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Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church

Written by Emily Essex, posted on Friday, July 20, 2018

Behind the scenes header image


Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ ChurchEmily: Your job has lots of bits to it: you're a Head of House, a Cathedral Dean, you’re always busy, and I was trying to think of a way to describe your job in a couple of words. I haven’t got very far though- top dog, big boss, universal leader… I didn’t know if you had any better suggestions?

Martyn: Well, any Head of House, I think, who finds themselves imagining that their job is being Chief Executive of a small, medium, or large organisation, has misunderstood what they’re doing. And misunderstood the nature of the body they’re working with. It’s much more like being an abbot or a prior of a secular body.

When you think about the collegiate structure of this it becomes very obvious: if you think about the Rule of Benedict, for example: Who’s the Abbot in the Rule of Benedict? Primus inter pares: the first amongst equals.

As a Head of House you are elected, chosen, selected, employed to be their person, to embody the values of the place and to keep it honest to what those values are. So once you kind of know that and you know that your main job is value-centred rather than executive-centred, that is quite an important moment, it seems to me, because you’re on the right path.

You have very little power, really. Some people think of this kind of job as being the ‘Chief Pastor of the community’ because it’s your job to notice what’s going on and to be concerned with people.

But it’s complex because, just like being an Abbot or a Prior, it’s not a Chaplain’s job. It inevitably takes you into places of oversight. If you were actually running a monastery and, let’s say, the refectory or hospital wasn’t managing, you’re going to have to deal with that- the Rule of Benedict is very clear on that.

And, of course, nobody is an Abbot for life. To be honest, a lifetime of this is not something you could humanly sustain because you just cannot do the whole job, it’s just not possible: you’ve got the School, the Picture Gallery, the Upper Library, the Cathedral, Canons, Chapter, Governing Body, you’re the statutory chair of I think something like 36 different committees. So it’s a lot of time in meetings! And you have to have your theology of meetings well worked out to understand what the meetings are for and what they’re doing. And they don’t always go well.


Emily: I guess that’s something you have to learn to be okay with!

Martyn: Yeah, you do, and you have to remember that you’re playing a long game here, and the aftershocks of some meetings take a long time to resolve.

I like the writing of an Indian Jesuit, Luis Bermejo, who says there are four stages in institutional life: communication, conflict, consensus, communion. Bermejo says that the Holy Spirit is in all four stages, and you can’t have consensus and communion until you’ve had your conflict.

You can see this in the church: nobody sat down on a wet Thursday afternoon and said, ‘Done and dusted with the creeds! We’re all agreed’. It’s frankly a bitter, in fact violent, fight for the creeds for decades.

So conflict in itself is not bad.


Emily: It sounds like it can be productive rather than destructive.

Martyn: It can be very helpful. Which is not to say that it’s easy and it’s certainly not painless.

I can think of an example from my last role, and with a group of colleagues, in which we discovered issues we couldn’t seem to resolve between us – they challenged our priorities individually and collectively. So I called everybody together and we sat down, some with a glass of wine, and the first thing that one person round the table said was: “Isn’t it good that we can talk about this? That we can just have a meeting where we can put our disagreements on the table”. And by the end of the evening this apparent conflict had literally just melted away like spring snow. People were saying ‘Oh, I didn’t realise that’s what you wanted…’

Emily: Sounds like lessons for the wider church there!

Martyn: There’s no substitute for meeting. If you try and stave off conflict all you’re going to do is push it somewhere else; it will always come out.

So you need in these roles, in no particular order, a lot of resilience; it’s important you’ve got low ego needs - it’s not about you; you need to understand that people will be personal about you but you can’t return that. People confuse the role with the person or the task with the role and, again, you might mind it but it’s quite important that you know where to put it: you can’t have psychological wounds bleeding all over the place. So I don’t think you can be fragile, but you have to be honest with yourself.

In a role where you literally cannot cover all the bases you are going to encounter, every day, people who are disappointed with you. You have to be able to deal with that.


Emily: Thinking of lessons for the wider church - I wonder whether that’s something that works both ways?
It’s unique here in that you’re not only attached to a chapel, like most Oxford colleges are, but you are actually the head of the Cathedral as well. Are there particular ways in which that informs how you think about your roles?

The Dean giving a blessing at a Cathedral service

Martyn: I might be a bit autobiographical about this: one of the things which has been strange for me in this role is how different it is to my previous role, when I was running a seminary and had, in a sense, more ‘executive power’. [Martyn was Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon: a training college for future Anglican priests] In my last job I made a very conscious attempt to position Cuddesdon as being a central, broad Anglican college. I would often say we were a ‘non-party college’, catering for about 90% of the Church of England, and that was hugely important, really.

But that meant, theologically, that in a lot of my writing and speaking and conferencing, both nationally and internationally, I was very irenic. It was all about consensus and peacebuilding and so forth. [For anyone who, like me, had to look this up: the OED defines ‘irenic’ as ‘Aiming or aimed at peace’.]

The thing that really surprised me in this role is that, freed from that institutional obligation, and probably just getting a bit older too, I’ve realised actually that there are a lot of things in the wider church that aren’t resolvable by large dollops of irenic discourse: we actually need a different voice.

I’ve actually come to focus much more on the kingdom of God and kingdom values than the institutional church. Pursuing the agenda of the kingdom is far more important than simply honouring and maintaining the institution, and I think that’s the only way to keep the institution honest, actually.


Emily: Is that possible do you think?

Martyn: I think it’s possible but it’s not easy for the church. I remember Richard Holloway saying, years ago, that in the war between Jesus and the Church, the Church is ahead on points, but it’s a war it won’t win. And what I think he was drawing attention to there was the fact that we very often put the institution above the wider needs.

The more the church tries to heal its divisions through being irenic the less relevant it becomes to the country. We’re here to serve the nation and actually you do that by simply laying out the values of the kingdom: they’re about justice, they’re about peace, they’re about integrity, they’re about equality, they’re about fairness, they’re about righteousness. And those are your guiding principles on gender, sexuality, child abuse, you name it. Those are it. And if you put the reputation and the integrity of the institution above those things, in the end you’re going to do serious damage to the institution and its public standing.

So the odd thing about this role that I currently occupy is that you can play your intellectual freedom card as a member of the University in a way that probably no other Cathedral Dean can.


[This is Part One of a two-part interview I conducted with Martyn. Part Two will go on to consider even more important questions like: Is it right that you are in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code? And will be published here next week.]