The Future Governance of Cathedrals

by Philip Jones

Cathedrals Working Group Draft Report 2018

A cathedral is both

(1) the church, or ‘seat’, of the bishop (hence its title) and

(2) the parish church, or ‘mother church’, of the diocese.

Yet the cathedral is constitutionally separate from both the bishop and the diocese.

This anomaly has persisted from the middle ages to the present day.  An erudite Church of England report Heritage and Renewal (1994) observed that ‘The fate of the English cathedral was to remain unreformed [at the Reformation]’ (p.191).  There were statutory reforms of cathedral governance in the 19th and 20th centuries, of which the Cathedrals Measure 1999 is the most recent.  However, these reforms have not ended the cathedral’s independence from the wider Church.

The survival of the peculiar status of cathedrals down the centuries has encouraged its general acceptance.  Hardly anybody questions it nowadays.  It is supported by vested interests.  Heritage and Renewal suggested that ‘cathedral dignitaries … found that they did not, in all truth, have much to do’ (p.196).  The daily work of a cathedral is mostly done by lay staff and volunteers.  Secure of tenure, and free of the indignities of parish work and accountability to any external authority, deans and canons are not likely to favour radical reform of their comfortable way of life.  Nor are upwardly mobile vicars with ambitions to succeed them.

And the status quo probably suits bishops too, on the whole.  Ancient privileges may be frustrating for the zealous reformer.  On the other hand, whenever the peace of the cathedral close is disturbed by a scandal or controversy, the cathedral’s independent status means that the bishop will generally be able to avoid blame.

But scandals and controversies continue to occur, alas.  These demand effective oversight of cathedral governance.

The Cathedrals Measure 1999 (nearly 20 years old now) prescribes a constitutional structure based on the 3 classic ‘powers’ of government.  The cathedral council created by the Measure is the legislative authority of the cathedral, with power to revise its constitution and statutes (s.28), and to scrutinise the work of the chapter, as Parliament scrutinises government (s.3(6) and (7)).  The chapter is the cathedral’s executive.  The bishop holds the ancient quasi-judicial office of visitor, with power to ‘hear and determine any question as to the construction of the constitution and statutes’, and to ‘give such directions … as will … better serve the due observance of the constitution and statutes’ (s.6(3),(4) and (6)).

The draft report cited above suggests that the 1999 separation of powers has failed.  There is still ‘a lack of effective independent scrutiny’ (para 122).  In particular, the report criticises ‘the lack of teeth given to [cathedral] councils’.

However, the report’s treatment of the constitutional position of cathedrals is very confused.  Perhaps this is only to be expected, for the reasons discussed earlier.  The report declares movingly that ‘the diocese and the cathedral are part of one body, working together for the proclamation of the Kingdom’ (para 103), and that the cathedral is ‘an essential support’ to the ministry of the bishop.  Yet it does not propose the constitutional integration of the cathedral and the diocese, so as to give legal effect to this supposed corporate identity.

Instead it merely observes that ‘cathedrals and dioceses have committed to work together more closely in recent years … to align strategies’ (para 104), and that ‘In a number of cathedrals, the dean and the residentiary canons take on significant structural roles in the diocese’ (para 105).  And so to the bland conclusion that ‘We hope this will continue and develop further’.  If it does, it will be on a spontaneous, informal basis only.

Although it vaguely perceives the cathedral’s connection to the bishop and the diocese, the reforms proposed by the report are predicated on a different dual role of cathedrals as

(1) places of prayer and worship and

(2) places of (secular) national heritage and tourist destinations (cf para 69).

Cathedrals are viewed as a discrete ‘sector’ of the national Church (‘the cathedral sector’, cf para 168), rather than as the centre of the Church within their dioceses.

If anything, the report’s proposals would result in cathedrals becoming even more remote from their bishops and dioceses than they are at present.  The report considers that cathedrals should be accountable to national institutions rather than to their bishops (para 108).

Thus it recommends that the bishop should continue as ex officio visitor of the cathedral (para 147), but suggests that ‘the visitor would remain as a formal legal enforcement and dispute resolution mechanism but … not … as the normal means of reviewing and bringing about improvements in financial or other governance matters’ (para 159).  The visitor’s jurisdiction should be exercised by an ecclesiastical judge, not by the bishop personally.

Instead of an ineffectual separation of the 3 powers of government, the report argues for a ‘clear separation of governance and management‘ (para 132), which functions have become ‘blurred and conflated’ (para 122).  Cathedrals should instead be governed like charities, with ‘a trustee body … overseeing … an executive team‘ (para 121).

However, the report acknowledges a difficulty with applying the constitution of a secular charity to a cathedral.  If the cathedral and its clergy were subject to secular trustees, this would effectively secularise the cathedral: ‘for governors to direct … a cathedral’s worship would be an inappropriate crossing of boundaries’ (para 129).

So the report proposes to ‘retain the chapter as the governing body’ (para 130), instead of appointing another governing body over the chapter.  Moreover, the dean will continue to chair the chapter.  The offices of chairman and ‘CEO’ of the chapter will therefore continue to be combined.  In charities, these offices are generally separate.

At first glance, this proposal seems decidedly lame, a mere restoration of the status quo ante the 1999 Measure.  How does it effect a separation of governance and management?  How can the dean and chapter be accountable to themselves?  They will retain the same privileged, unaccountable position they have held since the middle ages.

However, the report is confident that things will be different this time.  It promises ‘some significant changes to the current structures’ (para 131).

Cathedral chapters were reformed by the 1999 Measure to include lay canons as well as residentiary clergy (s.4(2)(b)).  The chapter was also required to appoint a finance committee ‘having the function of advising … [on] financial and investment management and for the membership to include persons who have experience and expertise in that field’ (s.9(1)(h)).

The report therefore proposes further reform of the chapter, along the lines already provided in the 1999 Measure.  Not only will there be lay, non-residentiary canons in the chapter, but they will form the majority of chapter members (para 136), and so be able to outvote the dean and the residentiary canons.  The lay canons will also include ‘experts’ in finance, and risk and property management.  The finance committee will have enhanced powers of scrutiny, and a lay chairman (para 144).

The day to day management of the cathedral will be entrusted to a Senior Executive Team of cathedral officeholders, headed by the dean.  The report argues that ‘The corollary to strengthening chapter scrutiny and accountability is that deans need to be empowered to lead’ (para 182).

The dean’s position in the chapter will be weakened by the presence of a majority of lay ‘experts’, but his managerial position in the cathedral will be strengthened: ‘it [is] essential for the dean to be able to oversee and direct the work of the residentiary canons’ (para 197).

The appointment of residentiary canons (i.e clergy) should therefore be subject to the dean’s approval.  (Canons are currently appointed by the bishop or the Crown, not the dean.)  Residentiary canons ‘should report to the dean as their line manager’ (para 160), ‘deriving their authority from the dean’ (para 198).  The dean will be responsible for their ‘ministerial development review’ or work performance appraisal (para 194).  A far cry indeed from Dean Inge’s amusing comparison of the relationship between dean and canons to that of a mouse watched by 4 cats.

If these reforms are implemented the chapter is unlikely to be very collegial in character, despite the report’s affirmation of ‘the collegial and residentiary role of the clergy’ (para 129).  Collegiality does not sit comfortably with line management.  Also the chapter will be divided between 2 very different groups of canons.  A forum rather than a college.

But collegiality is not an end in itself, of course.  Loss of collegiality is a price worth paying for increased business efficiency, which in turn requires effective line management.  The report noted that ‘the financial management of cathedrals is at the core of our terms of reference’ (para 222).

The chapter’s status as governing body of the cathedral is retained out of respect for the ecclesiastical character of cathedrals.  But chapters will be accountable to the Charity Commission, a secular authority (para 168).  The report points out that most other ecclesiastical bodies are already subject to the jurisdiction of the Charity Commission.

It also criticises the 1999 Measure for ‘the absence of any independent body to act as a [cathedral] regulator’ (para 122), and argues that ‘There is a need for increased clarity about the relationship of national Church institutions with cathedrals’ (para 107).  It recommends a 5 yearly ‘assurance review’, i.e audit, of every cathedral, to be commissioned by the bishop but carried out by persons ‘drawn from the finance and operations functions of other cathedrals and the national Church’ (para 158).

All this accords with the report’s promotion of a nationwide ‘cathedral sector’.  However, there may be a difficulty here.  The Church Commissioners (who are a ‘national Church institution’, of course) ‘have made clear … that they would prefer not to have a regulatory role with regards to the cathedral sector’ (para 167).  Perhaps the national Church is not very keen to assume the task of policing its cathedrals!

The mediaeval anomaly of cathedral independence (‘A Constitutional Monstrosity’), and the Cathedrals Measure 1999, are discussed further in posts filed below under this category.