the major priority, but the Cathedral shares in that too.  The preservation of buildings, the grounds, art, manuscripts, treasures and the meadows are integral to the education we offer. (Indeed, the meadows are maintained at the expense of the foundation, and free to all, attracting over a million visitors per year). The foundation promotes religion as the presence of a Cathedral requires.  Overall, the foundation serves its own students and wider society through fostering world-class teaching and research. 

The governance of Christ Church is unique.  There is a Governing Body (i.e., fellows, or ‘Students’ as they are known at Christ Church) comprised of 65 dons who are mostly academics.  There is a Cathedral Chapter (8 clergy living on site), and a Board of Governors for the School.  But as this is one foundation, there is essentially one endowment (over £600 million) that maintains all the buildings and pays the salaries around 400 staff full-time and part-time staff.  Turnover is around £30 million per year.

As the first democratically-elected Dean, Prof. Martyn Percy had no aspirations to function like a CEO of some type of medium-sized organisation. The foundation is an institution rich in memory, steeped in history, and committed to serving its charitable objects through the prudent stewardship of its resources.  The best any Dean can manage is to be primus inter pares – first amongst equals; and yet, like an Abbott, the servant of all, and the custodian and chief-cherisher of the foundation’s values.

What experience does Christ Church need a prospective Dean to have acquired? Potential candidates need to be an academic (i.e., worked in universities, research and teaching, etc.), have previously run a complex institution (i.e., another Cathedral, College, etc.), ordained (for the Cathedral), and also be engaged in civic and public life.  This last criterion may seem odd, but the Deanery welcomes several thousand guests per year from all walks of life, and is a vibrant hub of hospitality for civic and charity events, meetings and receptions.  Being a Dean will not suit the shy and retiring type.

Over many decades, and unbeknownst to most trustees, a “Senate of Ex-censors” has been quietly running the College. They hide in plain sight, but meet regularly, and clearly plan outcomes for committee meetings and make other decisions, yet without having any legal standing, accountability or transparency. 

It was this group that contrived to drum up two statutory proceedings seeking the removal of the Dean for “immoral, scandalous and disgraceful conduct”.  Another statutory proceeding initiated sought his removal on grounds of mental incapacity, and the Senior ex-Censor even lined up a clinical expert in personality disorders to have him defenestrated.  Several bogus “safeguarding” charges were raised, also with the hope that these might lead to his dismissal under the Clergy Discipline Measure. 

None of these actions was remotely cost-neutral, and it is now known that the dons orchestrating this campaign committed over £6.6 million of charitable funds in their attempts to damage and destroy the Dean.  Public outrage at this reckless expenditure is estimated to have cost the foundation another £12 million in lost legacies, donations and bequests. Settling the dispute cost more money, with the four-year campaign resulting in an estimated total net loss of around £20 million.

With the intervention of the Charity Commission, serious questions of accountability, transparency, integrity and liability have finally begun to be asked.  It remains to be seen if those who authorised – and concealed from fellow trustees – such enormous sums of money spent are to be held answerable for their actions. 

The coming months and the ongoing regulatory oversight by the Charity Commission will be probing and uncomfortable.  There are around a dozen-and-a-half trustees who have been deeply involved in the campaign and made it their business to ensure the rump of Governing Body have never been allowed to scrutinise the accounts, or even know who has instructed the lawyers and the PR agents.

So, how easy would it be to run with the proposal of Brian Martin, and divide the foundation?  The reigning monarch is the Visitor of Christ Church, and the Deanery listed as an “unoccupied royal palace” (Charles I and Charles II both lived there for lengthy periods). Dividing the foundation may sound simple, until one considers the financial questions.

Who gets the endowment? How might it be divided?  Assets, funds, income streams, outlays, liabilities and property belong to the whole body. The Church of England and the Diocese of Oxford currently make no financial contribution to the Cathedral. How much endowment would be required to augment a new Cathedral, with Canons, clergy and other staff, and manage the annual running costs. 

Even a modest-sized Cathedral will spend over £5 million a year on salaries and maintenance. Even if an endowment returned 3.5% a year, the new Cathedral for the Diocese of Oxford would need around £150 million of endowment just to operate. It would need a building too, staff housing, Canonries, a café and gift shop.

Around one-third of the time the Dean of Christ Church has is spent on Cathedral and Diocesan affairs, and it is a fair guess that this means at least a third of the endowment is the bare minimum a new Cathedral would need to run. That is unless the dons could persuade the Church Commissioners to cough up the extra money for a new Cathedral and its staffing. (Good luck with that).  The Bishop of Oxford appears to be entertaining such ideas too, and things that he can somehow  be the “Visitor” to the Cathedral and have power and authority over the Dean and Chapter, yet have no responsibility for the fabric, funding or functions.

All this is before any legal realities kick in. It would take less Parliamentary time to disestablish the Church of England than it would to effect a separation (or divorce) between the Cathedral and College of Christ Church. The Statutes would need to be changed, which is expensive and time-consuming.  The monarch has some say in any direction of travel plotted by the dons. The Church of England is a stakeholder too.

Then there are the political questions to resolve.  The College is riven with conflicts of interest, bullying, malfeasance and other misconduct.  To a large extent, this is all perpetrated by the Senate of Ex-Censors and their acolytes.  Until recently, this ultra vires committee denied that they even existed as a group, let alone met regularly.  The Committee is not mentioned in the Statutes or By-Laws. Yet it meets, secretly, on a regular basis, and plots and plans the populating, scripting and outcome for most of the other committees, and that includes Governing Body.

The debacle of the last four years has been something of a hybrid dramaturgy – with elements of Greek tragedy spiced with Kafka, Orwell and a nod to Arthur Miller’s Crucible. Think of the court scene in Alice in Wonderland, re-worked into a Steven King horror film. (Ironically, the real Alice Liddell, on which Lewis Carroll based his books, lived in the Christ Church Deanery). The legal proceedings orchestrated against Dean Martyn Percy by this Senate of Ex-Censors over the past four years would make the Salem Witch Trials look like exemplary exercises in justice and fairness.

In many respects, the Senate of ex-Censors behave like a group of mafia dons. They are known to intimidate, threaten and bully other trustees who challenge their power, or have the temerity to ask awkward questions. Like a mafia, it matters little who is elected to power, because the real power remains with a secretive Committee of unaccountable dons who meet and operate in the shadows. Those who know this don’t say much, for they have seen what happens to people who dare to defy them.

As one trustee opined – another bullied and hounded loyal dissenter – this is a group of self-appointed tribal elders.  They are a politburo, with a rationale and ideology that makes little sense in the modern world. Few want to work for institutions that seems to despise transparency, accountability, scrutiny and fairness. The people in power are running a kleptocracy, with the Senate of ex-Censors a members-only kyriearchy.

The irony of Brian Martin’s article is that in calling for “the need for the academic body to be led by one of their own”, this has in fact been the reality for many decades.  The “mafia dons” had been secretly running the College all along. Dean Percy’s original sin was to discover this, and then to challenge it. The plotting to secure his expulsion from their playground quickly followed. So, what needs to happen to resolve the issues that have come to light over this dark episode?  There are structural, political, legal and financial concerns to address.  Many have been damaged by the self-inflicted wounds the dispute has fostered. Trust and confidence is negligible, and moral rock-bottom.  Yet there are several signs of hope.

First, the Charity Commission have now determined that there has been trustee misconduct and mismanagement, and one hope is that those who led Christ Church into this might be held accountable.  Likewise, the Solicitors Regulation Authority is conducting a lengthy investigation into potential misconduct by the Christ Church lawyers.  Clergy, church officers and others who have been party to misconduct are also under investigation. Scrutiny, transparency and truth are not easy to avoid.

Second, 65 members of Governing Body – most of whom are busy academics with little time for College politics – is not a fit and proper corpus to manage the responsibilities and liabilities that are incumbent for running a complex institution. Some Cambridge colleges have evolved College Councils (of around a dozen), with open systems of elections and terms of office, so that no one person stays on a Committee for decades at a time, wielding untrammelled power. Fellows of Colleges do not necessarily need to be trustees. Many Fellows would be glad to shed that burden of responsibility.

Third, the basics of organisational infrastructure can be put in place.  There is no reason why an institution with an endowment of over £600 million needs to skimp on senior personnel in human resources, communications and academic oversight.  It would be better to invest in proper professionals to carry the heat of the day, rather than relay on academics who have be strong-armed into the roles. Or worse, held hostage by mafia dons who believe they know best, and make no secret of their contempt for and resentment of professionals who do have the skills to lead.

Fourth, there are plenty of model examples of how a foundation like Christ Church could work. Some of the larger and wealthier Oxbridge Colleges have evolved roles for the Head of House which leave the ‘presidential’ aspects to intact, whilst investing in also having a prime-minister.  Thus, responsibility for the ceremonial, ecclesiastical, civic and symbolic roles, which may include fronting the alumni, development and fundraising stays with a Dean-President.  The minutiae of College affairs can then rest with the elected dons on a College Council, and be resourced by proper professionals.  In this model, there is no reason why the ‘prime-minister’ can’t be “one of their own” – if it is an elected position with clear terms office.

Of course, the Senate of Ex-Censors will resist this.  Democratic accountability, transparency and scrutiny is not something they have ever warmed to. But one senses their time us up. A “secret committee” that is entitled, arrogant – but also quite amateur – can’t last long. In the end, the law and the outside world breaks in. The revolution is ultimately only a question of time and truth.

The Senate of Ex-Censors have hidden in plain sight for decades, and they have been “making all the main College decisions” (see C. Butler, Christ Church: Portrait of a House, 2006).  Yet they never had any accountability. Clearly, Sir Dominic Grieve KC and his governance review of Christ Church must ensure this group is terminated.

Wars are not won. It is the peace that has to be won, and then guarded with vigilance. Evil only prevails when good people do nothing.  No amount of success can outweigh the enduring value of moral imperatives. For Christ Church, the lesson to learn is that goodness and kindness will be how we are mostly remembered. Institutions must be exemplars  of virtue, if we are to play our part in forming tomorrow’s world.

Brian Martin Article, Times Higher, 19 February 2022

Now that a settlement has been made between the dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and the college, there is an extreme necessity that the constitution of Christ Church should be changed.

The settlement, announced earlier this month, ended a four-year wrangle over the position of the dean, Martyn Percy, that has reportedly cost the college millions of pounds.

The present position, whereby the dean is head of both the cathedral and the college, is clearly unsustainable. The college should now heed its own affairs, likewise the church. The dean should work as a cathedral dean, and the college should have its own head of house.

Such a separation needs the cooperation of the church, the college and might even require an act of Parliament or an order of the Privy Council; but whatever it takes must be done.

The point is that the principal, warden, provost, master or whatever you wish to call the person elected head of house is first among equals and is elected as chair of the fellowship, the governing body. An Oxford college is what it says, a collegiate body, and heads of house have historically been elected on the basis of scholarly achievement.

It is true that a number of colleges have, over the past 40 years or so, had ulterior motives for electing heads from different walks of life. These heads are supposed to have possessed contacts with the world outside Oxford: to philanthropic organisations, wealthy donors or influential people in public life who know about such sources of funding. They include diplomats, newspaper editors, senior civil servants, celebrity judges, even famous sportsmen. Some have succeeded, some have failed; and those who have failed all misunderstood their role.

The mistake so often is that new heads interpret their role as that of a CEO. They fail to grasp that policy changes and new initiatives must all be agreed by the governing body. It may be that administrative dictatorship works for a while because most fellows wish to concentrate on their academic work, but eventually there is always revolution. Indifference and carelessness give way to objection and opposition. Once confidence is lost, the head’s authority is lost and their position becomes untenable.

It is unfortunate that mistakes and missteps have been made along the way by both sides in the fractious Christ Church saga. Too many people have been damaged, not least the dean himself, who has been close to breakdown, and too much money has been spent in legal fees. The dispute could have been settled a year or two ago with less intransigence by both parties. After all, Brasenose College managed to accommodate the dignified departure of the physicist Roger Cashmore in 2010, amid controversy over his expenses claims – and that was in a college where a previous principal, Lord Windlesham, said that chairing a governing body meeting was like “trying to herd cats”.

At Christ Church, the situation deteriorated. The university’s chancellor, Lord Patten, and its vice-chancellor, Louise Richardson, both stepped into the fracas, offering to attend a governing body meeting to air their views on possible harm the dispute was doing to the university’s reputation. The former Guardian editor and principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Alan Rusbridger, then published his opinion in Times Higher Education. None of these interventions helped.

The Oxford colleges, when the chips are down, are fiercely independent and do not relish interference from other quarters. Richardson, who is due to become president of the Carnegie Corporation in the US at the end of the year, never had the right feel for collegiate life because she was not educated in a college.

Outside intervention by the central university administration should cease; it makes matters worse. College academics in Oxford increasingly see a bureaucratic takeover by the university’s central administration that expands its number of staff exponentially – all, it is felt, to the cost of real academic study and research. The largely independent college systems of Cambridge and Oxford have made the two universities unique and account for their leading status in world university rankings.

Yet, for Christ Church, it remains imperative to separate church from college. For the moment, compromises have been made and should be applauded. The college is on a new footing with the Charity Commission, and it should prove unnecessary for the commission to proceed further with its investigation. If the governance change is implemented swiftly, all will then be well.

Brian Martin is a retired member of Pembroke College, Oxford, where he was a lecturer in modern English literature. He is author of Holt College: An Oxford Novel.