Peterborough Cathedral: Michael Sadgrove’s thoughts on the visitation report

Michael Sadgrove, Dean Emeritus of Durham, has kindly permitted us to cross-post Peterborough Cathedral: thoughts on the visitation report, first published on his blog Woolgathering in North East England on 9 January 2017.

The Bishop of Peterborough has recently conducted a visitation of his Cathedral. His charge is now published. It makes interesting reading.

Some may be wondering what a Cathedral visitation actually is. The answer is that it is a legal process whereby the Bishop as the “Visitor” of his or her Cathedral engages in a formal review or audit of aspects of the Cathedral’s mission and life. Articles of inquiry addressed to the Chapter set out the scope of the visitation. Written answers will be followed up by interviews and meetings. The Bishop’s areas of concern frequently reflect challenges that the Cathedral may have faced, for example in financial management, compliance or governance. But a visitation does not need to be a response to real or perceived problems. A newly-arrived Bishop has the opportunity to conduct a visitation in order to familiarise him- or herself with the Cathedral’s aims and plans, its life and ministry, the fundamental question being how it could best support the Bishop’s mission in the diocese and how Bishop and Cathedral could fruitfully collaborate for the good of the whole church.

Visitations are often news. The report of the recent visitation at Exeter Cathedral, for example, criticised the Dean in ways that led some of us to ask whether such directly personal comments belonged to an institutional report in the public domain. At Peterborough, the Dean’s sermon at his farewell service hinted that his resignation was not simply a matter of personal choice but had been wished on him. The visitation report clarifies that the Cathedral has faced severe cash-flow problems for which financial support by the Church Commissioners has been sought. Make what connection you will. In the circumstances, you can understand why the Bishop wished to conduct a visitation. And if the problems are as set out in the report, then many of the Bishop’s directions and recommendations about governance, decision-making, staffing and financial management make sense.

I can’t comment on Peterborough Cathedral specifically. I don’t know it well enough, though as a fellow Dean I have always admired Charles Taylor’s leadership as a senior priest who understands the mission of cathedrals. I am sorry to see him go. It will be for Peterborough people (not only in the Cathedral) to respond to the detailed provisions in the Bishop’s charge. No doubt a robust conversation will be had.

But the last six paragraphs of the charge are addressed to the wider church, not only to Peterborough. The Bishop believes that there are lessons to be learned from the Peterborough situation by the Archbishops’ Council, the House of Bishops, the General Synod, and the Deans’ Conference (para 25). That is an invitation to all of us who care about cathedrals to reflect. So here are some thoughts of my own.

The Bishop accepts that Peterborough Cathedral seems to have complied with the Cathedrals Measure 1999, but the accountability, scrutiny, and safeguards in that Measure were clearly insufficient to prevent the problems that occurred.  The remainder of his charge is effectively a critique of the legal framework under which Cathedrals operate and a plea that they should be reconsidered. Here is where every Bishop, every Dean (including the superannuated like me!), every Chapter and every member of a Cathedral Council and College of Canons will no doubt take a view.

Paragraph 27 states: the Cathedral Council and the College of Canons, both of which see the Cathedral accounts, do not necessarily have the expertise, and certainly do not have the specialist staff, to allow them to exercise real scrutiny; and they have no powers to mount an effective challenge to the Chapter. They can have great value in terms of advice, goodwill, and networking, but they cannot hold the Chapter accountable. This is an important paragraph because it assigns to the current governance structure for cathedrals a built-in weakness that is incapable of ensuring the proper accountability of the Chapter.

I want to comment on this. Without going into the long and complex history of how Cathedrals were governed before 1999 (a different story for the different types of cathedral), we can say that one of the clear aims of the Measure was to make sure that Chapters as the executive bodies of Cathedrals charged with holding their strategy and leading their mission would no longer be laws unto themselves but would be properly accountable. So Cathedral Councils were brought into being to represent the wider church and community and hold the Chapter’s accountability. Thus the Chapter was obliged to report regularly to the Council, and in particular, the annual budget and annual report and accounts had to be presented to the Council for scrutiny.

There are two important aspects to the functioning of the Cathedral Council that the Peterborough report doesn’t do justice to. In the first place, the Chair of Council is an independent lay person (i.e. not a member of the Chapter) who is appointed by the Bishop after consultation with the Chapter. So it’s really up to Bishops to make sure that they get the Council Chairs they want and need, people who are capable of the careful scrutiny and if necessary, challenge that is the proper job of any body that holds accountability. In the second place, the Bishop him- or herself is a statutory attender at Council meetings. Bishops don’t have a vote (because as Visitor this would compromise the Bishop’s role), but they are expected to be present and to speak. This is a powerful role for a Bishop to occupy. His or her voice is always influential. If the Council lacks expertise in particular areas, then let the Bishop insist that the best people are appointed to make up the deficit. But all this only works if Bishops are consistently present at and committed to Council meetings. It is not the Chapter’s fault if they do not exercise their rights under the Measure.

So it is not true to say, as the next paragraph (28) suggests, that the Bishop, despite the Cathedral being known as his or her seat and Church, has no powers except the draconian one of Visitation. The Bishop’s seat on the Council is precisely positioned where it needs to be in order that he or she can be part of the structure that calls in accountability without having to manage the institution directly. What is more, the Measure requires Bishops and Chapters to liaise regularly about the mission of the cathedral. This can mean their attendance at Chapter meetings from time to time so that the Bishop can overhear the Chapter’s business and contribute to it (I wouldn’t recommend all the time, though an earlier paragraph in the Peterborough charge seems to look for this). It can mean informal gatherings specifically to discuss how Bishop, Cathedral and Diocese could align their mission and collaborate more effectively. It can mean the circulation of meeting papers and documents, another request the Bishop of Peterborough reasonably makes. In my view it ought also to include regular (and frequent) meetings between Bishop and Dean. In my time as a Dean I have valued these “audiences” enormously.

There’s another point to add. Since the revision of senior church appointments processes, the Bishop is now an ex officio member of the panel that is set up to appoint Deans. He or she has a veto on the appointment, so while the Bishop may not always get “his” or “her” preferred candidate appointed, it is not possible for a Dean to be appointed against the Bishop’s wishes. This process ought to ensure that the Bishop always has a Dean with whom he or she can work fruitfully in a relationship where there is from the outset a high degree of trust and a good personal rapport.

It is true (paragraph 28) that the Chapter is exempt from scrutiny by the Charity Commission. The Church Commissioners, even though they pay for the Dean and two Residentiary Canons, have no standing powers or right to scrutinise. The Diocese, whose mother Church the Cathedral is, and which risks serious reputational loss if the Cathedral has problems, has absolutely no standing in all this. But to draw the consequence that in practice the Chapter is accountable to nobody goes well beyond the facts. As I have said, the Council, whose chair is the Bishop’s appointee and on which the Bishop sits, has this responsibility. I’d say that it’s up to Bishops and Council Chairs to liaise regularly (as I know some do) to make sure that the structural accountability provided by the Measure is working in practice, and that the right questions get asked of the Chapter.

In paragraph 29 the Bishop tells us that in this Charge I have made some provisions to bring Peterborough Cathedral, for the time being, under a degree of oversight and scrutiny: to make it accountable to the Bishop and the Diocesan Board of Finance. The Church Commissioners’ conditions for their support include another level of accountability. All these are, I believe, necessary steps for Peterborough Cathedral at the present time – though I hope that they will be seen and felt as a matter of co-working and mutual cooperation within the body of Christ, rather than as the imposition of accountability. No-one will argue with the final sentiment. But I’d want to press that its logic is taken seriously. The fact is that while the Measure is no doubt not a perfect instrument, it goes a long way towards ensuring accountability in just the way the Bishop rightly urges. It’s a question of making the existing systems work better. To introduce yet more levels of oversight with all the risks of heavy-handedness and micro-management seems to me to be a mistake.

What is more, all the ordained members of the Chapter and other Cathedral bodies hold the Bishop’s licence which, premised on the oath of canonical obedience, is itself an instrument of accountability and discipline. The Dean is a member of the Bishop’s staff, Bishop’s Council and Diocesan Synod. In practice, Bishop, Dean, Cathedral and Diocese form a closely-integrated system. But no system is better than the people who inhabit it. And this is the key point. A cathedral, a parish, even a diocese, can get into serious financial, compliance or reputational difficulties if its senior officers take their eye off the ball. The only answer is close collaboration, mutual respect, and accountability between people as well as committees.

The Bishop concludes (paragraph 30): I urge the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners, and the House of Bishops, to look at whether the current Cathedrals Measure is adequate, and to consider revising it. The Peterborough situation has convinced me that the high degree of independence currently enjoyed by Cathedrals poses serious risks to the reputation of the whole Church, and thus to our effectiveness in mission. A closer working relationship of Cathedrals with their Bishop and Diocese would be of benefit to all, both practically and spiritually. I am not against revisiting the Measure: it has been in operation for fifteen years and it would no doubt be good to review after the experience of a decade and a half. And I entirely endorse the sentiment that the closer the relationship between Cathedral, Bishop and Diocese, the better for all concerned, and the better for the mission of God.

But I dispute the conclusion that the degree of independence enjoyed by Cathedrals poses the risks the Bishop identifies. We are regularly told that the mission and outreach of Cathedrals is one of the big success stories of the Church of England; indeed, in their press comment on the Peterborough visitation, the Church Commissioners go out of their way to underline this. Cathedrals they say offer spiritual sanctuary for millions of people each year and are the jewels in the nation’s heritage crown. Cathedrals must be doing something right! Whether or not that is related to their freedoms from direct episcopal or diocesan control I leave it to others to judge.

But as a priest with nearly thirty years’ experience of full-time ministry in (three different) Cathedrals, I can, I think, speak about the good health of these great institutions and the great work they do for a public that is otherwise largely untouched by organised religion. The Cathedrals Measure has helped, not hindered this. That isn’t to say that Cathedrals can afford to be complacent, nor that there aren’t problems that some of them are facing. But radically to tamper with the delicate checks and balances between Cathedrals, Bishops and Dioceses that have evolved over centuries of English church life would in my view be a mistake. I doubt it would guarantee that Cathedrals never faced problems in the future. Ever more centralisation is not usually the way to sustain what is life-giving and flourishing. And I doubt it would do much to strengthen the mission of these altogether wonderful and remarkable places.

Cite this article as: Michael Sadgrove, “Peterborough Cathedral: Michael Sadgrove’s thoughts on the visitation report “, Law & Religion UK, 10 January 2017,

5 thoughts on “Peterborough Cathedral: Michael Sadgrove’s thoughts on the visitation report

  1. A former Dean would say that, wouldn’t he? Until Deans and Cathedrals are answerable to external scrutiny, disasters like this (not the first and not the only current financial meltdown) will continue to take place, since the Cathedral Council only sees whatever information is provided to it by the Dean and Chapter.

  2. What “external scrutiny” does Alan propose? Cathedral accounts have to be audited by independent, qualified auditors and a properly functioning Council affords more scrutiny than many commercial bodies receive. Ideas, please!

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