Dean of Oxford college steps aside in long-running dispute

The head of a prestigious Oxford college has stepped aside in the latest twist in a long-running battle over his position.

The Very Rev Martyn Percy, the dean of Christ Church, voluntarily withdrew from all his duties after a new, unspecified complaint was made against him. It is understood not to be related to earlier complaints.

His allies said Percy, who is head of both the college and the cathedral, had stepped aside because of “intolerable pressure” over more than two years.

One said: “Martyn and the college have agreed not to comment on the present situation. Martyn has not resigned and is confident that he will return to his duties in the new year.”

Percy was suspended as dean in 2018 after he was accused of behaviour of an “immoral, scandalous or disgraceful nature” – the wording of the college’s statutes under which a dean can be removed.

The dean’s supporters claimed that a small group within the governing body was determined to remove him from his post because of his efforts to modernise the way the 474-year-old college was run. Percy’s detractors insisted the acrimonious dispute originated in the dean’s attempts to secure a pay rise.

The college hired Sir Andrew Smith, a retired high court judge, to chair an internal tribunal on the dispute. Smith dismissed the complaints against Percy and ordered his reinstatement.

The dispute has cost the college, a charitable body, at least £2m in legal fees. The college is also thought to have lost millions in cancelled bequests and donations.

In June the Charity Commission said: “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.”

Two months later the Church of England exonerated Percy after investigating claims that he had failed to deal properly with sexual abuse allegations.

Percy is taking the college to an employment tribunal. The case is due to be heard next year.

A statement from Christ Church sent this week to staff and students at the college and cathedral school, and to the cathedral congregation, said: “The dean of Christ Church, the Very Revd Martyn Percy, has voluntarily withdrawn with immediate effect from all duties and pastoral responsibilities in his role as dean of the college and cathedral.

“Christ Church will not be commenting further whilst necessary inquiries are under way. The Charity Commission and relevant Church of England authorities are being kept fully informed.”

The C of E said the bishop of Oxford had agreed that Percy would step back from office while a complaint was properly considered.

The dean’s allies have said Percy is the victim of a witch-hunt by a governing body that acts like a “medieval fiefdom”.

Christ Church was founded by Henry VIII in 1546. It is the alma mater of 13 prime ministers, 10 chancellors of the exchequer and 17 archbishops. Among its former students are King Edward VII, Lewis Carroll and WH Auden. It is one of Oxford’s richest colleges, with funds of more than £500m.

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