Monday, 8 August 2011

Now is the time for Archbishop Nichols to end this disgrace

The battle between the Vaughan parents (who wish to retain an element of  input into the School's governance) and Westminster Diocese (who wish to impose autocratic rule without the benefit of Parent Governor counsel) now moves into its second year. Surely those in authority at Westminster must see that the honourable way for them to act is for them to do the right thing and allow the Vaughan Parents to have a say in the running of this excellent school (as is the norm at most decent schools).

The Cardinal Vaughan Action Group has circulated a press release on behalf of Professor Luke Gormally (no connection with the Vaughan's previous Headteacher) together with correspondence from Professor Gormally and Lord Lexden to Archbishop Nichols.

You may read the release and letters here:-

PRESS RELEASE.....................

An internationally-renowned Catholic academic has issued a strong rebuke to the Archbishop of Westminster over his treatment of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, where parents are involved in a bitter dispute with the Diocese of Westminster, trustees of the school.
Professor Luke Gormally’s comments come in a long and frank letter to Archbishop Vincent Nichols about the Vaughan School, one of the best performing comprehensives in the country.
The Professor, a distinguished bio-ethicist and a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, takes the Archbishop to task for refusing to allow parents of pupils in the school to be foundation governors, for deliberately reducing parents to an ineffective minority on the governing body and for imposing his own Director of Education, Paul Barber, as a school governor.
He says that if the Diocese wanted to encourage Catholic schools to provide a sound Catholic education, it would be “fostering the Vaughan model in other parts of the Diocese”. Instead, he says, it has “dismantled the kind of governance under which the Vaughan has flourished”.
The letter comes as pressure mounts on Archbishop Nichols to bring an end to the protracted row between parents at the Vaughan and the Diocese over the composition of the school’s governing body before a new Head is appointed in the autumn. The row is the subject of a legal case brought by the elected parent governors against the Diocese. It was also raised in the House of Lords in June by the Conservative peer, Lord Lexden. In response to Lord Lexden’s comments, the Government has said it will change the law so that in future there will be no doubt about the Diocese’s obligation to appoint parents with children in the school as foundation governors. But parents point out that this will not happen in time for the appointment of a new Head.
Professor Gormally goes on to say that the way the Archbishop is exercising his authority at the Vaughan is not supported by Church law, and that it flies in the face of the Pope’s own “communio” ecclesiology.
He argues that diocesan–imposed policies are encouraging the admission of children whose parents have little serious interest in their Catholic formation, but merely want to cash in on the school’s academic excellence.  And he says that loyalty to a bishop does not mean accepting a totalitarian uniformity in all things touching Catholic life.
Professor Gormally ends his letter by asking the Archbishop to consider whether using his authority to enforce diocesan education policy at the Vaughan is “truly an authentic exercise of episcopal authority, or whether it is not rather a ‘quenching of the spirit’ both in the lives of a precious group of Catholic parents serious about transmitting the faith and in the life of the Cardinal Vaughan School itself”.


18 June 2011

Dear Archbishop Nichols,

The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School

It is months since I wrote to you about the policy and actions of the Westminster Diocesan Education Service [WDES] in regard to the Vaughan School. You kindly replied, enclosing three documents, which you hoped I would be “good enough” to read. It has taken me some time to get round to giving them the attentive reading which I presumed they deserved. At the time your reply arrived I was preparing for a visit to the USA and since returning I have been fairly stretched editing a book-length manuscript for which I had a publisher’s deadline.

A careful reading of the documents Your Grace sent does not seem to provide the beginning of an answer to my earlier criticisms of WDES policy and actions in regard to the Vaughan School. To recall the essential points of criticism:
  • Catholic parents who are serious about encouraging their children’s growth in the knowledge of the truths of the Faith and in its practice have few Catholic schools to which they can send their children with confidence. The Vaughan School has proved to be exemplary in meeting their need. I contrasted my own local Catholic comprehensive school in which the present head of RE is a non-Catholic, and her immediate predecessor was an atheist. It is that kind of school that requires the close attention of Mr Paul Barber if the WDES is to be regarded as serious about providing an authentic Catholic education for the children of the diocese and not just accumulating accolades from OFSTED.
  • The exclusion of parents of current pupils from Governing Body positions which such parents have held in the past, and the deliberate reduction of parent Governors to an ineffective minority on the Governing Body, bids fair to destroy what was hitherto a key element in the success of the School: its close collaboration with parents which inspired great confidence in them and consequently in their children. The Vaughan Parents’ Action Group is not an unrepresentative body – it has very substantial support among parents. The recently reported refusal of the current Chairman of the Governing Body to meet them, allegedly on the orders of Bishop Stack, merely reinforces the message that parents are to be marginalised.

In response to these criticisms Your Grace sent me three documents:
    1. Your own letter to parents of 8 December 2010.
    2. Bishop Stack’s covering letter along with answers to ‘Some frequently asked questions’.
    3. Bishop Hopes’ talk on ‘Catholic Ethos’ given to CVMS staff.

I’ll comment first on Bishop Hopes’ talk, evidently composed in consultation with the WDES, both because it is the most substantial document and because it seeks to make a principled case for the kind of exercise of episcopal authority experienced by the Vaughan School by reference both to Canon Law and to a ‘communio’ ecclesiology. What support for that case can be found in those sources?

If one looks at the sequence of canons on Catholic education (793 and following) what is striking is that the roles they expect civil society and ecclesiastical authority to play are subordinate to the fundamental requirement stated in the first canon, 793, §1:
Parents, and those who take their place, have both the obligation and the right to educate their children. Catholic parents have also the duty and the right to choose those means and institutes which, in their local circumstances, can best promote the Catholic education of their children.
Catholic parents who take that duty seriously are now excluded by Diocesan policy from exercising the right to at least seek admission to the Vaughan for their children. The combination of confined catchment area and minimalist criteria of Catholicity has the effect of facilitating admission to the School of children of parents with no serious interest in the Catholic formation of their children and merely a desire to take advantage of the academic excellence of the School. That is no way to value the importance for the life of the Church of parents who take seriously their responsibility to educate their children in the Faith. Does Canon Law validate the exercise of episcopal authority to impose WDES policy? It is certainly the case that Can.803, §1 states that “A Catholic school is to be understood to be one which is under the control of the competent ecclesiastical authority …” and Can.803, §3 states that “No school, even if it is in fact Catholic, may bear the title ‘Catholic school’ except by the consent of the competent ecclesiastical authority”. But what is the point of this control? The answer seems pretty clear from Canons 804-806: it is to ensure the authenticity of the teaching of the Faith and the reliability of the teachers entrusted with that task. The exercise of episcopal authority in this area, therefore, has as its validating purpose that of securing the right of Catholic parents to have access to an authentic Catholic education for their children. How can it be legitimate to exercise that authority by blocking access to a school which is relatively rare in providing such an education? Surely the attention of authority would be more appropriately directed to those schools which are conspicuously failing qua Catholic schools.

What case can be made for the current exercise of episcopal authority in relation to the Vaughan in terms of a ‘communio’ ecclesiology, for which communion with the diocesan bishop is an essential requirement of communion in the Church – a consideration which you invoke in your letter to parents, as if it required submission to the WDES policy? Well, communion with the diocesan bishop does not mean submission to a totalitarian uniformity in all things touching Catholic life. Episcopal authority is most properly exercised to ensure the authentic teaching of the Catholic faith and the authentic celebration of the sacraments, in particular the Eucharist; so it is needed, for example and most importantly, to suppress any sacrilegious celebrations of the Eucharist. The following observations of one of the outstanding theologians of a ‘communio’ ecclesiology seem to me very apposite in relation to the Vaughan situation:
Like the pope, the bishop and the bishops’ conference ought to impose in their sphere only as much human law as is truly needed above and beyond the sacred law rooted in the sacramental principle. They, too, must beware of reduction to uniformity in their work as pastors. They, too, must hold to the rules prescribed by St Paul: ‘Do not extinguish the Spirit … test everything, retain what is good’ (I Th 5:19, 21). They, too, must not pursue uniformity in their pastoral planning but must leave room for the doubtless often troublesome multiplicity of God’s gifts – always, of course, under the criterion of unity of faith. No more human forms ought to be added to this criterion than are required for peaceable living and harmonious co-existence. [Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Called to Communion. Understanding the Church Today (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), pp.100-101.]
God’s gift of the Vaughan School as it flourished in close collaboration with parents and parent Governors may not fit the prevailing ideology of the WDES; no plausible case has yet been made in terms of a ‘communio’ ecclesiology for the exercise of episcopal authority to impose dismantling of the kind of governance under which the Vaughan flourished. If the WDES had its sights set on encouraging Catholic schools to provide a sound Catholic education it would be fostering the Vaughan model in other parts of the diocese.

Your Grace’s assurances in your letter to parents of your confidence that the present Governing Body of the School is committed to maintaining its Catholic character and academic, musical and sporting excellence are bound to ring somewhat hollow for many of those parents. The transformation that has been wrought in the Governing Body has had the effect of marginalising what has been a central factor in the School’s past success: the collaboration of parents. Moreover, the selection of Foundation Governors has resulted in the election of a Chairman of Governors who already chairs the Governing Body of a school which manifestly fails to attract as a Catholic school. It also appears significant that, at one point, the new Governing Body declined to consider, among others, applicants from the present staff of the School for appointment as Headmaster. This looks like further evidence of the desire to destroy the ethos of the School, since those applicants would possess a valuable inwardness with its ethos and traditions.

I shall omit consideration of Bishop Stack’s letter and its attachment: they don’t begin to address in adequate terms the fundamental questions raised in this letter, which concern the proper exercise of the pastoral authority of a bishop. I beg Your Grace to consider whether the invocation of your authority to enforce what the WDES has done and is doing at the Vaughan truly is an authentic exercise of episcopal authority or whether it is not rather a ‘quenching of the Spirit’ both in the lives of a precious group of Catholic parents serious about transmitting the faith (God knows, such parents do not exist in vast numbers in the diocese) and in the life of the Cardinal Vaughan School.

With the renewed promise of my prayers for your ministry and with all good wishes,

Yours respectfully and sincerely,

Luke Gormally.


4th August 2011

Your Grace

I am one of a very large number of people - Protestants as well as Catholics - who are deeply distressed by the crisis that has brought the Westminster Diocese into heart-rending conflict with so many parents and pupils at The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School. I am an Anglican and therefore have no family connections with the school, but I have long admired it for its remarkable achievements.

After reflecting carefully on the issues at the centre of this terrible crisis , I felt that I had to give my support to the Vaughan Parents' Action Group. I am now one of the Group's patrons.

In June, I spoke in the House of Lords about the need for action to safeguard the legitimate interests of parents with children at the school. Shortly afterwards, the Government made clear that it intended to amend the law.
The change will require those responsible for those appointing parents as Foundation Governors to choose them from among parents who have children at the school. Only if that is impossible for some reason will other parents be eligible for consideration.

The Diocese now has a great opportunity to heal the wounds inflicted during the protracted dispute. It could do this by anticipating what is to come and nominating two current parents as Foundation Governors immediately.
Even more effective in the healing process would be a declaration by the Diocese that, during the forthcoming selection procedures to find a new Head, its nominees will work to find a concensus that unites the Governing Body as a whole, ending this sad period of division and bitterness unworthy of a  Christian institution.

I hope you will be able to respond positively to these proposals which I intend to raise in Parliament in due course. In view of the widespread public interest in making rapid progress in the governance of this outstanding school, I  intend to release this letter to the press on 8 August. I am also sending a copy to the Secretary of State for Education.


Alistair Lexden

What more can be said other than it is long overdue for Westminster to issue an apology and to agree to the parents' requests gracefully.

Failure to comply will only result in more scandal for the Church, disaffected Catholics throughout the country and a resounding defeat for the Archbishop. No one wants that; but they do want their legitimate rights.


  1. When I saw the title I thought this post was going to be about the 'Soho Masses'!

    Let me just say that I am not edified by Archbishop Nichols' behaviour or actions in the case of the Vaughan, or of Soho. But he has told me to 'hold my tongue' on that second issue. So I will be quiet for the time being.
    But I tell you, if this man gets a cardinals's hat at the next consistory I will be glad to go to my grave and not have to live through the results.

  2. Jane - yes, the title would fit both situations....I cannot even begin to comment on the Soho Masses (as yet).
    God bless.

  3. I fear the problem is that Archbishop Nichols is a weak man. Such people, in my experience, stick obstinately to a decision which flies in the face of facts and evidence because . . . they are afraid of appearing to be weak.

  4. Professor Gormally's comment, "If the WDES had its sights set on encouraging Catholic schools to provide a sound Catholic education it would be fostering the Vaughan model in other parts of the diocese" reminds me of remarks made by Sir Malcom Rifkind, MP for Kensington, at last year's Vaughan Speech Day, "If only we could identify what makes this school so successful, we could replicate it everywhere." This raised a hollow laugh from the audience, who thought the only reason why the Diocese might want to know what makes the School so successful would be in order to put a stop to it.

    Nearly twenty years ago, Cardinal Hume was involved in a similarly lengthy and unhappy dispute with the School's parents, at the end of which, he celebrated Mass in the School. During his homily, he told the School community, "You were right, and I was wrong." They loved him for it.

    We must pray for a similar outcome to this sad episode.