By Rosie Dawson
It looked like a fitting end to the story: a leaving service for a departing cathedral dean. The congregation at choral Evensong included a bishop, many clergy, and several heads of university colleges. There were rousing hymns and a farewell sermon. As champagne and carrot cake were served in a marquee afterwards, there were speeches and laughter, and people left feeling uplifted.
Yet the story is more complicated than it might appear. The service was not held in Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral, where the Very Rev. Martyn Percy had served as dean, but in the chapel of Exeter College, a few hundred yards away. Only two members of the 60-strong governing body at Christ Church turned up. The diocesan bishop, the Rt. Rev. Steven Croft, was also absent because he could not agree to the dean preaching at his own farewell service. In the end the dean did preach — and used his sermon to repeat what he had told the press earlier in the week: that he was leaving the Church of England.
Christ Church is one of Oxford’s most prestigious colleges, founded during the reign of Henry VIII. The college chapel is also the diocesan cathedral and sits in one corner of the famous Tom Quad. The college has educated 13 British Prime Ministers, and its cloisters and quadrangles have featured in numerous films, including the Harry Potter series. But any telling of its illustrious history will now surely have to include a chapter on its long dispute with Martyn Percy.
The author of several books on Anglicanism and ecclesiology, Percy is widely seen as one of the sharpest minds in the Church of England. He was principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon until his appointment as dean in 2014.
The Christ Church post is unique; the office-holder is both head of the college and dean of the cathedral. Things began to go wrong between Percy and the college’s governing body in 2017. Percy spent much of the time thereafter suspended from duty and — latterly — unable to enter his own cathedral.
Percy and college leaders quarreled over the college’s management of safeguarding and its pay structures, including the dean’s salary. In 2018, the college sought to have Percy removed, accusing him of — in a college statute’s archaic language — “conduct of an immoral, scandalous, or disgraceful nature incompatible with the duties of the office or employment.” A subsequent tribunal chaired by a High Court judge investigated 27 charges against the dean and dismissed them all.
In 2020, Christ Church made a series of safeguarding allegations against Percy to the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team. After its independent inquiry, the safeguarding team concluded in September 2020 that the dean had acted appropriately in each case. It stressed that “[a]t no point was there any allegation or evidence that the dean presented a direct risk to any child or vulnerable adult.”
In November 2020, a woman known as Miss X claimed that Percy had stroked her hair in the cathedral vestry. He denied the charge. Police investigated and took no further action.
Dame Sarah Asplin, an appeals court judge and president of the Church of England’s clergy discipline system, ruled that it would not be proportionate to refer the matter to a church tribunal. While making no judgment on the veracity of the accusations, she said the college had other internal means of investigating and redressing the complaint.
In February of this year, the college and Percy reached a settlement. He agreed to step down at Easter, and received a £1.2 million severance. The college has also reached a separate settlement with Miss X and has committed to an independent review of its policies and procedures in relation to sexual harassment. Meanwhile the college will be appointing an independent chair for the review of its governance proposed by the Charity Commission, which has been monitoring developments in this protracted dispute.
Any hopes that this might be the end of the matter were soon dashed. Percy has not signed a non-disclosure agreement. After four years during which he says he was silenced by the college and the bishop, he is keen to tell his story. A public relations war is on in earnest.
On the day before Percy’s farewell service, Miss X broke her anonymity in The Daily Telegraph, responding to remarks Percy had made in The Times. Alannah Jeune called the dean’s behavior toward her “creepy” and “weird.”
“It was completely shattering to see so many people support him without knowing all of the facts,” she said. “This has had a massive impact on my life. I’ve lost my job, my housing, and my Ph.D. over this.”
Martyn Percy’s supporters question these claims. Even while the champagne was being drunk in Exeter College’s quadrangle, they were composing their responses. The Governing Body of Christ Church also broke its silence in late May, claiming in a public letter that the origin of the dispute lay in disagreement about Percy’s pay and rejecting all allegations of a coup to unseat him.
For the moment Percy appears to be focusing his criticisms on the Church of England which, he says, along with Croft, failed to handle the safeguarding allegations properly or to provide him with pastoral support. He argues that such failures are systemic, and are experienced by survivors of abuse as well as others facing safeguarding allegations. He wrote in Prospect that the church’s procedures were beset by partisanship, double standards, and incompetence, leaving him unable to remain in the institution.
“The Church of England has destroyed any trust I might have had in it. It is an unsafe place to work,” he wrote, adding that it “lacks transparency, accountability, external scrutiny, and, as far as I am concerned, integrity.”
“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,” a diocesan statement said. “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.”
In a separate statement, the diocese praised Alannah Jeune’s decision to tell her story, which it said “deserves to be widely read.”
The Church of England’s lead safeguarding bishop, the Rt. Rev. Jonathan Gibbs, said that while the church could not be complacent, its safeguarding processes have improved radically in the last 10 years.
“The church now has an Independent Safeguarding Board,” he said. “In the light of Martyn’s comments, we have referred, along with Oxford Diocese, his safeguarding concerns to the ISB for a review, which will be both rigorous and independent.”
Percy has made it clear that he will not join another church.
“My vocation to serve Christ and the world as priest, pastor, and professor will continue,” Percy said in his farewell sermon. “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.”
Family ties mean that he will not move abroad, but the fact that his wife, the Rev. Emma Percy, has just resigned from her post as chaplain of Trinity College suggests that their future may lie outside this world-famous university city and its dreaming spires.