Visitor farewell

24th June 2013

News, Alumni news

On the retirement of the Wadham College Visitor, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Emeritus Fellow, Jeffrey Hackney, considers the coming months.

  • Wadham's retiring Visitor, The Bishop of Bath and Wells, Rt. Revd. Peter Price with wife Dee

    Wadham's retiring Visitor, The Bishop of Bath and Wells, Rt. Revd. Peter Price with wife Dee

Peter Price has served this College well since his appointment in 2001 both in his hospitality in Wells and his willingness, subject to the huge demands of his job, to be here to support us whenever he was called upon.

Jeffrey Hackney

In a somewhat despondent opening to Statute 23 of our original statutes, our Foundress reflected on the certainty that because of our human tendency to wickedness and the general instability of goodness, she knew she could not compose rules for the college which cunning and devious folk could not get around, either by false readings or other tricks or (in a somewhat saucy reference?) by finding ways of untying her Herculean knot.  Following the wishes of her late husband she therefore appointed the Reverend Father James Montague, Bishop of Bath and Wells and his successors for the time being ‘and no other or others’ to preserve the statutes and ordinances of the college and to nurture the temporal and spiritual well being of the college and to protect its liberties and privileges.  The Bishop thus became the Visitor to the College.  He (or she) would have powers to regulate the management of the college, to be the ultimate authority on the construction of its statutes and in matters of discipline.  The Bishop was to make a Visitation at least every five years.  Also sprach Dorothea.  

Such provisions are common, if not universal, in the foundation documents of all eleemosynary chartered charitable corporations. The modern statutes, made for us by statutory commissioners in 1926 and approved by the King in Council simply state, much more prosaically, that the Visitor of the College, ‘appointed by the Foundress’,  is the Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells for the time being.  Most of the Visitor’s supervisory powers have happily for him (or her) been removed either by consent or by the law of the land. But the Visitor still has important functions, especially in connection with the supervision of the Warden, whom, it seems, (though the Statutes are unhappily not at all clear on the matter) the College might find it impossible to sack without the Bishop’s signet.  And the Visitor may still make a Visitation and require the Warden and Fellows in writing to answer questions he puts relating to the administration of the College.  On financial grounds he may order the suspension of vacant Fellowships and Scholarships, and the Warden or any three Fellows may seek a ruling from the Visitor on the construction of statutes on which the College cannot agree.  The Warden and Fellows and Scholars may appeal to him if they are aggrieved by a decision of the Governing Body and he may annul or disallow any Bylaw or resolution made by the Governing Body which is in his judgment repugnant to the College Statutes.  He is also the lynchpin in the process for dismissing a small sub-set of Fellows.  The exercise of these functions in present times can be pretty expensive since Visitors, not having holes in their heads, have usually appointed a QC to act on their behalf and sent the bill to the College.

The law on how institutions manage without a Visitor is possibly the nearest the common law has come to simulating emmental cheese. 

Jeffrey Hackney

So, why might this be thought to be of any interest to the non-nerd element in our midst?  The answer is that at the end of June 2013, the present Visitor (our 29th) the Rt. Revd. Peter Price, age-retired from his See and it is possible that the installation of his successor will not take place until the spring of 2014.   This is the most damning indictment of the so-called Employer Justified Retirement Age in modern times and en passant someone should ask the Church of England why it is that this college should have to wait maybe nine months before it again has a supreme governor.  The law on how institutions manage without a visitor is possibly the nearest the common law has come to simulating emmental cheese.  It is said by wicked people that the church habitually leaves a gap between appointments so that it may expropriate the salary and other revenues.  People taking a more charitable view might think it is because the church has not assumed a power to pre-elect, but the law on pre-election is itself a total mystery to some.  (We are told that when Warden Bowra announced his future retirement date the Fellows could not begin the process of electing his successor until after he had actually retired, because the College statutes contained no power of pre-election.  This was put right during Warden Hampshire’s time and the College felt able to pre-elect Warden Moser.  Some of us have assumed that this power is needed for Wardens and not Fellows because in some mystical way the existence of one Warden (and we can only have one) precludes the possibility of another, even in suspension.  This moderately unconvincing story becomes even less so when it is realised that the prohibitory rule does not seem to apply to Bursars, and some (including our sister College, Christ’s in Cambridge) seem to think you need power to pre-elect even Fellows if a vacancy has not yet occurred.  Pass.)  At all events the inconvenience to the College of not having a visitor in 2013-4 must count for little against the problems we must have faced when the See of Bath and Wells was abolished along with the rest of the English episcopate between 1646-1660 (on which the college history is scandalously silent – and indeed on the Visitor in general).

This is, happily, not Eulogy time for Bishop Price and it is fervently to be hoped that when that time comes it cannot be written by me, but it needs saying now that Peter Price has served this College well since his appointment in 2001 both in his hospitality in Wells and his willingness, subject to the huge demands of his job, to be here to support us whenever he was called upon.   Wells may well be one of our most beautiful cities (it certainly has the finest Bishop’s Palace) but it is, if I may be forgiven, the Devil’s own job to drive to and from, and his support is even more appreciated by those who have ever made the journey. We are not alone in thinking highly of him: the University of Bath will in December award him an Honorary LL.D, so he will, to the envy of all Wadham lawyers, at a stroke become learned in both the laws.

The service of retirement on 22 June in the magnificent and beautiful surroundings of Wells Cathedral demonstrated beyond doubt that it was not only in Wadham that he was greatly admired and respected. There was a wondrous outpouring of respect and affection.  In a packed cathedral, tributes came from all sides, including our Honorary Fellow, the Most Reverend Rowan Williams, now we are told on the highest authority, happily settled in at Magdalene College, Cambridge. The tribute from the Archdeacon of Wells, the Venerable Nicola Sullivan was full of warmth and respect.  She also introduced Dee Price into the proceedings for the first time. Dee’s humour and kindness are evidently as much appreciated in Wells as they are here. The Archdeacon told how each year, Bishop Peter addresses the crowds at Glastonbury and how at a recent lunch for nervous new Curates he had told them that he had shared a stage with Status Quo. This had apparently somewhat awed the young and put an unexpected damper of silence on the proceedings until Dee remarked that evidently Glastonbury must have wanted all the old folk on the stage at the same time.  Prayers were then led by the Chair of the House of Laity and the Diocesan Secretary: quote ‘It tells you much about the modern church of England that the clergy tell the jokes and the laity lead the prayers’. Bishop Peter gave a typically robustly moving sermon, in which, amongst other things, he talked about the plans he and Dee had had to transform the Bishop’s Chapel in his Palace, but managed a most wonderful Freudian slip, when, seated directly facing the Dean of Wells, he talked about the ambitious plans he and Dee had had for re-decorating the Cathedral.  The masterly public row-back from that was a delight to watch.  Those familiar with the institutional disfunction of Deans and Bishops which is so central to church harmony will have relished this moment.   The Bishop’s staff, who are plainly going to miss him, had made a bed cover for him on which they announced that they had embroidered some of the bon mots for which he would be remembered in the office.  Those expecting a Confucian catalogue were rapidly disabused.  The citations included ‘That was easy’; ‘I got away with it’; ‘Try not to worry about it’ and ‘Has anyone seen my pen?’   

He will, we hope, be in Oxford in October where others will have the chance to wish him well.  My advice is to book a place in the queue: there must be very many wishing to express their thanks and to wish Bishop Peter and Dee a happy and fulfilling retirement.