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Wine, women and evensong: Claims that rocked cathedral

Yesterday's announcement that the Dean of Ripon is to resign brings to an end five years of bitterness at one of Yorkshire's great churches. Religious Affairs Correspondent Michael Brown reports.

IT IS the country's oldest cathedral, but never in its 1100-year history has it seen such division.

For almost five years, Ripon Cathedral was in turmoil as an unholy row raged about the figure of the Very Rev John Alan Robert Methuen.

There were resignations, complaints about his autocratic style, and, worst of all, allegations of excessive drinking and inappropriate behaviour towards women.

That such accusations should have been levelled at a figure as senior as the Dean of Ripon was extraordinary; that they should have left the mother church of the Diocese of Ripon and Leeds so bruised was grievous.

The heartache that beset Ripon Cathedral and led to the downfall of Dean Methuen was made all the more poignant because of the warmth which which he had been welcomed on his arrival in 1995.

Here was a man with a 24-year career behind him in Oxford, Eton, Reading and Manchester, where he had become something of a hero for his sheltering of an asylum seeker.

For almost two years Dean Methuen gave sanctuary in his church to Viraj Mendis, an illegal immigrant from Sri Lanka. The affair ended when police raided the church and Mendis was hauled from the building as he screamed "murderers". He was eventually returned to Sri Lanka but never executed as he had feared.

So when Dean Methuen arrived at Ripon with his wife, Bridget, he appeared to be a figure of genuine stature, hailed by the then Bishop of Ripon David Young, who said: "His range of experience and commitment to liturgy, spirituality and social issues will be a strength both to the rural and urban areas of this diocese."

It was all to go horribly wrong. Senior officials began to complain of Dean Methuen's "autocratic" behaviour, his inability to work as one of a team, his penchant for wanting things his own way. And then the resignations started.

There were ultimately five. First to leave was Robert Lambie, clerk to the chapter, the body that runs the cathedral. Then Nigel Clay, the bursar, left. After that Howard Crawshaw, the successor to Mr Lambie as chapter clerk, went. Next to quit was organist Kerry Beaumont. His successor was Simon Morley, who left after only six months.

It was in the autumn of 2001 that Mr Clay resigned, admitting to "tensions" between him and Dean Methuen having some influence on his decision to move on. Mr Beaumont, organist for seven years, bitingly said of Dean Methuen: "If the Church of England has let a man like him get this far up the hierarchy I really wonder if I'm in the right organisation."

But from his impressive vicarage only yards from the troubled cathedral, the dean spoke blithely about being "astonished and saddened" by all the criticism.

Still, though, the tensions continued. An erstwhile member of the cathedral council said: "John Methuen is in the wrong job. He ought to be something like a film actor. He's not a team player. He's used to getting his own way."

And then Bishop of Ripon and Leeds John Packer stepped in, though diplomatically. He disclosed: "I have discussed certain allegations with Dean Methuen but there has been no outcome to our discussions."

The bishop wanted the dean to go. The dean refused to go. And the bishop was powerless to make him go, because he enjoyed freehold.

The dean's critics were many. But there were some friends. One was former canons' verger at the cathedral, Alistair Betts, who, in a letter to Bishop Packer said Dean Methuen was a man of "energy, vision and integrity".

Mr Betts told the Yorkshire Post "There is a witch-hunt against the dean."

Early in 2002, Bishop Packer set up a high-powered trio of troubleshooters, charged with the task of restoring harmony. The three were the then Bishop of Knaresborough Frank Weston, now deceased, the then Dean of York Raymond Furnell, now retired, and layman Alastair Thompson, a member of the diocesan board of finance.

The trio interviewed many people, including the dean's critics, and their verdict was damning. A diocesan insider said: "They have come to the conclusion that the only way that peace can break out at the cathedral is for the dean to resign."

And ask him to resign they did. But the dean obdurately refused and went about his duties as though nothing untoward was happening. Bishop Packer would only say: "I very much hope we can find a way to resolve the current difficulties without anyone resigning."

It was then that he invited written comments, to lead to a holding of the bishop's court – the Consistory Court – to try Dean Methuen on charges of conduct unbecoming a clerk in holy orders. Some of those 150 written comments were to become sworn affidavits.

Late in 2002 the Prince of Wales visited Ripon to receive the freedom of the city. To avoid embarrassing the prince, the main players agreed to "bury the hatchet".

But hostilities were soon resumed. Only days later, Methuen was bluntly told to quit his 28,000-a-year post or face trial.

The ultimatum was delivered by "a most senior figure in the Church of England", sources told the Yorkshire Post.

John Methuen maintained his silence even in the face of this development.

The row rumbled on for months more before Bishop Packer exploded a bombshell. He announced in September 2004 that he was suspending the dean and that, subject to a careful examination of the affidavits by an independent assessor, he would go on trial on "conduct unbecoming" charges.

This time, Dean Methuen broke his silence, though only through a terse statement put out through Bishop Packer's office, saying: "The dean is clear that he has a full answer to the complaints".

When it became certain he was to go on trial, he said he was "entirely innocent" and intended "strenuously" to defend himself.

In the months after being suspended Dean Methuen has remained at the deanery and received full pay for doing nothing. The cathedral has been run by Canon Michael Glanville-Smith, the senior residentiary canon.

In January this year the Yorkshire Post exclusively revealed the nature of the allegations that would be made against Methuen in court. Of the 21 counts, "a number" related to inappropriate behaviour towards women and excessive drinking. "It's a case of wine and women", said an insider.

It made me

lose faith in

the Church

Michael Brown

A FORMER leading layman of Ripon Cathedral spoke sadly last night of John Methuen being instrumental in destroying his faith in the Church of England.

The sorrowful reflection came from Robert Lambie, now 67, who from 1989 until 1998 was clerk to the chapter, the cathedral's governing body. The position meant he was virtually the top lay manager of the mother church of the diocese of Ripon and Leeds, an area which, as well as Leeds, covers a central third of North Yorkshire.

Mr Lambie, who worked with John Methuen for three years, speaking exclusively to the Yorkshire Post, said: "A few months before he came in 1995 we had had difficulties with the debate over the ordination of women and one of the canons resigned over the possibility of women priests.

"We were all hoping for a new and united beginning with a new dean. Sadly, after a few weeks, it became evident that this was not to be.

"It seemed that John Methuen found difficulty in accepting that the canons should have an equal say in the running of the cathedral just as Christopher Campling, the previous dean, and all the canons had had an equal say."

That caused a great deal of internal friction, said Mr Lambie, and the friction frequently showed itself at chapter meetings.

"The meetings sometimes bordered on acrimony. An example of what caused the difficulties was the dean's 'domino' proposals for the cathedral. His plan was to reorganise the cathedral layout.

"One part of the idea was to move the treasury downstairs to the choir practice rooms and so cause the choir to move upstairs into the library.

"This met with opposition on the grounds of both costs and what was seen as the unsuitability of the library for the choir.

"But John pegged away at it for a long time, though he never got his way. And when he couldn't get his way he tended to remind chapter of his illnesses. He had had a new liver for some months and had been very ill.

"So now and again he would remind the chapter of his illnesses and ask how they could treat an ill man in that way. It was only a matter of time before he made himself less than popular not only with the chapter but also with the minor canons, the organist, and other members of the cathedral lay staff, including myself."

Mr Lambie went on: "All these people – professional people, all graduates, all decent and honourable people wanting to do their best for the cathedral – felt hampered in some way by the dean's presence, so much so that four of us felt the need to resign and move on.

"There was first myself, then Howard Crawshaw who was my assistant and became by successor. Then there was Nigel Clay, the cathedral bursar, and Kerry Beaumont, the organist. For myself, I was disillusioned and saddened. I had had a grandfather and an uncle who were priests, and I had been attending church from a very early age.

"Since my experience at Ripon Cathedral I do not feel able to support another Anglican community. I have actually stopped going to church.

"I have not lost my faith in God – but I have lost it in institutionalised Christianity."

Prayers for unity

and a new start

Brian Dooks

SPECIAL prayers were said in Ripon Cathedral last night for the Dean and his wife, Bridget.

Acting Dean, Canon Michael Glanville-Smith, also included prayers for those who were prepared to be witnesses if Dean Methuen's trial had gone ahead.

During evening prayers, Canon Glanville-Smith expressed his hope thatthe cathedral community would be generous and move forward together.

Earlier, only minutes after hearing the outcome in Leeds, the canon said it had been a sad and testing time: "I am very, very grateful that the Cathedral can now move on with much more certainty and a sense of optimism for the future."

Canon Glanville-Smith said he was enormously relieved that the outcome had avoided the need for public exposure.

"It also enables the Dean to begin to make preparations for the next phase of his life," he added.

 
 
 

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