Aga Saga: The Case of Llandaff Cathedral

It has been reported in the Western Mail (‘national newspaper of Wales’) that the Dean of Llandaff appeared before the Disciplinary Tribunal of the Church in Wales (or a committee thereof), to answer a complaint of financial misconduct made by his own Cathedral Chapter.

The Disciplinary Tribunal cleared the Dean of any wrongdoing. Indeed it found that he had no case to answer.

The Western Mail also noted that the Cathedral’s auditors had had no concerns, happily signing off the annual accounts year after year.

But the Chapter, like Wellington’s soldiers, did not know when it was beaten. It appointed a QC (not an accountant) to investigate the Cathedral’s finances.

The QC reported that, between 2016 and 2020, the Dean ‘apparently’ authorised expenditure of over £35,000 (‘at least’) from Cathedral funds without the Chapter’s approval, ‘as required in law’.

Most of the alleged expenditure benefited the Dean personally. Nearly two-thirds (£22,000-odd) went on work done to the deanery (his official residence), including the installation of an aga (‘a type of large cooking stove or range’, according to the dictionary) and wood-burning stove. Further sums were disbursed on furniture and artwork, travel and entertainment. And on a payment of £3,264 to a favoured member of the Cathedral staff, over and above his salary.

The Chapter published these embarrassing allegations on the Cathedral’s website (though it has not as yet published the report on which they were based). It is now seeking ‘restitution’, i.e repayment, of the money.

The Dean has denied his brethren’s claim against him, denouncing it as ‘unfounded’, ‘malicious’ (because of the apparent refusal to accept the Disciplinary Tribunal’s decision) and ‘defamatory’ (because of the publication).

This blog expresses no opinion on the substance of the allegations. However, if the QC’s report is correct, this carries the dramatic implication that both the Disciplinary Tribunal and the Cathedral auditors either

(1) failed to detect the unauthorised expenditure, or

(2) failed to appreciate the impropriety of it.

The Chapter’s claim is based on secular charities law, a large and complex subject that is quite outwith the scope of this blog. Instead we discuss how the Church in Wales’s own rules may apply to this case.

Llandaff Cathedral, like the other cathedrals of England and Wales, is governed by its own constitution. That constitution is itself part of the Constitution of the Church in Wales.

The present Cathedral constitution firmly states that ‘The responsibilities of the [Chapter] … shall include … control of all the Cathedral finances …’ (4(a)). However, that constitution was only approved in 2019. The alleged unauthorised expenditure began in 2016, 3 years earlier. The only published version of the Cathedral constitution at that time dates from 2001.

This 2001 version makes no direct reference to Cathedral finances at all. It describes the Dean as ‘the principal member of the Chapter … first in the number thereof’ (4(1)). The Dean chairs the Chapter, and has a casting vote if the Chapter is deadlocked (4(4)). He may ‘instruct, advise or admonish’ colleagues and staff, but ‘shall not take further proceedings [against them] without the consent of the Chapter’ (4(5)).

However, the constitution makes clear that the Cathedral ‘shall be governed, as heretofore, by the Cathedral Chapter‘, not by the Dean alone (2(1)). The Dean is primus inter pares, first among equals, but no more. The Chapter is ‘a college or society, the decision of the majority … shall be accepted as being the decision of the whole and shall bind all’ (6(7)). A Chapter meeting does not require the attendance of every member, but a meeting attended by only a minority of members ‘shall not conclude any business for which the consent of the majority is required’ (6(3)).

These provisions may suggest that the Dean could not authorise expenditure from Cathedral funds without the knowledge and consent of a majority of the Chapter. However, the constitutional position is not as simple as that. The Cathedral is not governed by its constitution alone. The published constitution is the principal instrument of governance, but it is very far from being the only one.

The 2001 preface makes clear that the Cathedral is governed by ‘statutes, ordinances and [unwritten] customs’, as well as by its published constitution. The only limitation is that the statutes etc may not be ‘contrary to, or inconsistent with’ the constitution.

The Bishop and the Chapter may jointly make or alter these secondary rules (3(8)). Not only that, but the Chapter may make ‘orders, regulations and byelaws’ (6(6) – tertiary rules?!) without reference to the Bishop.

Statutes, ordinances, customs, orders, regulations, byelaws … It is not impossible that, somewhere in this veritable jungle of unpublished self-regulation and unwritten custom, an authority may be found entitling the Dean, in a particular case, to expend Cathedral funds without the authority of the full Chapter, or even unilaterally.

Perhaps the Disciplinary Tribunal was alluding to this possibility when it reportedly referred to a ‘somewhat antiquated accounting system which oversaw a lack of a proper framework for the claim and payment of expenses’. (The full text of its decision, like the QC’s report, is yet unpublished.)

Whatever the truth of the Chapter’s allegations, this case illustrates the besetting weakness of all cathedral governance. Recent reforms promise to impose ever more rigorous ‘accountability’ on deans and chapters, but they complacently accept the fundamental obstacle to such accountability – the anachronistic mediaeval independence of cathedral authorities of the wider Church. Parishes are not allowed to make up their own little private rules and customs, only cathedrals.

As is well known, the cathedral is both

(1) the seat or cathedra of the bishop (hence its name) and

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

Yet it remains constitutionally independent of both the bishop and the diocese, like a little Vatican. (See other posts on this blog, filed under the category of ‘Cathedrals’.)

The Chapter governs the Cathedral but not the deanery. The deanery comes under the jurisdiction of the diocesan parsonage board. The Constitution of the Church in Wales provides that the parsonage board has ‘the general oversight and management of parsonages’ (4A, 26). Deaneries are expressly included in the definition of ‘parsonage’ (7, 1(d)).

The Dean would not need the board’s permission merely to introduce movable furniture and paintings into the deanery (though the Constitution provides that ‘sales by auction of furniture in a parsonage shall not be permitted’ (7, 23(7)).

However, he certainly would need the board’s permission for work of a structural nature. The Constitution provides that an incumbent (i.e the Dean) ‘shall not make any structural alteration or addition to the [deanery] or to the permanent fittings thereof, without the consent of the Board’ (7, 23(4)).

Moreover, the board’s function of oversight and management obliges it to ensure that ‘work duly authorised to be done to … parsonage [is] properly carried out’ (4A, 26). So the work would require the board’s supervision, not just its consent.

However, the board would be under no obligation to ask where the money was coming from, or report to the Chapter. (Thus the constitutional independence of the Cathedral works both ways – just as the Chapter is unaccountable to the diocese, so the diocesan authority is unaccountable to the Chapter.)

The Llandaff Cathedral case involves not only the Chapter’s claim against the Dean, but the Dean’s claim against the Chapter, whose publication cannot but cause grave reputational damage. Defamation, like restitution, is a matter for the secular courts. But does the Dean have any recourse to the Constitution?

The Constitution empowers the diocesan court ‘to hear and determine … any dispute between a member of the Church in Wales and the diocesan … board[s], deanery conference or chapter, vestry or parochial church council …’ (9, 22(d)). An appeal lies to the Provincial Court (9, 32(1)). This is presumably a sort of grievance procedure.

However, the diocesan court has no jurisdiction to determine a grievance against the Cathedral Chapter – because, of course, the Chapter is independent of the diocese. (A deanery chapter is not the same as a cathedral chapter.)

Any grievance against the Chapter therefore has to be addressed to the Bishop, who is ex officio the Visitor of the Cathedral. The present Llandaff constitution confirms that ‘the existing powers of the Bishop as Visitor … shall continue as in times past [i.e since the middle ages]’ (1(a)).

If the Bishop-Visitor is unable to resolve the grievance, or is perceived to lack impartiality, then the Archbishop of Wales might intervene, under ‘the powers and functions inherent in the office of Metropolitan’ (cf 2, 37). The Church of England offers a fairly recent precedent for this. In 1996 the Archbishop of Canterbury held a metropolitical visitation of Lincoln Cathedral which, like the present case, concerned a rancorous dispute over expenditure.