The meadows of Christ Church deserted during lockdown on April 03, 2020. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty)
Artillery Row

House divided

A view from Oxford: All is far from well at Christ Church

The Long Vacation is here, at last; not that it makes much physical difference this year. Teaching has come to an end—except for the medics whose courses were disrupted by the epidemic—and those with books to write must attend to their research. 

Rhodes Must Fall is still with us, at least until the end of the month. Its protests now take place on Fridays, with their net more widely cast. To date they have sprung up at the Pitt Rivers Museum, which houses the University’s anthropological collections, and at All Souls, with its intractable connections to Christopher Codrington and West Indian slavery. Further appearances are planned at the Botanical Gardens, and at Rhodes House. 

Rhodes Must Fall protestors outside Oriel College on June 9, 2020. (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

As the home of the eponymous scholarships, Rhodes House is an obvious target; the Botanical Gardens less so, unless plants are racist now. That said, the events of the last couple of months have demonstrated that anything can be deemed to be racist with a directed application of an agenda and the self-suppression of the necessary critical faculties. The protest planned for the last day of July brings the season full-circle and back to Oriel. 

A new bespoke chant of “no planning application, no peace” is less catchy than some of its predecessors

A new bespoke chant of “no planning application, no peace” is less catchy than some of its predecessors; it remains to be seen, with further loosening of lockdown and an improvement in the weather, whether the protests will carry on into August. Nevertheless we shall not be left without drama of a different kind; on the other side of Oriel Square a simmering cauldron of discontentment is about to come to a rolling boil. 

The Charity Commission has instructed that the Dean of Christ Church, Dr Martyn Percy, and the Governing Body of which he is supposed to be primus inter pares, are to enter into mediation. This comes after a war of attrition, now in its third year, which has seen Dr Percy be suspended and reinstated, seek damages from his own college, and lose a vote of no-confidence in his leadership by 38 votes to 2. 

For a head of house to lose such a vote so overwhelmingly in Governing Body and still refuse to resign takes considerable chutzpah; whether there is any appetite for mediation on either side remains to be seen. The College’s legal bill is thought to be in the region of £2 million; it is a drop in the ocean for Christ Church, whose total assets run into the hundreds of millions, but a fantastical sum to almost everyone else. 

The Charity Commission is “concerned that the very protracted and public dispute between the College’s governing body and its Dean is damaging to the reputation of the charity, and affecting its ability to govern itself”. It is, however, far from the only reputational risk that exists. In the last few months the fiasco has at times seemed little more than a backdrop for a series of other unfortunate happenings, which have ranged from the curious to the criminal. 

In March it was reported that the Christ Church cellars had been found to be missing dozens of cases of valuable vintage wine. The vanished stock was mainly Burgundy and Pouilly-Fuissé; those sticky-fingered oenophiles clearly had good taste. Almost immediately that was superseded by a burglary at the college’s Picture Gallery; three Old Master paintings, together worth several million pounds and including Van Dyck’s lovely Solider on Horseback, disappeared overnight. 

As if that weren’t enough, in the same period two eminent and senior Christ Church academics were the subject of serious police investigations. One case is ongoing; the other came to an end in June, when the immensely-distinguished Jan Joosten, the now-former Regius Professor of Hebrew, was jailed in France after having been convicted of the possession of 27,000 “images pédopornographiques”—an unhappy phrase that translates itself. 

The college now continues to be rocked by vehement allegations of structural and endemic racism made by a member of the Junior Common Room, Melanie Onovo, which she has disseminated widely on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube with varying degrees of coherence. If the overall wellbeing of a college may be measured by the general mood of its junior members and the tone of their public interactions with each other—and it often can—then the powers that be at Christ Church may well have cause for serious concern. 

That the Charity Commission has raised a question about Christ Church’s aptitude for self-governance will send a shudder across the University

That the Charity Commission has raised a question about Christ Church’s ongoing aptitude for self-governance will surely send a shudder across the University. The colleges pride themselves on their independence, and on their fellows’ ability to control their enormous assets without external interference—while enjoying the full benefit of their charitable status. Any scandal that causes one college’s dirty linen to be washed in public risks exposing the whole system to considerable and unwelcome scrutiny. 

As for Christ Church—how much more dirty linen can there possibly be?

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