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

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Report on Cathedrals: Further Thoughts

Last week I blogged about the report on cathedrals produced by a working group under the chairmanship of Bishop Adrian Newman and now published as a draft for consultation. I warmly welcomed the report as a real attempt to get to grips with cathedral governance in the light of the recent difficulties experienced at two cathedrals, Peterborough and Exeter.

I need to say a little more, not least following discussions I've had since the publication of the report. The first point is a general one. Several times the report asks us not to cherry-pick the recommendations but accept them as a package. I think they will (in the words of a well-known politician) have to whistle for it. It's not realistic to imagine that the reviewers will have got everything right, even when the consultation period is over and their final report written. It's true that some of the recommendations inevitably have implications for others, but that's the way of things. No text is so perfect that it can't be improved in the light of wise and patient discernment.

A central theme of the report concerns accountability. In particular, there has been a lot of discussion about the proposed direct accountability of residentiary canons to the dean (and of lay cathedral staff through the chief operating officer). I have to recognise that what follows is inevitably the perspective of a retired dean - though before serving as a dean in two cathedrals (Sheffield and Durham), I was myself a residentiary (at Coventry), one of its two full-time "Commissioners' canons". It may be a case of "well he would say that, wouldn't he?" But let me try to be as objective as I can.

I regard canons residentiary as senior roles in a cathedral, and agree with the report that exceptional gifts and talents are needed in those who are going to lead in key aspects of a cathedral's mission such as worship and music, education and learning, pastoral care and outreach. I was 37 when I became canon precentor at Coventry. That fitted the profile of the report that wants to see younger men and women appointed to these posts because they offer unrivalled opportunities for the formation and development of future leaders (not only as deans, I should say). But at Coventry, my fellow Commissioners' Canon was an older, more experienced man from whom I learned a great deal as I tried to understand the Cathedral and my role within it. So I don't buy the apparent implication that residentiary canonries should no longer be offered to those who, through their long years of parish or sector ministry also have distinctive insights to bring to cathedrals.

Indeed, perhaps only an older ordained colleague on the Chapter will have the confidence (or do I mean courage?) to challenge the dean when necessary. No team leader should be exempt from this. "Challenge" does not mean behaving seditiously or subverting the leader's authority. It means asking necessary questions so that decisions are properly scrutinised and the best outcome achieved. My experience of working with Chapter colleagues who in age have been more or less my peers was that even when their exacting questions ("challenge” is not too strong a word), were uncomfortable, they were for the best. I encouraged colleagues to speak up. I strongly discouraged deference (not that my colleagues were much given to it!). Our debates were robust at times. But because we were all trying to act in the best interests of the cathedral, I believe we were working together in an essentially healthy culture.

However, a team will only function well when roles are clearly defined and understood (this is a subtext of much of this report). This applies to its leadership. To me it is clear that the dean must be allowed to lead. He or she needs to be acknowledged as the head of a religious foundation, that is, the body corporate of the cathedral, and therefore as the leader of the senior "ministry team", i.e. the dean-and-residentiary-canons, as well as chair of the chapter as the governing body. The accountabilities flow from this. In day to day terms, I don't see how the canons could not be accountable to the dean as members of his or her team. Provisions about ministry development review (MDR) flow from this (though not necessarily exclusively - for it remains the bishop's prerogative to review anyone who holds his or her licence, including the dean and canons).

But this needs to be understood in quite a sophisticated way. Because according to the Cathedrals Measure, the ultimate accountability of both dean and canons is to the chapter itself. So the day to day relationships of canons to the dean expresses their common loyalty to the chapter. The dean has no authority independent of the chapter (except in the very limited ways spelled out in the Measure). His or her role is to be its guardian, its representative and its mouthpiece. Which is why a dean is always primus inter pares presiding over a governing body and a ministry team that are collaborative in every aspect of their work. If this is the presumption (and how could it be otherwise in today's church?), residentiary canons have nothing to fear from the new arrangements for governance and management that are proposed in the report.

However, as I've said before, no system of governance is better than the human beings who inhabit it. The best structures in the world won't protect cathedrals from abuses of power and status - and unfortunately, these don't simply reside in the pages of the Barchester novels. Only virtues like wisdom, self-awareness and emotional intelligence, married to a shrewd reading of human nature, can ensure that it all works as it should to serve the cathedral's mission. This highlights the importance of having a values statement as well as a purpose statement so that it's clear not only about what the cathedral exists to do but how it will behave in pursuit of that purpose.

But there does seem to me to be an anomaly in the report. I alluded to it in my previous blog. The review is very hot on accountability within the cathedral institution, and it is right to be. Yet when it comes to the chapter's own accountability, it weakens it considerably. It's true that it recommends that cathedrals are brought into the regulatory framework of the Charity Commission, and that make sense to me. However, top-level oversight of that kind can never be enough. There is a need for rigorous scrutiny to which executive bodies in every institution should be subject, if only to provide public assurance reports that all is as it should be. This is where the council comes in at present. I have to say that particularly in Durham, we took this very seriously (not least thanks to the quality of the council chair who had (has) wide experience in the corporate world). The discipline it imposed on the chapter was invaluable.

So while not all deans agree, I remain puzzled that the report removes the legal requirement for the council to hold the chapter to account on behalf of the bishop, diocese and wider community. Audit committees are necessary for scrutiny, but as committees of the chapter they don't have the necessary independence. The report wants to see a "quinquennial inspection" of the cathedral's operations, and this is welcome, but that too doesn't provide for continuing oversight and answerability. Bishops' visitations remain an option but because of their complexity and cost they tend only to be invoked when problems arise in cathedrals. (In nearly 30 years of cathedral ministry, I never experienced one.) So to write the legal functions out of the council's brief seems to me to be a mistake. It could open the way for a badly led chapter to behave autonomously and even recklessly in the way some were famously accused of doing before the Cathedrals Measure of 1999. And if (God forbid!) a cathedral ever suffered under a mad, wicked or incompetent dean, who, in the absence of the council (for which this is one of its statutory functions) would petition the bishop to instigate a process for his or her removal?

Enough for now. There's another big question that continues to exercise me and it's this. Running a cathedral well, even a small one, is a big assignment. And while the chapter is the body legally responsible for the life of its cathedral, it takes a special combination of spiritual wisdom, theological insight, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, organisational ability and leadership skill to equip a dean to lead such a complex entity. My question is, what do we look for when deans are appointed? What is a good dean? I'd be sorry if deans ended up as no more than ultra-competent CEOs of their cathedrals. If they did, what would be the point of deans being ordained at all? Discuss!


  1. 1/2
    Fascinating and insightful blog. I’ll restrict myself to commenting on a couple of areas which particularly interest me, and/or on which my day job adds some context and parallels.

    Firstly, thinking about (although not really answering!) the final question. A subject which fascinates me is what makes a good Dean / CEO / COO / CFO / other leader (especially in an entity which is somehow more than just a business), and do the usual career progression routes to these roles make sense? Three well trodden career routes make interesting analysis:

    Sport - often those who have excelled at the highest level go on to become managers, senior administrators, etc. What makes them suitable, if indeed they are? Some of the skillsets provide an obvious link - motivation, organisation, tactical awareness, performing under pressure, etc. But, why do we somehow assume someone physically predisposed to success in football might also be well disposed to management and leadership? The Moneyball book on Baseball perhaps shows how a different view from that accepted norms was/is needed.

    Academia - (starting with the caveat that this is general and not an observation on employers past, present and future). It over-simplifies somewhat, but early career academic success through to joining the professoriat is arguably built around relatively detailed and in-depth but narrow subject-specific skills, experience and knowledge. Progression into management roles, if desired, then tends to demand a much wider skillset. Why do we expect people to have that wider skillset, and what should we do to develop it earlier in careers? Plenty may have those skills, but it has always seemed to me that the sideways leap in expected skills is striking, and perhaps reduces the pool of potentially successful candidates. As an aside, my personal interest in Aspergers might also suggest a correlation between autistic traits and those with narrow and detailed skills and interests, but much less of a correlation with wider skills or with some softer skills.

    The Church - I’m not well enough informed on typical routes through to becoming a Dean to wish to generalise on that aspect. However, the same rhetorical questions would seem to apply - why would spending time in parish life, in chaplaincy, in academic theology roles (etc) be expected to make for a good administrator of a £million+ business as Dean or Chapter member?

    None of that answers what would make a good Dean. What it does suggest is that there may be structural reasons which limit the likelihood of a good Dean (whatever one may be) also being a good leader, manager and administrator. That, to me, suggests that perhaps a good Dean is one who recognises strengths and weaknesses and builds the right team in response - recognising what they are good at and where support is needed across the whole spectrum from admin to liturgy. By extension, a good appointment would pre-empt that, and a good governance regime for Cathedrals would recognise and mitigate the risks somehow. I think the current proposals do a good job of this on the whole, but agree with Michael’s observation that the loss of the (non-Exec) Council as a counter-balance to the (Exec) Chapter does leave a risk that external scrutiny and challenge may be too light and/or too late in extreme cases. Incidentally, what makes a good Bishop and why would a Bishop be more likely to spot and resolve a business administration issue than a Dean?

  2. 2/2
    My second area of interest, which may act in partial answer to how a good Dean builds a good team, is around attracting the right professionals. I suspect that Cathedrals may need to follow the trend in the public sector towards the continued professionalisation of support services and of non-Execs. Whilst I’m professionally obliged to conclude that is a good thing in itself, I think it is also likely to have some implications not covered in the proposals.

    One result of enhanced governance requirements is the need to understand these requirements, enhance systems and controls, and monitor compliance. This costs time and money as the report identifies, but both Executive management and non-Execs on Chapter will need to be well briefed on matters where they are discharging governance responsibilities. I suspect we’ll see Head of Governance roles emerging!

    A further implication may be around changes to existing ways of doing things and existing patterns of work. Para 137 of the report hints at the difficulties of finding relevant expertise, but not about how (if?) Cathedrals make it easy to attract expertise to Executive and non-Executive roles. How many chapters meet during the working day, for example? And, does that restrict the likelihood of attracting those in full time employment? Could Cathedrals work together to buy in some expertise? Might we see the emergence of an umbrella body which provides these services (e.g. technical expertise on anything from fundraising regs to pensions)?

    Lots of questions and few answers, so I’ll finish by agreeing with the point that no system is better than the people in it. However, the points above perhaps hint that (assuming the report is materially accepted) individual Cathedrals will quickly need to think about how they get the right expertise in place. How many are ready for that? Longer-term, there is perhaps a collective need to consider how the need to develop strong administrative leaders is approached; but, the Church is not alone in that...

  3. Michael, your para beginning, "But this needs to be understood in a sophisticated way," would have had me rolling on the floor if it were at all funny. A case history is only one story, of course, but how do the new measures protect against Canons who have a very low level of interest in the place; against those who avoid chapter meetings like the plague; and by the way, who get a free lunch, and have the staff of the café running around like servants providing coffee when the café is at its most busy; or protect against the irascible Dean whose temper even his Canons fear? Or the wimp who leaves successive meetings with the chair of the catering committee still not knowing how many to provide tea for and when?
    You're right about the Cathedral Council, I think. But, saving your presence, in my experience anyway, clergy don't really listen to lay people. So how well does it work in practice?

  4. Its fascinating to view leadership in the Church in the context of Cathedrals. My own experience of Military Leadership is different from that in the Church, but to an extent, Commanding Officers were dependent upon their senior (and Junior) commmanders to exercise delegated authority, with the understanding that they were acting in accordance with his/her intentions and direction.

    There was a degree with collegiality in this as the CO would hold an 'Orders' Group where plans were discussed and opinions sought, most of which were used with the seven questions taught through military tactical and strategic planning. This is commonly known as the Chttp://www.mod.gov.sl/docs/Doctrine%20-%207%20Questions%20Handbook.pdfombat Estimate

    This is used in both peace and war to define a mission and purpose and course of action. It means that having decided on a course of action, you than use the question of "So What?" to look at the risks of that particular course of action and possible outcomes.

    This is taught to all ranks from the Section Commander and Section 2IC to do an on the spot Combat Estimate in any situation, they find themselves in, and works right through the chain of command to the highest level.

    So, my decision making still, years after retirement, remains influenced by this formula which makes me think through any planning and to consider the consequences of any decision that I make.

    I am not sure such a formula could be applied to Church Leadership, but the idea of asking yourself 'so what' before discussing any decision might well allow the consequences of any proposed action to be looked at in the round, rather than a single minded narrow perspective.

    In Cathedrals, as in the Army, Deans are accountable for all that happens on their watch, so this accountability, shared with senior staff seems to me quite appropriate. The CO relies on his or her specialist advisers when making decisions, considering their input, wisdom and experience of operations and of people, what is possible, what is impossible, and what the risks are. I don't see a lot of difference between in this context between military and Church leadership.

  5. Wheel on the cynic! In a military situation, I'm guessing that there are times when unquestioning obedience is essential in order to save lives. Unfortunately, there are clergy who do expect the same! I was taught a "cycle of reflection" that is supposed to make you stop and think of the effects of what you are contemplating, rather than just jumping in. It should also make you think about the theology of it. I do wonder how often it is used in "real life" in the church. (Oxymoron alert!)