March 6, 2020 - 2:50pm

“Does anyone know any good poisoners?” asked one of the Christ Church dons in a now notorious email. The person they wanted to do in was the Very Rev Professor Martyn Percy, the Dean of the college. His crime was to have a robust exchange of views with the remuneration committee about how much he was paid.

Think of “the Inspector Morse episode we could make when his wrinkly withered little body is found in the Thames,” another don suggested. First the college accused the Dean of “immoral, scandalous or disgraceful conduct” and then a former high court judge was brought in to adjudicate the matter.

Professor Percy was cleared and reinstated. But such is the control freakery of those pursuing Professor Percy that members of the Governing Body have not been allowed even to see the judge’s full report. When it was unofficially emailed to them on Sunday, they were instructed to delete it. “Please delete the email … and confirm this by return. It is extremely important that … no one opens the attachment, however tempting this may be,” wrote Professor Geraldine Johnson, the college’s aptly named Senior Censor. In a move that Stalin would have been proud of, the college doesn’t even want its own governing body to read the full report exonerating the Dean.

But the college poisoners haven’t left it there. More accusations have been dreamt up. This week Lord Adonis, who did his DPhil at Christ Church on the political role of the peerage, stepped up with more poison. He tweeted:

I am writing to the Education Secretary and the Archbishop of Canterbury today suggesting that as a matter of urgency the governance of Christ Church Oxford be reformed to separate the college from the cathedral and that no more clerics be appointed to run the university
- Lord Adonis

This is pathetic, even by Adonis’s standards. And it reveals something that I suspect is at the heart of much of the hatred Professor Percy has been on the receiving end of: low grade anticlericalism. The dons of Christ Church have long resented that their college is a religious foundation, with a Christian name that they are unable to defrock.

They hate the fact that their college chapel is also the cathedral of the Diocese of Oxford, with Christian values and — even worse — outsiders having the right to worship there. Rev Angela Tilby, one of the Canons of the Cathedral, explains why the Dean has been the target of so much unpleasantness: “He wanted Christ Church to be more inclusive, more open to the outside world, and, perhaps, more aware of its wealth and vested interests.”

Adonis raises the prospect of some shady clerical conspiracy to dominate the university. It’s a trope that is about as convincing as a Dan Brown novel.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.