YORK MINSTER’S BELLRINGERS CALL FOR AN INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION
York Minster Society of Change Ringers – Update 30 October 2016
YORK MINSTER’S BELLRINGERS CALL FOR AN INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION
There has been a lot of media coverage since the York Minster bellringers were summoned to a meeting on Tuesday October 11th to “hear about changes to the way Chapter manages bell ringing at York Minster”. At that meeting 5 minutes were allowed for questions and answers. One of the questions asked was whether the sacking of the bellringers had anything to do with a safeguarding issue involving a former member of the band, and the answer to that question was an unequivocal “No”. The Dean subsequently made two public broadcasts outlining concerns relating to health and safety and autonomy of the bellringers. There has been much speculation on these topics, and the purpose of this update is to describe to a non-ringing audience how bellringing was run at York Minster, and to allay the concerns of Chapter and the Archbishop via questions and answers.
Bellringing is a national voluntary activity. How is it organised?
There is a national organisation called the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers (CCCBR) which meets annually. Bellringers organise themselves into county / university associations and guilds, all of whom send representatives to the annual conference. Groups of ringers representing individual churches and cathedrals are affiliated to the county guilds and associations. Representatives of the CCCBR and the Yorkshire Association of Change Ringers are meeting with the Dean of York in November.
York Minster Society of Change Ringers (YMSCR) was described by the Dean as an “autonomous organisation”. How was it organised and in what way was it accountable to Chapter?
Ringing at York Minster was organised and run by the YMSCR operating under a constitution agreed with Chapter. All the York Minster bellringers were volunteers. The posts of Ringing Master and Deputy Ringing Master were appointed directly by Chapter. When a vacancy arose in either of these posts the ringers were able to propose a successor to Chapter. All other officers were elected annually by the members and submitted to Chapter for ratification. Chapter therefore had the opportunity to veto any elections which they considered to be unsuitable. The bellringers held an Annual General Meeting at which members of Chapter and the York Minster Manager of Volunteers were present.
How were communications between Chapter and the Bellringers managed?
All members of YMSCR were part of the York Minster community of volunteers. General communications from York Minster to volunteers were usually by email. There were also meetings at which volunteers could be briefed. The York Minster bellringing team had a dedicated chaplain. Canon Peter Moger, the Precentor, fulfilled that role in recent years. In addition, Peter Moger visited the ringing chamber 3-4 times a year on Sunday mornings and led the belfry prayers for the ringers. In between such visits, the belfry prayers were led by the ringers themselves.
How did people join the York Minster bellringing team? Was the team sufficiently diverse?
The bells at York Minster are very heavy, ranging in weight from ½ ton to 3 tons. The weight makes the bells hard for learners. Raw recruits expressing an interest in joining the team would typically be directed to a local parish church where they could learn the rudiments of bell-ringing and therefore most new members joining the team had learnt to ring elsewhere. The main requirement for membership was commitment to practices and Sunday service ringing. Elected members of the YMSCR included young and old (aged from 11 to 70), male and female and from a cross section of society. There were several student members and a number of young families. Bellringing practices were organised so that individuals could develop their skills and learn to work as a team.
York Minster bellringing has been described as being in the control of two families. Is that really the case?
The short answer is “No”. The two families referred to make up only a small minority of the team. Elections were always free and fair, and subject to open discussion. Ringing is a great all-age activity for families to take part in and it is common practice in any parish church or Cathedral to find several members of the same family in the bell-ringing team.
In addition to calling people to worship, what other ministries did the bellringers perform on behalf of York Minster?
The two main purposes of the bells were to call people to worship and to let the wider community know that worship was being conducted at York Minster. In addition, the York Minster bellringers performed outreach on behalf of York Minster by giving guided talks and demonstrations of bellringing, and by welcoming members of the York Minster Community into the bell tower to celebrate New Year. The Archbishop of York visited the York Minster bellringers in 2006. The Dean has turned down three such invitations and has never met the York Minster bellringing team.
The bells at York Minster are unusually heavy yet a high standard of bellringing has been built and maintained there for 40 years. How was this achieved?
York Minster bells are not easy to ring. By focussing on standards and with a huge amount of practice and determination, the York Minster team were gradually able to establish themselves as one of the best in the area. In addition, teamwork was encouraged through entry of regional and national bellringing competitions. This involved extra practices and broadening of experience by ringing at other churches and cathedrals. The York Minster ringers are current holders of the White Rose Shield, presented to the winners of the Yorkshire 12 bell competition. The Minster bellringers have been regular entrants (and twice winners) in the National 12 Bell Competition. It is unclear whether York Minster will be able to enter the 2017 National 12 Bell Competition.
Bellringers have been described as being “able to come and go as they pleased at York Minster”. How was access to the tower controlled?
Access to the ringing tower is controlled by key. Before each ringing session the York Minster Police issued the key and recorded the name of the person drawing the key and its return. There is a numbered keypad at the foot of the tower so that late arrivals could enter the tower by tapping in the relevant code. Access to more remote areas, e.g. the bells themselves, was controlled by the Grand Master key, which was only issued if the bells were “down”. This was done if a bell rope needed changing or muffles for Remembrance Sunday needed fitting (for example), and could not be issued to lone individuals. In the ringing chamber an attendance register was completed, together with a daily sheet for Chapter where people signed in on arrival and out on exit. It was usual for individual visitors to contact the Secretary or the Ringing Master in advance so that their arrival was expected. Permission for complete visiting bands was always sought via the Minster authorities.
What safeguarding measures were in place to ensure that all vulnerable youngsters and adults were protected?
A comprehensive safeguarding policy, written by Chapter in consultation with the bellringers, was adhered to at all times. All YMSCR officers were DBS checked. Young ringers were always accompanied by their parents. In addition there were 3 cameras in the ringing chamber which gave complete video coverage of bellringing activity to the Minster Police.
Bellringers have been described as challenging the authority of Chapter when asked to implement new Health & Safety and Safeguarding measures. Is this the case?
The York Minster bellringers always took Health & Safety and Safeguarding extremely seriously, with some of the best practice to be found in ringing anywhere. That sometimes involved questioning the wording of policy amendments or seeking additional clarification but never disregarding Chapter’s authority as has been stated. If Chapter had any concerns the bellringers were always – and still are – ready to discuss these with them.
So if it is now about safeguarding and the YMSCR have always implemented the Chapter policies for safeguarding, health and safety and security, why were the bellringers sacked on 11 October?
The Archbishop of York subsequently said in his statement on Monday 17th October that “Some members of the York Minster Society of Change Ringers have consistently challenged the Chapter’s authority on this and other important matters.” It is true that some of the ringers have grave misgivings about the way the Minster and Statutory Authorities handled an investigation into one of the bellringers which led to his permanent suspension from the team. The investigation began in 2014. Having politely expressed these misgivings in writing to Chapter they received letters in reply stating that “Chapter decided that the exclusion from bell-ringing activities must remain in place … Chapter has made its decision, its decision is final, and the matter is now closed”.
Within three weeks, and with no further representations from the bellringers, the entire team of bellringers was sacked. The bellringers can only assume that Chapter regarded any such questioning, however reasonable, as a challenge to their authority. Furthermore, the sacking sends out a very clear message that Chapter does not trust the bellringers to ensure the observance of safeguarding procedures. This questioning of the integrity of so many highly educated professional people is both damaging to their reputations and is completely without foundation.
Chapter stated that the matter was closed, but the Archbishop said there was an ongoing investigation. Which is correct?
The bellringers were sent a letter by Canon Peter Moger stating that “the matter is closed”. No member of the bellringing team has been informed by the Dean and Chapter of any ongoing investigation.
So what misgivings did some of the bellringers have about the handling of the investigation?
The misgivings can be summarised as follows:
(1) The ringer has never been told officially what the safeguarding concerns were
(2) The children involved all have parents who are members of the bellringing team. These parents were never consulted about the concerns, remain fully supportive of the ringer in question and are naturally very distressed that their children have been used in pursuit of the investigation
(3) Key decision-making meetings have taken place without the ringer being allowed any representation
(4) An independent risk assessment had been instigated and agreed to by the ringer, however, this was abandoned with no reason given.
(5) The permanent exclusion from ringing is an extreme measure to take given that the ringer has no convictions, cautions or any civil findings against him despite two separate police investigations
What investigations have taken place in the past and what was the outcome?
In 1999 allegations were made against the then Ringing Master of York Minster. Police investigated the matter and in early 2000 the Crown Prosecution Service decided that no further action should be taken. Current members of YMSCR who were in the band at the time (including family members) were not aware of any wrong-doing and the allegations at the time came as a complete shock. Most members of the current YMSCR team have joined the band since 2000 and therefore have no direct knowledge of the investigation in 1999. In 2014 concerns were raised against the same individual. Again, no members of YMSCR (including family members of the individual) have ever had cause to raise any safeguarding concerns themselves. In December 2015 a police application for a Sexual Risk Order was dismissed in court and costs were awarded against the police. However, the individual was permanently excluded from all ringing activities at the Minster in August 2016 with no explanation given.
But in this day and age, if concerns have been raised, surely Chapter had to act?
Yes of course. However, many of the ringers consider that a far less punitive, but equally effective outcome could have been achieved. There are examples from other dioceses where even ringers with convictions continue ringing with appropriate safeguards in place. In this case, there are no such convictions but a total and permanent ban has been imposed, which is disproportionate and lacks natural justice.
Did any of the York Minster bellringers raise any official complaints about the handling of the investigation?
Yes. In early 2016, an official complaint was raised by three of the bellringers, including a parent of some of the children. The complaint was sent to the Independent Chair of Safeguarding for the Diocese of York, who confirmed in writing that “the complaint would be investigated independently by a panel including a Dean of another cathedral and a safeguarding officer from a separate diocese”. No such investigation ever happened, and after much chasing the complainants were informed in early October 2016 that “York Minster now has a complaints procedure in place in order to address your complaint”.
In other words the complaint about York Minster’s handling of the matter is to be investigated by York Minster itself.
Have the complaints been addressed?
The bellringers do not feel at all confident that the complaints will be addressed. They feel very strongly that an independent investigation into the whole matter is the only fair way forward.