Allegations of Bullying and Financial Mismanagement in the Scottish Episcopal Church

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Up till now I have avoided writing anything about the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) in this blog.  I still have personal contacts with that Church having worked as a Rector in a congregation (charge) on the edge of Edinburgh for 7½ years.   In many ways these were the happiest years of my ministry. Having returned to England in retirement, I have wanted to retain the fantasy that things such as bullying and safeguarding problems did not happen in Scotland.  When a problem arose last year in the diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney, linked to possible power abuse, I hoped in vain that the issue would quickly go away.  I was keen to believe that the saga could be resolved in a way that would not disturb my idealised memories of the SEC.

On Saturday last, the 11th of June, the Scottish edition of The Times carried a story which brought up-to-date news of the ongoing saga of Bishop Anne Dyer, the SEC Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney. In summary, the diocese of Aberdeen has been troubled for some time by stories of alleged bullying and abuses of power by the bishop. Bishop Dyer, who had been Warden of Cranmer Hall Durham, was appointed Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney in 2018. The appointment had been complicated by the fact that the normal protocols for choosing a bishop by election had failed to produce an agreed candidate.  In such a situation the choice is left to the College of seven Scottish bishops. Up to this point no woman had ever been selected for the office of Bishop in the SEC and there were among the clergy of the diocese a number who objected to such an appointment. The problems that have arisen subsequently are apparently nothing to do with the gender of the bishop but with her management style. Scottish Episcopal dioceses are, by English standards, extremely small (Aberdeen has 48 churches and around 25 clergy).  Clergy and bishops meet up far more often would be the case in England. If there are any personal difficulties or clashes, they will become disruptive very quickly.

The immediate cause of a dysfunction in the diocese related to the state of disrepair at St Andrew’s Cathedral in Aberdeen. Without going into overmuch detail, the bishop decided that she would nominate another church in Aberdeen to be a pro-Cathedral, pending some long-term resolution of what should happen to the cathedral building. The whole question of how to merge clergy and congregations seems to have been poorly handled.  Great resentment was generated among various stakeholders, including the musicians at both churches. Bishop Dyer’s people skills seem not to have been of the highest and the whole confrontation became serious and very public.  One respected senior clergyman in the diocese had his licence removed by the bishop. When this crisis spilled over into the wider church, the College of Bishops asked Professor Iain Torrance to conduct an enquiry and make recommendations as to what should be done. Iain Torrance is a highly respected figure in church and Scottish circles and has acted as Moderator of the Church of Scotland.  The report, published in a digest form, seems thorough and professional. One comparison we might make with similar reports in England is that the whole exercise was completed in a few months and the SEC received Torrance’s services without charge.  In summary, Torrance concluded that the evidence pointed to the conclusion that Bishop Dyer should be urged to stand down because her position as bishop was ‘irrecoverable’. 

The College of Bishops now found itself in a dilemma. Should they accept this report and encourage Bishop Dyer to retire or should they ignore the report and seek some other way forward?   It seems that the bishops have placed the Torrance report into a pending file.  Earlier this year, the College asked a group of three mediators to try and solve the breakdown of communication between Bishop Dyer and some members of her diocese. Meanwhile the Bishop seems to be working, but the Torrance report hanging over her must lessen her authority.  The College of Bishops are in a difficult situation. If the mediation effort that they have set up fails, what other options of resolving this problem are left to them?  As in England, bishops are authorities to themselves and there is no other legal authority able to force Bishop Dyer to retire.  We need also to remember that it was difficult to find a suitable candidate for bishop last time.  Next time, after these ‘local difficulties’, it will be still harder to find an acceptable candidate. The College of Bishops relate to one another as equals.  No individual possesses the authority to tell one of their number what to do. Bishop Mark Strange of Moray, Ross and Caithness is the current Primus. His status is that of first among equals, primus inter pares. He does not have the role or authority of an Archbishop

The new information published by the Saturday Times adds another dimension to the story and puts further pressure on Bishop Dyer, and indeed on the College of Bishops. The reported story relates how a lawyer called Peter Murray working in a legal firm called Ledingham Chalmers, took on work for the bishop and the diocese.  The story reminds us of the way that sometimes bishops in England, under some sort of pressure or challenges to their authority resort to expensive legal options. The diocese of Aberdeen is, of course, tiny by English standards. Also with each charge responsible for paying and housing its clergy, the sums for which the diocese is responsible are probably small.  Without having any figures in front of me, I am guessing that the annual total budget for a diocese in Scotland would seldom exceed £250k.  In the years before Bishop Dyer’s appointment in 2018 in, the diocese typically spent £3k a year in legal fees. The Times story centres around the fact that, since Bishop Dyer’s appointment, the diocese of Aberdeen has spent £120k on lawyers at Ledingham Chalmers. Peter Murray, the lawyer named as receiving this largesse, is also a trustee of the diocese and a personal friend and supporter of Bishop.  It would appear reasonable to suppose that the vast increase of expenditure was directly connected to the litigious environment that Bishop Dyer’s management style has created.  There seem to have been no checks and balances to challenge the way that this money was being expended.  Readers of this blog will be familiar with the theme of charitable money being spent to preserve and protect the personal/professional interests of individual bishops and their circle.

In retelling this story about the SEC and the way that, once again, charitable money ends up in the pockets of well to do lawyers protecting institutional interests and reputations, one has a sense of sadness. Lawyers do have a part to play in church management and administration, but one weeps for any situation where churches or dioceses are paying out large sums to legal personnel who fail to observe the highest standards of ethical behaviour.  The problems in Aberdeen have now been compounded to a point where it is hard to see how this particular story will have a happy ending.  The College of Bishops have placed their trust in a mediation process which will now be more difficult to resolve in the light of these new revelations of financial mismanagement. The Scottish equivalent of the Charity Commission will no doubt be involved, and an investigation ordered.  Once again, we will have the unedifying spectacle of a report which will show how the charitable contributions of the faithful have been allowed to pass into the hands of lawyers without any obvious benefit for the public good.

I write this blog post with a sense of sadness and disappointment. Whenever a scandal, sexual or financial, breaks there is always a weakening of trust in the institution involved.  The Church of England has seen a steady loosening of trust towards its leaders over recent years. When trust is weakened in this way, the strength and integrity of the whole institution is lessened.  I wish I could see a positive outcome for the present SEC crisis. What we really require is some strong inspirational and  decisive leadership. This is also required for the Church of England.  It is currently hard to see where this will come from. It certainly is not much in evidence at the present time.