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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Monday 9 January 2017

Peterborough Cathedral: thoughts on the visitation report

The Bishop of Peterborough has recently conducted a visitation of his Cathedral. His charge is now published. It makes interesting reading.
Some may be wondering what a Cathedral visitation actually is. The answer is that it is a legal process whereby the Bishop as the "Visitor" of his or her Cathedral engages in a formal review or audit of aspects of the Cathedral's mission and life. Articles of inquiry addressed to the Chapter set out the scope of the visitation. Written answers will be followed up by interviews and meetings. The Bishop's areas of concern frequently reflect challenges that the Cathedral may have faced, for example in financial management, compliance or governance. But a visitation does not need to be a response to real or perceived problems. A newly-arrived Bishop has the opportunity to conduct a visitation in order to familiarise him- or herself with the Cathedral's aims and plans, its life and ministry, the fundamental question being how it could best support the Bishop's mission in the diocese and how Bishop and Cathedral could fruitfully collaborate for the good of the whole church. 
Visitations are often news. The report of the recent visitation at Exeter Cathedral, for example, criticised the Dean in ways that led some of us to ask whether such directly personal comments belonged to an institutional report in the public domain. At Peterborough, the Dean's sermon at his farewell service hinted that his resignation was not simply a matter of personal choice but had been wished on him. The visitation report clarifies that the Cathedral has faced severe cash-flow problems for which financial support by the Church Commissioners has been sought. Make what connection you will. In the circumstances, you can understand why the Bishop wished to conduct a visitation. And if the problems are as set out in the report, then many of the Bishop's directions and recommendations about governance, decision-making, staffing and financial management make sense. 

I can't comment on Peterborough Cathedral specifically. I don't know it well enough, though as a fellow Dean I have always admired Charles Taylor's leadership as a senior priest who understands the mission of cathedrals. I am sorry to see him go. It will be for Peterborough people (not only in the Cathedral) to respond to the detailed provisions in the Bishop's charge. No doubt a robust conversation will be had.

But the last six paragraphs of the charge are addressed to the wider church, not only to Peterborough. The Bishop believes that there are lessons to be learned from the Peterborough situation by the Archbishops’ Council, the House of Bishops, the General Synod, and the Deans’ Conference (para 25). That is an invitation to all of us who care about cathedrals to reflect. So here are some thoughts of my own. 

The Bishop accepts that Peterborough Cathedral seems to have complied with the Cathedrals Measure 1999, but the accountability, scrutiny, and safeguards in that Measure were clearly insufficient to prevent the problems that occurred.  The remainder of his charge is effectively a critique of the legal framework under which Cathedrals operate and a plea that they should be reconsidered. Here is where every Bishop, every Dean (including the superannuated like me!), every Chapter and every member of a Cathedral Council and College of Canons will no doubt take a view. 

Paragraph 27 states: the Cathedral Council and the College of Canons, both of which see the Cathedral accounts, do not necessarily have the expertise, and certainly do not have the specialist staff, to allow them to exercise real scrutiny; and they have no powers to mount an effective challenge to the Chapter. They can have great value in terms of advice, goodwill, and networking, but they cannot hold the Chapter accountable. This is an important paragraph because it assigns to the current governance structure for cathedrals a built-in weakness that is incapable of ensuring the proper accountability of the Chapter.

I want to comment on this. Without going into the long and complex history of how Cathedrals were governed before 1999 (a different story for the different types of cathedral), we can say that one of the clear aims of the Measure was to make sure that Chapters as the executive bodies of Cathedrals charged with holding their strategy and leading their mission would no longer be laws unto themselves but would be properly accountable. So Cathedral Councils were brought into being to represent the wider church and community and hold the Chapter's accountability. Thus the Chapter was obliged to report regularly to the Council, and in particular, the annual budget and annual report and accounts had to be presented to the Council for scrutiny. 

There are two important aspects to the functioning of the Cathedral Council that the Peterborough report doesn't do justice to. In the first place, the Chair of Council is an independent lay person (i.e. not a member of the Chapter) who is appointed by the Bishop after consultation with the Chapter. So it's really up to Bishops to make sure that they get the Council Chairs they want and need, people who are capable of the careful scrutiny and if necessary, challenge that is the proper job of any body that holds accountability. In the second place, the Bishop him- or herself is a statutory attender at Council meetings. Bishops don't have a vote (because as Visitor this would compromise the Bishop's role), but they are expected to be present and to speak. This is a powerful role for a Bishop to occupy. His or her voice is always influential. If the Council lacks expertise in particular areas, then let the Bishop insist that the best people are appointed to make up the deficit. But all this only works if Bishops are consistently present at and committed to Council meetings. It is not the Chapter's fault if they do not exercise their rights under the Measure. 

So it is not true to say, as the next paragraph (28) suggests, that the Bishop, despite the Cathedral being known as his or her seat and Church, has no powers except the draconian one of Visitation. The Bishop's seat on the Council is precisely positioned where it needs to be in order that he or she can be part of the structure that calls in accountability without having to manage the institution directly. What is more, the Measure requires Bishops and Chapters to liaise regularly about the mission of the cathedral. This can mean their attendance at Chapter meetings from time to time so that the Bishop can overhear the Chapter's business and contribute to it (I wouldn't recommend all the time, though an earlier paragraph in the Peterborough charge seems to look for this). It can mean informal gatherings specifically to discuss how Bishop, Cathedral and Diocese could align their mission and collaborate more effectively. It can mean the circulation of meeting papers and documents, another request the Bishop of Peterborough reasonably makes. In my view it ought also to include regular (and frequent) meetings between Bishop and Dean. In my time as a Dean I have valued these "audiences" enormously. 

There's another point to add. Since the revision of senior church appointments processes, the Bishop is now an ex officio member of the panel that is set up to appoint Deans. He or she has a veto on the appointment, so while the Bishop may not always get "his" or "her" preferred candidate appointed, it is not possible for a Dean to be appointed against the Bishop's wishes. This process ought to ensure that the Bishop always has a Dean with whom he or she can work fruitfully in a relationship where there is from the outset a high degree of trust and a good personal rapport. 

It is true (paragraph 28) that the Chapter is exempt from scrutiny by the Charity Commission. The Church Commissioners, even though they pay for the Dean and two Residentiary Canons, have no standing powers or right to scrutinise. The Diocese, whose mother Church the Cathedral is, and which risks serious reputational loss if the Cathedral has problems, has absolutely no standing in all this. But to draw the consequence that in practice the Chapter is accountable to nobody goes well beyond the factsAs I have said, the Council, whose chair is the Bishop's appointee and on which the Bishop sits, has this responsibility. I'd say that it's up to Bishops and Council Chairs to liaise regularly (as I know some do) to make sure that the structural accountability provided by the Measure is working in practice, and that the right questions get asked of the Chapter. 

In paragraph 29 the Bishop tells us that in this Charge I have made some provisions to bring Peterborough Cathedral, for the time being, under a degree of oversight and scrutiny: to make it accountable to the Bishop and the Diocesan Board of Finance. The Church Commissioners’ conditions for their support include another level of accountability. All these are, I believe, necessary steps for Peterborough Cathedral at the present time – though I hope that they will be seen and felt as a matter of co-working and mutual cooperation within the body of Christ, rather than as the imposition of accountability. No-one will argue with the final sentiment. But I'd want to press that its logic is taken seriously. The fact is that while the Measure is no doubt not a perfect instrument, it goes a long way towards ensuring accountability in just the way the Bishop rightly urges. It's a question of making the existing systems work better. To introduce yet more levels of oversight with all the risks of heavy-handedness and micro-management seems to me to be a mistake. 

What is more, all the ordained members of the Chapter and other Cathedral bodies hold the Bishop's licence which, premised on the oath of canonical obedience, is itself an instrument of accountability and discipline. The Dean is a member of the Bishop's staff, Bishop's Council and Diocesan Synod. In practice, Bishop, Dean, Cathedral and Diocese form a closely-integrated system. But no system is better than the people who inhabit it. And this is the key point. A cathedral, a parish, even a diocese, can get into serious financial, compliance or reputational difficulties if its senior officers take their eye off the ball. The only answer is close collaboration, mutual respect, and accountability between people as well as committees. 

The Bishop concludes (paragraph 30): I urge the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners, and the House of Bishops, to look at whether the current Cathedrals Measure is adequate, and to consider revising it. The Peterborough situation has convinced me that the high degree of independence currently enjoyed by Cathedrals poses serious risks to the reputation of the whole Church, and thus to our effectiveness in mission. A closer working relationship of Cathedrals with their Bishop and Diocese would be of benefit to all, both practically and spiritually. I am not against revisiting the Measure: it has been in operation for fifteen years and it would no doubt be good to review after the experience of a decade and a half. And I entirely endorse the sentiment that the closer the relationship between Cathedral, Bishop and Diocese, the better for all concerned, and the better for the mission of God. 

But I dispute the conclusion that the degree of independence enjoyed by Cathedrals poses the risks the Bishop identifies. We are regularly told that the mission and outreach of Cathedrals is one of the big success stories of the Church of England; indeed, in their press comment on the Peterborough visitation, the Church Commissioners go out of their way to underline this. Cathedrals they say offer spiritual sanctuary for millions of people each year and are the jewels in the nation's heritage crown. Cathedrals must be doing something right! Whether or not that is related to their freedoms from direct episcopal or diocesan control I leave it to others to judge. 

But as a priest with nearly thirty years' experience of full-time ministry in (three different) Cathedrals, I can I think speak about the good health of these great institutions and the outstanding ministry they exercise towards a public that is otherwise largely untouched by organised religion. The Cathedrals Measure has helped, not hindered this. That isn't to say that Cathedrals can afford to be complacent, nor that there aren't problems that some of them are facing. But radically to tamper with the delicate checks and balances between Cathedrals, Bishops and Dioceses that have evolved over centuries of English church life would in my view be a mistake. I doubt it would guarantee that Cathedrals never faced problems in the future. Ever more centralisation is not usually the way to sustain what is life-giving and flourishing. And I doubt it would do much to strengthen the mission of these altogether wonderful and remarkable places.


  1. Thank you for clarifying, and enlarging on, the Peterborough Visitation.
    It is very helpful to see where the 'hinges' haven't worked, and be reminded of the balance obtained when they do.
    Sensibly avoiding any thing specifically personal, it would still be interesting to know how a Dean is appointed whose rapport with a Bishop is possible - especially where a change of Bishop will affect that balance.

  2. Thank you. I've added a paragraph explaining this important point.

  3. As a member of a cathedral congregation, as well as having a professional interest in the governance of charities, this interested me too. The 1999 Measure did a lot to help improve matters, although the different histories (and current differences) mean that the relative balance of the Council and Chapter in each place differs. One thing that the Association of English Cathedrals and/or the Cathedrals Administration and Finance Association might want to think about is whether guidance on audit and risk committees for cathedrals might be welcome - as to whether this role could be fulfilled from within the ranks of Chapter or whether additional expertise might be welcome. Without being able to see Peterborough's annual report (which I couldn't find on their website), it's hard to comment. But past challenges on cathedral financing - Mappa Mundi? - suggest that monitoring of risk may be something that people could be better at.

  4. The Peterborough charge stipulates that the management of risk should be a priority. In my view, an audit committee is the right body to do this, and I would expect to see the establishment of audit committees as an outcome of the revision of the Cathedrals Measure. Only a few cathedrals currently have them. The AC should be chaired by a non-member of Chapter (perhaps a Council member because it would affirm the oversight function of the body that holds the Chapter's accountability and ought to ensure that there is an effective internal critique of its performance. The Chapter needs to be represented on it of course, as does the Cathedral's finance department.

  5. This is a great article. Although I am not working on Cathedrals but only focusing on the issue of a business model for the churches, this is extremely interesting. It seems the transformation runs deeply that I thought, at a different level.

  6. Thank you, Michael. As someone ministering in a Cathedral, and recently appointed to an audit committee, I can confirm that management of risk and good governance are high on the agenda: much more so indeed than I have found in other places. As you say, the structures are in place, and it is for interested parties to pay attention to them. What I have found puzzling is how Cathedrals can be used as a good news story (in some ways in an exaggerated way), whilst at the same time a mood of panic is being stirred up. Puzzling also is the way that Cathedrals and Deans can be held to account in a very public way, which bring such exposure to individuals, with little recourse to appeal. Why single out Cathedrals to this sort of treatment?

  7. Yes. Dioceses get into difficulties too, but Bishops and Bishops' Councils aren't formally "visited" and publicly criticised in the way Deans, Chapters and Cathedrals are. But they too are national church institutions, like Cathedrals. Quis visitabit visitantes?

  8. Doesn't the Archbishop have the right to visit a diocese - indeed, didn't ++Rowan subject Chichister to an Archiepiscopal visitation recently?

    1. Yeah. But he wouldn't have the power to give any orders. Every Bishop his Lord in (his) own Diocese. It's hideously difficult to get rid of any erring cleric. And the bad ones know it, so they don't care.

  9. I need to think about this. I have some experience, limited, of both the running of Dioceses, and Cathedral life. I have known of both Dioceses and Cathedrals that were left effectively bust. The Cathedral Council I know of wields no power, and the Bishop does not attend. I know of another Cathedral where no-one would be aware that a Cathedral Council existed! And then there's the AGM. They're not compulsory, so some Cathedrals don't have them. To my mind, one big question is "where does the congregation fit in?" And despite the measure, I do know of a Cathedral where the relationship between the Dean and the Bishop who appointed them is not good. And as the poster above pointed out, what happens when the Bishop changes? As to the matter of finances, good stewardship is a Christian duty, but why is any "scandal" always either sex or money? What about canons who don't care and don't come to services? What about bullying? I know of a Dean who used to leave their children to be babysat by members of staff!!! A complete inability to distinguish between employee and servant. But, it's a big subject. I will think more about this. Thank you.

  10. I agree. Charles Taylor is an excellent priest who has been treated shabbily and in a profoundly un-Christian way. Surely, the Chair of the Cathedral Council carries equal responsibility in this situation. What troubles me more is that I have it on excellent authority that the Bishop of Peterborough went to the Church Commissioners, saying the financial crisis was his problem, and asked for £5m. He was told he could have it, but the Commissioners wanted the 'Dean's head on a plate.' That is disturbing in itself. But I cannot imagine it wasn't sanctioned from the very top.

  11. I don't know the details of what has happened at P'boro but what you suggest is worrying to say the least. The responsible body is the Chapter collectively, not the Dean individually, and if there are questions to address, they are as much for the Chapter as the Dean. I can't comment on the Bishop's criticism of decision-making processes in the Cathedral, but *if* the Chapter is working as it should (the key question, I know), then its collective responsibility ought to have protected the Dean from being singled out for personal criticism.

  12. As a current lay member of Chapter your article is most eloquently written and I'm sure will help to crystallise the thoughts of many Chapter members left reeling by the heavy handed suggestions made by the Bishop of Peterborough.
    Thank you for pointing out that the Bishop appoints members to the Cathedral Council to whom Chapter are accountable. Maybe more thought needs to be given by the Bishop in ensuring these are wise appointments.

    Cathedral congregations are on the rise, unlike church congregations. Indeed, several of our events this year were oversubscribed by many thousands. There are currently enormous challenges facing churches throughout the country, surely this is where the full focus of our bishops is needed.

  13. David Mitchell's comment, and your very valid point about Chapter's collective responsibility negating the need for the scapegoating of Charles Taylor, highlights (a) that 'someone' was exceeding their authority - again - and interfering in the internal affairs of a diocese other than his own; and (b) that there is no longer room for failure or incompetence in Christian ministry - especially where money is concerned. There was nothing dishonest about Charles Taylor's leadership of Peterborough Cathedral. Quite the opposite. He was too honest - and too honest in not being 'On Message' as far as the current orthodoxy is concerned. It is very shabby indeed and I believe the Commissioners have some searing questions to answer.

  14. Thanks for comments. It's clear there is a lot of disquiet about what has happened in Peterborough and why the Dean has felt it necessary to resign. BBC Radio 4's Sunday Programme is featuring this story tomorrow morning from 0700. I have recorded an interview. The Church Times has also carried it: this blog is quoted.

  15. Apologies for a late contribution to this blog, but it was only after hearing you on Radio 4 yesterday that I took a more detailed interest. So, am I right in thinking (a) that the Chapter as a corporate body has avoided collective responsibility for this - and been allowed to avoid it by scapegoating the Dean; (b) that the Bishop of Peterborough is still denying he knew anything even though it is now patently obvious he must have seen the accounts and, more significantly, because his own domestic chaplain is a residentiary canon, he would have kept him fully briefed; (c) that the Church Commissioners have the power to hire and fire a priest irrespective of the Clergy Discipline Measure; that the Bishop never attended any meetings of the Cathedral Council; and that he is ducking the question of whether he was told by the Commissioners that a bail-out was conditional upon Charles Taylor going? If so, this is not the only manifestation of a Putin-style dictatorship at the highest levels. Interesting hint by James Richards, by the way, which has got me wondering (especially in relation to the Commissioners) as to whether Charles Taylor and Graeme Knowles have been comparing notes to their mutual benefit?

    1. There is a lot I don't know about Peterborough though since writing the blog I have pieced together a few aspects of the story. If anything, I am more worried now than I was when I wrote.
      a)I don't know what the Chapter's current position is, though it is a key question because the Chapter is the body legally responsible for the Cathedral's day to day life. However, the Bishop has acknowledged to the BBC that the Dean's resignation was a condition (among others?) of Church Commissioners' funding support. I was astonished to hear this. The effect of this is to isolate the Dean from the Chapter as if the accountability was not shared corporately. We all know that it is under the Measure.
      (b) I can't say what the Bishop knew or didn't know about the Cathedral's finances, either as an attender at Council whose role it is to scrutinise the annual budget and accounts, or via his domestic chaplain (or via the Dean himself, or the Chair of Council who is the Bishop's appointee).
      (c)Neither the Church Commissioners nor the Bishop, even as Visitor, can simply *insist* on the resignation of a Dean without a proper process, whether s/he is a free-holder or holds office under Common Tenure (in the case of Charles Taylor, the former). The only way in which this could be achieved legally is through a competency or disciplinary procedure. But if I had been in the Dean's position, I would have made the same decision as he did, if I thought that by doing so, I was saving the Cathedral from financial disaster and ensuring that employees continued to be paid. Even if it felt like a gun held at my head.
      It's hard not to draw the conclusion that this is a cruel and unusual way of dealing a senior colleague. Let's remember that the Dean is the Senior Priest of the Diocese and the Bishop's colleague on his staff, as well as holding ex officio roles on the Bishop's Council and Diocesan Synod.

  16. Being formerly "of" Peterborough and now "of" Durham I'll generally avoid specifics. It's interesting your view of risk, accountability, scrutiny, etc broadly aligns with good corporate governance for companies. This is no surprise - the UK Corporate Governance code is effectively subsumed into plenty of non-company guidance (Charity SORP, HEFCE's regulation of HE and FE, NHS governance guidance, etc) so it ought to work for the Church as a body corporate as well.

    Where the corporate world has struggled is ensuring a good framework works in practice. Excessively powerful executives can railroad decisions (Tesco?); non-execs may be lacking skills / expertise / time / willingness to challenge a risky strategy (Northern Rock?); both the Executive and NEDs may fall into group-think - "no-one else is challenging this, and if I challlenge they'd think I don't get it" (any housing bubble?). Post Enron and Lehmans the Corporate Governance Code has made some improvements - I wonder whether the Cathedrals Measure has kept pace since 1999? - but the key is still getting the right people to give the right challenge and/or support.

    It remains easy to unwittingly / unconsciously promote certain behaviours or types of people - people who fit in don't necessarily bring diversity, whilst simple things like the timing of meetings can exclude the young, the old, those out at work, those without transport, etc.

    Bringing all that together (and I'll be clear I have no agenda on this): (1) could the governance structures and guidance be improved; and (2), more pertinently is enough thought given to how the right people and culture are put in place to challenge and support?

  17. There is a lot to ponder in this comment, for which thank you.
    The Association of English Cathedrals (AEC) has produced a corporate governance template and a set of self-evaluation tools which many cathedrals are working through fruitfully. The governance SORP (which I wasn't involved in helping to produce) appears to draw extensively from organisational good practice in all sectors, not least the non-profits sector. So I would expect to see cathedrals increasingly align their practices to those in the SORP, and it should be obvious that Chapters need to make sure that they are compliant, not just once for all but as our understanding of corporate behaviour develops and the SORP is updated.
    At Durham we agreed to set up an audit committee to scrutinise our financial management, procurement, risk etc. and I am surprised that this is not required under the Measure.
    Which suggests that the Measure ought to be reviewed, now that it has been in operation for over a decade and a half. It should certainly incorporate the organisational insights you mention. No legislation is so good that it can't be improved. However, I don't agree with the Bishop of P that the Measure is in principle inadequate as a framework. If the Council is doing its job of holding the Chapter's accountability, then there ought to be adequate scrutiny. The Bishop is already positioned under the Measure at the precise point where the Chapter's answerability is called in as I argue in the blog.
    However, as you imply, no system is better than the people who populate it and set the culture. Making the right appointments to both Chapter and Council is critical. As far as the Council is concerned, the Bishop makes a fair point in the Charge about the need to make sure there is financial and other necessary technical expertise present on it as the scrutiny body. But that's precisely where his Council Chair, and his own involvement as attender, need to come in! The Chapter, for the sake of its own healthy functioning, should do all it can to get competent people on to its Council. But it isn't all down to the Chapter on its own, still less the Dean. This is where the Visitation Charge seems to me to be less joined-up than it should be. The Bishop is structurally already in a more powerful position in his Cathedral than perhaps he realises.
    I'd add that given the risks cathedrals face as high-profile churches, "failures", happen on a highly public and visible stage. Never were proper induction and training for members of governing bodies more needed than now. The AEC together with Bishops, Deans and the National Church Institutions are putting a lot of energy and funding into this which is both necessary and welcome.