Problems at York Minster

york-minsterThe reports from York about a falling out between the Dean and Chapter and the Cathedral bell-ringers makes good copy for newspapers. At first glance it appears to be a power struggle between a group of clergy fired-up with management ideas and a fiercely independent body of volunteers. The sympathy of a reader is initially drawn to the bell-ringers and their attempts to resist interference in their affairs. It would be easy for this blog to conclude that once again church leadership had got it wrong and were unable to treat fairly those who gave of their time to serve the church in one of its many activities. We now face the prospect of York Minster having no bells over Christmas and the New Year. What greater public statement of a breakdown in communication could there be than this?

The Guardian newspaper has gone much more deeply into the story than other news outlets. It appears that, from the statement of the Archbishop of York, there is a safeguarding issue at stake. This is a coded way of saying that one of the bell-ringers is a person thought to be a source of risk to others, especially the young people among the band of enthusiasts. The Guardian names the particular individual as one David Potter. It appears that he had been released from a teaching job in 2000 and investigated by the police as recently as last year. So far he has avoided prosecution. The newspaper also reveals that David Potter is linked to a solid phalanx of other bell-ringers who are extended members of his family. It is this tribal solidarity that has created an impossible situation and apparently made such extreme action on the part of the Dean and Chapter necessary.

The issue of what to do when an individual is suspected of, but not convicted for, criminal behaviour within a congregation is frankly a nightmare for any clergyman or minister. There are many examples of bad behaviour that do not qualify for police activity or formal action. A child may complain of an adult who is behaving in a ‘creepy’ manner but who has not crossed any barrier into actual sexual assault. But something needs to be done and, if it is not, then the problem may fester for years or even decades. The Guardian story seemed to be implying that there were indeed solid grounds for suspicion against the individual, even though he had not been charged. The statement of the Archbishop records that advice had been taken from safeguarding experts locally and nationally to help them decide what to do in this case. As every clergyman in the country with bells in the tower knows, bell-ringers can be a quite separate group and sometimes they have few links with the actual congregation in the church where they ring. Issues like separate bank accounts and a self-perpetuating hierarchy are allowed to continue, effectively placing them outside any control of a Church Council. Any interference by Vicars or Deans in what is seen to be their independent affairs will be resisted with energy and passion.

I am capable of believing a story of a hard-hearted Dean being dictatorial against a hard-working group of volunteers, but in this York example, this does not appear to be anything close to the full story. But, coming out of this whole incident, we have an example of the way that power operates untidily in a large institution like York Minster. The Cathedrals Measure 1999 would probably work far better if all the workers were paid employees. The situation of a large institution with numerous volunteers is a far more complicated situation. It demands very high levels of people skills. A Vicar or a Dean has to spend quite a bit of time adjudicating between individuals who have fallen out in one of the tasks that are done within a church. A row over something like a flower rota is an event that will occur with regularity in a church setting. Some divisions are resolved quickly; others take much longer to sort out. It is seldom a matter of good management but rather great patience and people-skills are required to keep any institution running smoothly, whether large or small.

The situation at York seems here to be one of the Dean taking decisive action in a situation which required it. Because of the tribal power and solidarity possessed by the bell-ringing group, that decision was openly challenged, the media involved and a public situation of scandal allowed to emerge. That of course is a pity and it makes the church seem hard-hearted and authoritarian. One good thing that may come out of this situation at York is a better recognition of how power operates in a church setting. Authority and power have to be exercised with vigour on rare occasions and everybody who works in that institution should be able to recognise that sometimes this is in fact a necessity. In this situation at York, institutional power came into conflict with a localised tribal power, that of the bell-ringing group. The need for the Minster to preserve the highest standards of safeguarding meant that the Dean and Chapter backed by the Archbishop had to overrule the independence of the bell-ringers. Many of the ringers would think that sacking them all and changing the locks was an overreaction. They may have claimed to be surprised at the actions taken. It would in fact be surprising if the facts of the investigation of Mr Potter by the police were not known to all the other adult bell-ringers. We await to see how this story unfolds, but meanwhile I feel that the authority of the Dean has been unfairly undermined by the media. Safeguarding and protecting the young on church premises must take precedence over the tribal solidarity of a group of volunteers, however dedicated. It is to be hoped that the deeper issues in the story uncovered by the Guardian will become far more understood by the people of York. In this way the work of the church may be allowed to continue free from the taint of accusations of power abuse.

The Times this morning Saturday 22nd has a fuller account of this saga which seems to concur with this assessment. The issue remains whether or not the bell-ringers are really supporting safeguarding priorities or defensively protecting their own membership.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

6 thoughts on “Problems at York Minster

  1. We can all agree on the importance of safeguarding. But here is the nightmare, because the principle of innocent until proven guilty is also absolutely foundational to our common life. Here is a man whose reputation has been irredeemably trashed in the worst possible way, while bypassing the awkwardness of referring to a court of law. You appear to go along with this without demur, when you say with very clear innuendo “so far he has avoided prosecution”. There would have been more neutral ways of expressing this information. It’s not a good precedent when suspicion alone is enough to condemn someone. And yet if the suspicion is so well founded, why has he not been prosecuted? Perhaps real life is too messy to fit with such principles, but nevertheless it’s the thin end of a wedge. It becomes slightly too uncomfortably similar structurally to the situation in say Pakistan, where a person merely has to have an accusation of blasphemy thrown at them, and a mob immediately feels entitled not only to murder them, but also to murder any lawyers who have the temerity to defend them. We are not quite so violent in this country, but nevertheless to be tarred as a paedophile does mean becoming a social outcast.

    1. You’re right, haiku. This guy may very well be totally innocent of anything more than stubbornness. One more piece of information to put into the pot. A retired priest of my acquaintance who is also a bell ringer! and who was very senior indeed before he retired, says that the Dean of York does, shall we say, like to be in charge. He put it more strongly, but I won’t. So there may be a history of there being micro-management. On the other hand, safeguarding issues are serious matters. If the bell-ringers, and his sisters and his cousins and his aunts, were aware of questions having been asked, why on earth did they appeal to the press? I can, sadly, easily believe that some church groups are unbelievably cavalier about this. So, at present, we don’t know. But perhaps the Dean acted correctly, the bell ringers are being disingenuous, and the Dean has cried “wolf” in the past? On a slightly more trivial note, personally, I wouldn’t break my heart if there were no bell ringing at Christmas. What’s the problem? It’s a tradition, ok, but it really doesn’t have anything to do with Christianity. It’s just a hobby.

  2. The tradition of bells calling to prayer is very old, and I think the ringing of bells is part of spiritual rituals in other traditions too. I think here in Britain however we have something really special with change ringing, and I do love it. You can consider that “in heaven the bells are ringing”, and argue that is has something to do with Christianity symbolically in a similar was to lighting candles. But to each their own. I can sympathise with those who don’t specially care for the noise.

  3. I am trusting the opinions of almost everyone involved in church safeguarding, locally right up to the top person in the UK that that there is a risk in this situation which cannot be ignored. They obviously know a lot that we don’t. It was the Archbishop’s statement that set out what had been done up to now. That is the grounds for my feeling that there is a case to be answered for. I would imagine that the Chapter have agonised over this situation for a long time and would have loved it to go away. It would also appear that things have have gone on in this vein for at least twenty years, if not longer. A rumour is one thing, a dangerous reputation that goes on and on being held by a lot of people for a very long time is another. Here we might have expected innocence to be proved but it seems it was not. I just feel sorry in this case for the Cathedral having to make a decision. My judgement from reading what is in the public domain is that they need supporting in this one. It is only my judgement and I hope that something transpires that will bring some resolution in this case.

  4. I’m not supporting the cathedral or otherwise. I don’t think it’s for me to judge. On the one hand I can see exactly the arguments you’re making. On the other hand, my point is precisely, innocence does not have to be proved, it has to be presumed until proven otherwise. This is precisely my point, that to presume guilt, no smoke without a fire, etc etc, is a dangerous, slippery slope. And of course in this case, the man has been tarred with no opportunity to prove anything. This is not justice, and however right the cathedral authorities may possibly be that this is a man who can’t be trusted and has to go, they have gone about it in a very unfortunate way. On so many levels. Was it really necessary for example after such a protracted period of agonising, to force the ringers to leave the tower with such suddenness that they were required to leave the bells in the unsafe “up” position, so that specialists had to be brought in later at a cost of £700 to ring them down (as reported in the Church Times)? I agree that this is obviously a very sorry situation and the cathedral authorities are in a horrid position – and so are the ringers, some at least of whom are suffering innocently. I don’t think we’re obliged to agree the authorities have handled it well or done the right thing when we don’t have the evidence. As I said at first, I don’t think it’s for me to judge.

    1. I’m totally with you, Sis. Innocence often can’t be proved. After all, you didn’t know you were going to need an alibi. Some of the problem might be the distinction between a technical breach of the Children Act and actual abuse. Both could be defined as “safeguarding issues”. And even if the Dean and chapter are 100% right, there’s always the question of mixed motives. Human beings are strange creatures.

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