The 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.