Rosie Dawson attended Martyn Percy’s farewell service in Oxford on Saturday. In an interview conducted shortly beforehand he told her why he’s calling on congregations to withhold their giving from the Church of England, and why he’s not leaving quietly….
It was perhaps the nearest thing the Church of England gets to an illegal rave. Those attending the leaving service for the Very Rev Martyn Percy were told only the day before where the event was going to be held.
Christ Church College, Oxford, where Martyn Percy had been the dean for eight years, refused to host any sort of farewell. The University Church of St Mary was proposed as an alternative venue but became unavailable once it became clear that the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev Steven Croft, and the dean, who is also professor of theological education at King’s College London, could not agree on the content of the service.
In the end it took place in the 19th-century chapel of Exeter College just off Broad Street. The chapel is outside the jurisdiction of the bishop, and he did not attend.
Martyn Percy was head of both the college and the diocesan cathedral until Easter, when he stepped down after an acrimonious dispute with the college lasting four years. Among the contested issues were the college’s safeguarding protocols and the matter of the dean’s pay. The role of the Dean of Christ Church involves being the head of both the college and the diocesan cathedral which sits in the corner of Tom Quad, the Great Quadrangle at the heart of the college.
Following the settlement with Christ Church, the Bishop and Martyn Percy entered into discussions about what form a leaving service should take. In correspondence seen by the Religion Media Centre, Bishop Croft wrote that he was unable to allow him to preach. Dean Percy protested: “Your letter treats me with cruel indifference. It seems to me that you do not really want this service. You clearly think I am leaving in disgrace … I am not.”
The Diocese of Oxford said in a statement: “Mindful of Dr Percy’s stated intention to the bishop to leave the Church of England and also some concerns about Dr Percy’s behaviour behind the scenes, it was not possible to permit Dr Percy to preach at a leaving service organised by the diocese”.
The leaving service went ahead without the bishop’s blessing and was led by the chaplain of Exeter college, the Rev Andrew Allen.
The date – 14 May – is the feast day of St Matthias, the disciple chosen by the apostles to replace Judas, who betrayed Jesus and the theme was picked by Martyn Percy in his sermon.
“Everyone will have some taste of treachery,” he said, “Of being the victim of others bearing false witness; of being snared; of being badly let down by someone you had trusted. I have that experience. So do many of you.”
He went on: “Psalm 80 is unequivocal; God will save and restore, and even though our detractors may scorn us and laugh at us, God will never turn away from you. Never.
“My vocation to serve Christ and the world as priest, pastor and professor will continue,” he concluded, “But my season for doing so within the Church of England must now end, so that truth can be spoken to power, and prophetic insight not diminished by the gravitational pressure of institutional loyalty.”
After the sermon the college choir sang an anthem “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est” (where charity and love are, God is there.) Canon Rosie Harper prayed for all those who had found the church to be an unsafe place, and for the church “as it struggles to reform.” The congregation sang the Easter hymn “Thine be the Glory.”
The Bishop of Buckingham, the Rt Rev Alan Wilson, attended the service. Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of the Guardian newspaper was there, as was the former Cabinet member Rev Jonathan Aitken, Professor Linda Woodhead from Kings College, London, and Archbishop Cranmer – aka Adrian Hilton – who writes the influential blog of that name.
The college had sought to have the dean removed from office, accusing him — in the words of a college statute — of “conduct of an immoral, scandalous or disgraceful nature incompatible with the duties of the office or employment”.
A tribunal chaired by a High Court judge, published in August 2019, investigated the charges against the dean and dismissed them all.
In 2020 a series of safeguarding allegations were made against Professor Percy by Christ Church to the CofE’s National Safeguarding Team (NST), which began an independent investigation. It reported in September 2020 that the dean acted appropriately in each case. It stressed that “at no point was there any allegation or evidence that the dean presented a direct risk to any child or vulnerable adult”.
Later that autumn the dean faced a further safeguarding investigation after an allegation of sexual harassment was made against him. Alannah Jeune said that the dean had stroked her hair while they were in the cathedral vestry. He denied the allegation. The police investigated and took no further action.
Dame Sarah Asplin, an Appeal Court judge and president of Church of England tribunals, separately concluded that it would not be proportionate to refer the matter to a tribunal under the Clergy Discipline Measure, noting that there were other means of redress in dealing with the allegation.
Alannah Jeune broke her anonymity in an interview with The Daily Telegraph on Friday. “This has had a massive impact on my life,” she said. “I’ve lost my job, my housing and my PhD over this.”
The dispute cost Christ Church millions in legal fees, and more than £1m extra in a settlement finally reached between the two parties in February. The college also reached a settlement with Ms Jeune.
Professor Percy did not sign a non-disclosure as part of his settlement and there has been no shortage of media outlets vying for his story. A six-part series has been commissioned by Times Radio, and there is a book in the offing — provisionally titled A Very Oxford Scandal.
But the primary focus of his first forays into the press appears to be the Church of England, and the part it played in dealing with the safeguarding allegations made against him.
In an essay published in the current Prospect magazine on 12 May, he called for safeguarding in the church to be regulated independently, saying that the church’s own procedures were beset by partisanship, double standards, and incompetence. He accused the Bishop of Oxford of seeking to silence him and his supporters, and of appearing reluctant to accept the judgment reached by Dame Sarah Asplin regarding the allegation from Alannah Jeune.
He wrote that he had no choice but to leave the Church of England: “Though I have been ordained for more than 30 years, and continue with my faith in God, the church has destroyed any trust I might have had in it. It is an unsafe place to work. It lacks transparency, accountability, external scrutiny and, as far as I am concerned, integrity.”
Martyn Percy is involved in setting up a donor diversion campaign, appealing to those who regularly give to the church to withhold their contributions until it has reformed its procedures.
Why does he think people in the pews will listen? “Because this is 2022 and many people in the parishes care about ethical investment”, he told the Religion Media Centre. “I would say to them that for every pound they put in the collection plate, some will go to the church’s lawyers, PR people and insurers who penny-pinch off the survivors of abuse”.
I asked Professor Percy whether he had considered taking a few months for reflection on his experiences before firing off on all cylinders. “I would have done that”, he said, “were it not for the fact that I have been prevented from speaking for four years by a combination of Christ Church and the bishop. In that time, my relationship with survivors of abuse and those falsely accused has become strong and I find that they have also been silenced.”
He is now looking for his next job. Family commitments mean he will remain in this country rather than seek academic work in the United States and the potential embrace of the Episcopal church there. He told the RMC he would not be joining another denomination and remains wedded to Anglicanism, but it seems he will be an outsider now and a thorn in the side of the branch of it that he is now leaving.
Statement by the Oxford diocese
“The Bishop of Oxford and many others have gone to considerable lengths to care for Martyn Percy in his long dispute with Christ Church and to ensure fair treatment of all involved. This has been a complex and painful process for all concerned over the past two years, much of which has been inaccurately played out by supporters of Dr Percy in the media and online. Many people have been left damaged and hurt by their campaigns.
“It is time for an objective and independent account of what has happened at Christ Church during the past two years. We have jointly commissioned an independent review to take place this year, to be led by the Church of England Independent Safeguarding Board. We welcome the scrutiny the review will bring and are ready and willing to acknowledge any failings. We firmly hope that reconciliation and healing of relationships will be possible over time.
It is incorrect to infer that the bishop did not accept Dame Sarah’s determination. The president of tribunals does not make findings of fact but merely summarises the evidence on both sides. It is not part of the president’s function under section 17(2) of the guidelines to decide what actually happened.
“Mindful of Dr Percy’s stated intention to the bishop to leave the Church of England and also some concerns about Dr Percy’s behaviour behind the scenes, it was not possible to permit Dr Percy to preach at a leaving service organised by the diocese.”
The Church of England’s lead safeguarding bishop, Jonathan Gibbs, said:
“We recognise and acknowledge that the situation at Christ Church, Oxford, has had a significant impact on many people including the former dean. We are committed to ensuring the church is a safe place for all through professional safeguarding both nationally and in every diocese.
“The safeguarding processes in the Church of England have improved out of all recognition in the last 10 years but we cannot be complacent. The Church now has an Independent Safeguarding Board, ISB, chaired by a former Children’s Commissioner for England.
“In the light of Martyn’s comments, we have referred, along with Oxford diocese, his safeguarding concerns to the ISB for review which will be both rigorous and independent. Its finding will be public save only for protection of vulnerable people. As the internal questions at Christ Church are a matter for the college and the university, we will not comment on them. Martyn Percy has had a long and very distinguished service to God through his work in the Church of England in many roles. We are grateful for what he has done and wish him well in the future.”