By Tim Wyatt
Martyn Percy is the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and both a senior cleric in the Church of England and the head of an ancient Oxford University college. Since 2017 he has been at loggerheads with senior academics in the college, who have repeatedly made efforts to force him out of his job over contested claims around safeguarding and bullying. In February 2022, he announced he was stepping down after settlement was reached
The Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, has been embroiled for several years in a protracted and bitter row with some of the academics who run the college.
The Dean, the Very Rev Martyn Percy, says the total breakdown in relationship with the senior academics is over his attempt to introduce better safeguarding procedures. However, his opponents dismiss this and say it was triggered by Percy asking for a substantial pay rise.
What is Christ Church?
Christ Church is a unique institution, being simultaneously a constituent college of Oxford University and the cathedral of the Diocese of Oxford.
The Dean of the cathedral is also the Dean of the college chapel, the two being one and the same. He is also the head of the college.
The institution was founded by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in 1525, but he was deposed four years later before the building could be finished. It was then taken over by King Henry VIII, and after the break with the Roman Catholic Church, refounded as Christ Church.
Today Christ Church is one of the larger colleges of the university with about 650 students and its most recent accounts show it has an endowment of about £550 million, as of July 2018.
Among its many illustrious alumni are 13 prime ministers and 17 archbishops.
The academic side of Christ Church is run by “censors” – two senior professors who take on four-year terms to govern the college, and are responsible for discipline and the social life of the college.
As well as a junior and senior censor, Christ Church is also managed by a governing body of all the academics associated with the college, plus the Dean and canons of the cathedral.
Who is Martyn Percy?
Dean Percy was ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1991 and, after serving three years as a curate in Bedford, he was appointed a chaplain and theologian at Christ’s College, Cambridge.
From 1997 to 2004 he was the founding director of the Lincoln Theological Institute, now attached to Manchester University.
In 2004 he left to become the principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, an Anglican theological college just outside Oxford. A decade later, in 2014, he moved to become Dean of Christ Church.
Percy is a leading figure among the liberal, moderate wing of the Church of England, and is a widely read writer and theologian. He is popular and much admired by many in the Church, including some prominent bishops, although to others from outside his progressive tradition he has been criticised for the sharpness of his interventions.
He has also become well-known for his opposition to much of the Renewal and Reform programme, a wide-ranging effort spearheaded by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to streamline the Church’s bureaucracy, invest more in areas of growth, and instil more discipline and efficiency into the institution.
Percy also played a pivotal role in a significant internal church row in 2017 when he strongly criticised the appointment of Philip North, a leading Anglo-Catholic traditionalist, to the post of Bishop of Sheffield on the grounds that Bishop North did not agree with the ordination of women. The storm provoked by an article written by Dean Percy ultimately forced Bishop North into withdrawing from the new role before he could formally take it up.
May 2014 Martyn Percy is appointed Dean of Christ Church.
December 2016 A medical student at Christ Church, Lavinia Woodward, got into a fight with her boyfriend and ended up throwing her laptop at him, punched him in the face and then stabbed him in the leg with a bread knife. The response to this incident, it is alleged by some reports, spurred Dean Percy to begin pushing for safeguarding and governance reforms at the college.
From early 2017 Dean Percy, it has been reported, held several meetings with the censors and others involved in running Christ Church to make the case for clearer responsibilities among the senior staff.
Summer 2017 A review of salaries at Christ Church shows Dean Percy was being paid less than some other heads of Oxford colleges. He earns about £90,000 a year and is also given a large property at the college to live in, and a smaller flat he can let as well. Dean Percy began arguing that his pay should be increased.
End of 2017 By the end of the year, leaked emails have since revealed, relations between the Dean and some of the senior academics had broken down completely into bitter animosity.
Summer 2018 The leaked emails show some of the former censors were attempting to force a vote of no confidence against the Dean at the college’s governing body.
September 2018 A formal complaint is lodged against Dean Percy. The complaint, which uses the archaic language from the statutes of Christ Church, formally accuses the Dean of “conduct of an immoral, scandalous or disgraceful nature incompatible with the duties of the office or employment”.
November 2018 Both the cathedral chapter and the college governing body, having seen evidence supporting the complaint, agree it is worthy of investigation, suspend the Dean and begin a tribunal proceeding, the first time the row properly burst into the public domain.
November 2018 Newspaper reports of the suspension and complaint, largely based on anonymous sources, allege the Dean was being bullied out of the college by the censors and senior academics. The motivation for this is sometimes ascribed to opposition to the liberal Dean Percy’s supposed attempts to reform or modernise the college.
November 2018 Shortly after the news of the complaint against the Dean breaks, a crowdfunding page is set up to gather donations towards Martyn Percy’s legal fees to defend himself. It eventually collects almost £92,000, comfortably beating the target of £85,000, thanks to hundreds of donations, some as large as £3,000.
January 2019 In a letter to alumni, Richard Rutherford, then the senior censor, denied rumours the suspension was around safeguarding issues or any gender bias at Christ Church, and said instead it was related to Dean Percy’s salary and how it was set.
July 2019 The tribunal, headed by a retired High Court judge, completes its work.
August 2019 The tribunal’s conclusions are published, revealing that it dismissed the charges against the Dean and found no reason to remove him from his office. It did find one breach of Dean Percy’s fiduciary duty and according to a statement from the college “made some criticism of the Dean’s conduct”. Press reports, again from anonymous sources, said these criticisms were of Dean Percy’s tone in emails and for using the college’s money to take legal advice. The suspension of the Dean is rescinded and he goes back to work, but the full tribunal report remains private.
September 2019 The canons of the cathedral chapter demand to see the full tribunal report, including its lengthy appendices detailing emails between the censors and other academics.
Autumn 2019 Despite his exoneration and return to work, the toxic atmosphere at Christ Church continues. Dean Percy is struggling to pull together the funds to cover his £350,00 legal fees, despite the crowdfunding. The college refuses to reimburse him what was spent defending himself before the tribunal, although more than £1 million was spent on its own legal costs pursuing the complaint.
October 2019 A group of Christ Church alumni join the fray on the side of the Dean, arguing that the full tribunal findings should be published. Other reports suggest the college has lost about £2 million from cancelled donations since the row with the Dean became public.
December 2019 A motion of no confidence was put to the governing body, which voted 38 against the Dean with two in favour.
February 2020 More newspaper stories reveal, via leaked emails, the vicious infighting over the past two or three years, quoting several senior dons wondering how they might poison Dean Percy, hoping he would turn up drowned in a nearby river, and calling him a “little Hitler”.
February 2020 It also emerges Dean Percy has launched two employment tribunal claims against Christ Church. A college statement acknowledges the “frustrations” revealed in the emails and says mediation with the Dean has been going on since November. A lack of judges means the employment tribunals are likely to not begin until autumn 2021 at the earliest.
February 2020 Yet another lengthy newspaper investigation into the affair is published, suggesting it was triggered by the Lavinia Woodward incident in 2016 and Dean Percy’s concerns over safeguarding, rather than his push for more pay in 2017. A college statement denies any connection between safeguarding and the row.
March 2020 Jonathan Aitken, the disgraced former cabinet minister turned vicar, a former student of Christ Church, emails every member of the governing body a copy of the previously secret 2019 tribunal findings. This includes appendices of the offensive emails by Dean Percy’s detractors. The senior censor, Geraldine Johnson, immediately asks all the members to return the attachment unopened.
March 2020 A day later, another statement from Christ Church accuses Dean Percy of failing to pass on to the police (or any other safeguarding authority in the university or Church of England) an allegation from a former student that they were sexually assaulted during their time at the college. Making his first on the record comment since the dispute began, the Dean insisted in his own statement he had acted correctly. He said the person had made the disclosure on the condition it was taken no further, they were over 21, and the alleged perpetrator did not pose a continuing safeguarding risk.
March 2020 Christ Church reports the safeguarding accusations to the C of E’s National Safeguarding Team (NST), who begin their own investigation into Dean Percy by drawing together a Core Group. This committee, who will look into the case, includes some of the senior academics from the college who have been locking horns with the dean.
May 2020 It is reported a group of 41 dons from Christ Church wrote a letter to the Charity Commission attacking Dean Percy. The accusations include putting his own interests before that of the college, “a consistent lack of a moral compass”, and colluding in the leaking of confidential information to the media.
June 2020 The Charity Commission declines to intervene, instead telling the college and the dean to enter into professional mediation to resolve their problems. In a statement it warns the “very protracted and public dispute between the college’s governing body and its dean is damaging to the reputation of the charity and affecting its ability to govern itself”.
June 2020 Christ Church’s governing body is told the college has found evidence in phone records and digital documents which suggests it was Dean Percy who leaked the full, confidential inquiry report to Mr Aitken, who then sent it on to the dons and parts of the media. Both Dean Percy and Mr Aitken deny colluding to make the report public.
July 2020 The NST says it has removed two people from the Core Group after determining they had a conflict of interest in the case. It also confirms the only decision taken thus far by the Core Group was to commission an independent investigation into the allegations against Dean Percy. Other supporters of the dean complain in the press that there are other conflicts of interest involved, and question the right of the NST to investigate him at all, given he is employed by the college and not any Church body.
8 September 2020 Church of England issues a statement which reports its independent investigation has found Dean Percy acted appropriately in each safeguarding case, and reiterates at “at no point was there any allegation or evidence that the Dean presented a direct risk to any child or vulnerable adult”.
6 November 2020 Dean wins case confirming he is an employee of the College, supported in part by Unite Union lawyers. Dispute destined for full employment tribunal in autumn 2021
17 November 2020 Dean voluntarily steps down with immediate effect from all duties and pastoral responsibilities after safeguarding allegation that he stroked a woman’s hair
8 December 2020 Police investigate and clear the Dean, taking no further action on the complaint
8 January 2021 Christ Church College announces internal tribunal into latest safeguarding allegation, despite police taking no action
29 January 2021 Charity Commission writes to the College’s governing body questioning whether a second tribunal is in the best interests of the college and a responsible use of the charity’s resources
26 February 2021 Governing body of Christ Church College commissions a review of its own decision to start tribunal proceedings
1 June 2021 Dame Sarah Asplin says the complaint against the Dean is not serious enough to merit a tribunal under the Clergy Discipline Measure
14 July 2021 Bill Marsh, a mediator with experience in the Middle East and Ireland, ends his involvement in mediation process after a year of talks which failed to agree a settlement
9 September 2021 Charity Commission threatens to take action against Christ Church College saying long-running row with the Dean was damaging the reputation of the college, which was founded in 1546 and is a registered charity. Regulatory powers include replacing trustees
4 November 2021 The Charity Commission warned Christ Church’s board of governors that they could face jail if they mislead inquiries into an ongoing dispute with the dean.
14 December 2021 College announces intention to declare Martyn Percy mad and unfit to govern
4 February 2022 Martyn Percy will step down from his position as Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, in April, following settlement through mediation. The college issued a statement saying an allegation of sexual harassment had been settled, and an employment tribunal scheduled for next year will not go ahead. The college has agreed to an independent review of its policies and procedures in relation to sexual harassment to be led by an independent expert. In a statement, Martyn Percy said: “I hope the independent review overseen by the Charity Commission will succeed. I sincerely hope that the same standards in public life we have come to expect of our most cherished national institutions – including integrity, transparency and accountability – will flourish and bear fruit here.”
(first published 23 March 2020, last update 4 Feb 2022)
Tim Wyatt is a freelance religion journalist.