Oxford college appoints first female dean in 500 years

Rev Canon Professor Sarah Foot

A University of Oxford college will be led by a female Dean for the first time in its 500-year history as it attempts to move on from a damaging feud with its former head.

Christ Church college, which counts WH Auden and 13 British prime ministers among its alumni, will be headed by Rev Canon Prof Sarah Foot from July. Her appointment was approved by King Charles on the recommendation of Rishi Sunak.

The professor of ecclesiastical history will serve as Dean until an independent review of the College's governance is completed.

She succeeds the Very Rev Martyn Percy, who left his post last April after he was accused of scandalous behaviour, unsound judgment, mental incapacity and sexual harassment during a four-year battle with the college’s governing body.

In one episode in the saga, Dr Percy was accused of stroking a woman’s hair for 10 seconds in a secluded part of Christ Church Cathedral.

He denied all of the allegations.

The college spent more than £6.6 million in legal fees and public relations costs in the four-year dispute with the former Dean, whose supporters claim he was the victim of a vendetta by Christ Church’s governing body.

Dr Percy has said that during his prolonged dispute with the college he suffered a breakdown and “came close” to considering suicide. He left after the college agreed to a substantial payoff.

Last year, the Charity Commission accused the college, which has charitable status, of “mismanagement” and “misconduct” as it revealed the scale of the spending on its action against Dr Percy.

The Commission found that the trustees “failed to manage the charity’s resources responsibly”.

In response, a spokesman for Christ Church said:  “In very complex and constantly changing circumstances, trustees made decisions which, having taken professional advice, they judged to be in the best interests of Christ Church.

“Many of the costs were incurred as a result of Dr Percy’s refusal to settle with a governing body which had lost trust and confidence in him.”

The college has commissioned an independent governance review, led by Rt Hon Dominic Grieve KC, which is ongoing.

Prof Foot plans to serve as Dean until any governance changes are implemented, which Christ Church said was likely to be a “lengthy process”. Any changes to governance and statutes of Christ Church will require the approval of the university, the Church of England, the Privy Council and Parliament.

The college said that a new leader will then take Christ Church forward under new statutes.

Prof Foot is an expert on women in religion, medieval monasticism and the early history of the Church of England. She is currently working on a study of the life and work of the Venerable Bede.

Served as deputy

The Cambridge-educator professor has been Acting Head of House at Christ Church since Dr Percy left last April. She has been the Censor Theologiae since September 2021 and in that capacity has been the chair of the college's governing body and has served as deputy in the Dean’s absence.

Commenting on her new appointment, she said: “Together, we must make a success of the governance review process and see through changes that will be necessary when it’s complete. This work is vital. It will give our colleagues the structures that they need to do what matters most to all of us: offering teaching and research, and a Cathedral liturgy, of the highest quality.”

Christ Church is made up of both the Cathedral of the Diocese of Oxford and a constituent college of the University of Oxford. The Dean chairs both the governing body and Chapter of Christ Church and is responsible with the governing body for the college and with the Chapter for the running of Christ Church Cathedral.

Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford, said: “I’m delighted to welcome Sarah’s appointment as Dean of Christ Church in this key period in the life of the College and the Cathedral following her long tenure as one of our four Canon Professors in the Cathedral.

“Sarah combines a distinguished career as an historian, a deep personal faith and reservoirs of wisdom from her experience of leadership of Christ Church in recent months.”

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