Even those not in the bubble of Anglican Twitter are likely to have noticed that Christ Church has been back in the news this week, and no doubt this will continue as tomorrow it’s the unofficial farewell service for the Dean, Martyn Percy, whose management of the release of his story via different newspapers and blogs has been highly impressive. Even before it happens, this service has already been ‘interesting’; the Dean was not allowed to have it in his own chapel – which is also the cathedral, the mixture of college and diocese being part of the issue – then it was going to be at the University Church, then that booking was cancelled and Somewhere Else found but, reminding me of various expensive theatrical events in London, those attending weren’t going to find out where it would be until the day before. I didn’t apply for a ticket for the service.
Why not? Well, why would I? It seems de rigueur for anyone writing about the Dean to say he’s an old friend, so let’s say now that he isn’t. I don’t know him personally. I have read some of his writing and liked some of it very much. He has done things which I strongly support, such as allowing the Cathedral to be used for services offering safe space to LGBTQI+ Christians. I have met him once, at an event in the college. He asked me who I was and when I told him he gave me the impression that, as I wasn’t relevant to his world, he wasn’t interested (I wasn’t on General Synod then). Maybe he was just shy: maybe he was having an off day. He moved away to talk to someone else. I’ve met Emma Percy a few times because we both belong to WATCH, Women and the Church, the group set up after the ordination of women to keep an eye on issues around gender justice, equality and inclusion. I’ve seen it suggested online that we support whichever ‘side’ it is because they’re our friends; really, no, that’s not why I’m here, and in any case I also know some of the academics at Christ Church.
But I still have an interest, not only because safeguarding and bullying, in both academia and the church, have been things on which I’ve focused since being a harassment officer at the University of Reading. I have an interest because Oxford, where the Dean was the senior priest, is my diocese, the one I represent on General Synod.
And I also have an interest because the place where it all went wrong, Christ Church college, could have been my college. I owe my academic career to having had a Junior Research Fellowship in Cambridge, at the wonderful and supportive Newnham College, and I’ve mentioned briefly my trip round the Oxbridge Junior Research Fellowship circuit here: “I was often the only woman being interviewed, usually the only person not to come from Oxbridge, and certainly the only person working on bodily fluids.” One of the places which interviewed me was Christ Church and there I came second; there was an agonizing wait while they located the successful candidate, who was on his way to South America immediately after interview.
I was relieved in many ways not to get that fellowship. It was always a bit odd at Christ Church. I don’t know if they still operate in a different time zone, five minutes and two seconds behind GMT. But – and I had plenty with which to compare it – that interview was bizarre. About a dozen robed dons, all men, all sitting on one side or the two ends of a long thin table, making me think of the Last Supper. No idea who they were; how would I even be able to spot a Classics specialist, not being an Oxford student myself? (NB at Newnham, more like six interviewers, and a clear diagram for me, identifying who was sitting where) One of the Christ Church people had no shoes on, something very clear from my side of the table, where my seat also felt on the low side, making me feel … well, lowly. If this was the Last Supper, then who was I? A servant brought in to wash the men’s feet? The painter?? Questions were fired from all directions, so my head was moving as if I were watching a high-speed tennis match. I received the most stupid or the most clever question ever (read this in an elderly and wavering voice for the best effect): “Miss King, people have been studying the ancient world for a Very Long Time now: will they ever stop?” I decided to take that as clever, as an entirely serious invitation to discuss the reception of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and gave it my best shot. Apparently, they liked it, although at the time they gave me no clue.
The various leaks of emails between the academic staff of Christ Church have given me the impression it is still odd there. Academics can be pretty unpleasant about each other, but even so these emails are exceptional. The pro-Percy site Turbulent Priest has issued a very useful timeline for anyone needing to remind themself of the successive, different, allegations and tribunals and their findings. What I still don’t understand is why the accusations lurched on from one claim to another, with something new turning up every time a previous allegation was dismissed. Did the governing body have nothing else to do? I would have thought the various other college scandals during the period when the Dean was being attacked would have occupied their minds: an academic jailed in France for child pornography offences, another accused of stealing and selling on papyri, the theft of art from the college gallery…
I wonder if members of the governing body have taken advantage of another Christ Church oddity. According to the college’s Staff Handbook, ‘Specific benefits’ for those employed by Christ Church include this one:
BEAUTICIAN. Visits from a beautician will be arranged from time to time if there is sufficient demand. A notice is circulated to staff by the Steward’s PA a few weeks prior to each visit and any staff member wishing to make an appointment should do so through the Steward’s PA. As the number of appointments is limited, they are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. Staff should pay the beautician directly.
Christ Church is, shall we say, ‘special’. For anyone outside the university world: No, a college beautician is not standard practice! Beauty, however, is more than skin-deep.