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Scotland’s first female bishop has been accused of bullying but claims she’s actually a victim of sexism. As the Right Reverend Anne Dyer faces a church court… just what is the ‘conduct unbecoming of the clergy’ that could see her axed?

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When she was consecrated in 2018, Scotland’s first female bishop knew there was limited time in which to make her mark.

The Right Reverend Anne Dyer was 61 and widely expected to retire at 65. ‘I’m only going to be bishop for a few years,’ she said. ‘I’m going to make it count.’

Few would have doubted her resolve. Her appointment as Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney was a watershed moment for the Scottish Episcopal Church – one which she painted as a triumph for women over the orthodoxy which held that roles such as this were the domain of men.

Her time in post may be short but the records would reflect that this straight-talking Yorkshirewoman was a trailblazer who shattered the glass ceiling on female clerical ambitions.

By now, at the age of 67, she might have expected to be settled into retirement, her place in Anglican history secure.

Bishop Dyer has clashed with clergy in her diocese

Bishop Dyer has clashed with clergy in her diocese

Yet she remains, in name at least, the bishop of the diocese. As for her place in history, it is assured for all the wrong reasons.

Currently suspended, her time in post has been marked by turbulence and division, allegation and counter-allegation and an intractable crisis at the heart of Scotland’s third largest Christian church.

A battle has raged throughout her tenure and, indeed, appears to have extended it. The bishop continues to put up vigorous resistance to ‘individuals seeking to force her from office’.

Now, in what may prove the final act in the long-running saga, Bishop Dyer is to face a disciplinary tribunal over complaints about her behaviour.

She is accused of three ‘canonical offences’ relating to ‘conduct unbecoming of a member of the clergy, which brings or is likely to bring the church into disrepute’.

Bishop Dyer now has a month to enter her plea ahead of the hearing in Edinburgh in September. 

According to the church, these tribunals are normally held in public and disposals in the event of a guilty verdict can include ‘removal from office’ and ‘disqualification from holding office’.

Although the alleged offences have not been specified, they are the latest of a multitude of accusations aimed at the bishop in recent years.

She is said to have driven one underling to the brink of suicide. Her ‘unyielding and intimidating’ behaviour shattered the confidence of those working below her, it was claimed. She has even been accused of falsifying church accounts.

Bishop Dyer responds that she is the victim of a relentless smear campaign waged upon her by ‘a small handful’ who are opposed to female bishops or who challenge her views on same-sex marriage.

To the charge that she is a bully, the Oxford-educated churchwoman has responded that, on the contrary, she is the one being bullied.

Bishop Dyer now has a month to enter her plea ahead of the hearing in Edinburgh in September

Bishop Dyer now has a month to enter her plea ahead of the hearing in Edinburgh in September

Indeed, she insisted she once had to lock herself in the vestry to protect herself from an ‘intimidating and threatening’ church organist.

But is there an element in this unedifying conflict of the bishop’s words coming back to haunt her?

Speaking in happier times about her leadership style, she told a reporter: ‘When I was at university, I wanted to fit in. I was a good girl and I didn’t rock the boat. These days, well, these days I do.’

Her boat rocking, argue some, brought mutiny and prompted several to abandon ship.

Will it now result in the bishop being forced to walk the plank?

Whatever the rights and wrongs of what came later, there is no question that Bishop Dyer took over a diocese that was not wholly supportive of her appointment.

After it twice failed to draw up a shortlist of at least three suitable candidates, she was installed by the church’s College of Bishops, prompting seven of the 14 priests in the diocese to sign a protest letter which said parachuting her in was ‘divisive and disrespectful’.

Some baulked at her support for same-sex marriage – in a previous role in East Lothian she had officiated at several such ceremonies – and there was disquiet about her non-driver status in an area with a huge rural hinterland.

Yet there was support, too, for the down-to-earth bishop who came across in interviews as a relatable wife and mother, proudly wore make-up and confessed to being a Game of Thrones fan.

She once recalled turning to meet the gaze of those gathered in St Andrew’s Cathedral in Aberdeen to witness her consecration.

‘There were women sat there with tears rolling down their faces,’ she said. ‘They were crying because the moment had finally arrived, the first female bishop.’

She once recalled turning to meet the gaze of those gathered in St Andrew’s Cathedral (pictured) in Aberdeen to witness her consecration

She once recalled turning to meet the gaze of those gathered in St Andrew’s Cathedral (pictured) in Aberdeen to witness her consecration

She spoke candidly of what she saw as society’s expectations of women in the workplace.

‘I think when a woman is in a professional role, society can want her to negotiate herself into the space quietly. She should take up the least space in the room. I have never done that, and I find myself making a stand these days.

‘When I am in a meeting as the only woman, there will be a pause as people wait to see who will make the tea. I will never, ever make the tea. One of the men can do that.’

There had been ‘awful moments’, she said, when people had told her in the frankest of terms she was ‘unacceptable’ in the role due to her gender.

‘I am polite and I smile. I thank them for sharing their opinion with me. Then I have a huge cry on my own.’

And yet, according to her critics, Bishop Dyer was herself capable of devastating frankness.

In 2022, a dossier sent to the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator included the claim that her bullying pushed an employee to the brink of suicide.

It is said an underling was forced to go on sick leave after being continually ‘derided, ridiculed and demeaned’ by the bishop.

The bullying was ‘widespread and substantiated’, it alleged, and the diocese failed to take action to safeguard staff from it.

That dossier followed an independent review in 2021 by former Church of Scotland moderator Professor Iain Torrance which found she presided over a culture of ‘systemic dysfunction’ and ‘bullying’

It called for her to step down immediately.

Yet another report, this time by independent human resources expert Sarah Grey, was also critical of Bishop Dyer.

It found her refusal to mediate with church organist Chris Cromar ‘difficult to reconcile with the Christian values espoused by the church’.

Claims by the report author that the bishop had tried to influence Ms Grey’s findings only exacerbated tensions.

Ms Grey said: ‘I don’t think my report was what the bishop wanted it to be. I think I was expected to toe the line.’

Much of the unpleasantness in the diocese can be traced back to a practical concern.

The heating system in St Andrew’s Cathedral needed major repairs and would have to close for a time.

The Bishop’s plan was to merge its congregation with St Mary’s in Aberdeen’s Carden Place.

This was a blow for St Andrew’s organist and director of music Mr Cromar, who suspected he was being sidelined in the merger.

The Bishop’s plan was to merge its congregation with St Mary’s in Aberdeen’s Carden Place

The Bishop’s plan was to merge its congregation with St Mary’s in Aberdeen’s Carden Place

Similarly affected was provost of St Andrew’s Dr Isaac Poobalan, the only person of colour to hold high office in the diocese.

The bishop installed herself as provost of St Mary’s, which became the church’s acting or ‘pro-Cathedral’ and, when Dr Poobalan was offered an honorary canonry at St Mary’s, he declined it.

As one of the reports into the bishop’s conduct pointed out, Dr Poobalan was widely regarded as a ‘good and holy man’ and an ‘outstanding priest’.

He was not a signatory to the open letter protesting at the bishop’s appointment and, indeed, had encouraged those who did sign it to reconcile with their bishop.

He also organised a meal to help Bishop Dyer network in Aberdeen.

It was Mr Cromar who broke ranks first. Fearing that he and the cathedral’s musical traditions were about to be swept aside, he affirmed his position as director of music and threatened to whistleblow on the chaotic merger if need be.

Incensed, the bishop instructed Dr Poobalan to collect Mr Cromar’s keys to St Mary’s and ensure he did not attend worship there the next day. But he showed up anyway.

According to Professor Torrance’s report, witnesses described Mr Cromar disinfecting his hands and coming forward to receive communion from the horrified bishop.

At the benediction, he turned to address the congregation but, before he could speak, he was drowned out by the blast of the church organ.

Meanwhile, the bishop withdrew to the vestry.

Similarly affected was provost of St Andrew’s Dr Isaac Poobalan (right), the only person of colour to hold high office in the diocese

Similarly affected was provost of St Andrew’s Dr Isaac Poobalan (right), the only person of colour to hold high office in the diocese

Her recollection of events was rather different. In an email to Dr Poobalan the next day, she wrote: ‘His intimidating and threatening manner to me at communion was unforgivable. He also attempted to address the congregation without my permission.’

She went on to berate Dr Poobalan for his failure to keep Mr Cromar in check.

‘It was your duty as Christ’s priest to ensure that his threats were withdrawn. You did little to try to achieve this. Your actions and failure have therefore left me no option but to suspend your licence as assistant priest at St Mary’s pro-Cathedral with immediate effect.’

The churchman later said the bullying he experienced gave him nightmares.

He launched a formal grievance against the bishop and said in a written submission: ‘My health and wellbeing have been stretched to the limits of my capacity to cope.’

After investigating, the Scottish Episcopal Church determined that she had been ‘over-hasty’ in suspending Dr Poobalan and reinstated him.

Yet the church rejected the conclusion of the report it commissioned Professor Torrance to compile, which stated baldly: ‘I cannot recommend the continuation of a tenure in which I fear that more people will be made to feel diminished and discouraged.’

Its seven bishops – including Bishop Dyer – concluded mediation was, after all, the way forward and she remained in post.

She said in 2022: ‘It is very clear that our diocese is not well. This is publicly known, sad to say. Now is the time to commit ourselves to getting well.’

That came after a 122-page dossier about her conduct was sent to the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR).

In an email to Dr Poobalan the next day, she wrote: 'His intimidating and threatening manner to me at communion was unforgivable'

In an email to Dr Poobalan the next day, she wrote: ‘His intimidating and threatening manner to me at communion was unforgivable’

In it, a former trainee priest is understood to have claimed she became so disillusioned by Bishop Dyer’s treatment of staff that she joined the Church of Scotland.

Months later, she was suspended after the Scottish Episcopal Church received formal complaints from two people alleging misconduct but this was lifted hours later after the bishop appealed the decision.

Within days, another formal complaint was submitted.

The situation was fast running out of control. Senior Anglican figures openly questioned the lifting of the suspension, with one suggesting it ‘only served to make the Scottish Episcopal Church appear even more incompetent’.

Weeks later, the Episcopal Synod rejected her appeal – meaning her suspension resumed – whereupon her lawyer said she was now considering legal action.

Callum Anderson of Levy & McRae told The Times: ‘Since January 2021, Bishop Dyer has been obliged by the processes of the Scottish Episcopal Church to remain silent, despite a relentless campaign of anonymous and inaccurate media briefings from a small cabal of church members.’

Since then another dossier has landed on OSCR desks alleging Bishop Dyer presided over ‘misleading and untrue accounts’.

The Rt Rev Anne Dyer, Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney been accused of bullying - but claims to be the victim of sexism

The Rt Rev Anne Dyer, Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney been accused of bullying – but claims to be the victim of sexism

A spokesman for her said the claims were both ‘false and malicious’.

If mediation may have been the answer back when the bishop and the church organist were at odds, few surely believe it is now.

The church said a number of complaints against Bishop Dyer were lodged with the church’s procurator in November.

It added: ‘The procurator, Paul Reid, KC, has now decided to take three of those complaints to a hearing before the clergy discipline tribunal, and Bishop Dyer has been formally notified of this decision.’

And so a church court hearing awaits Scotland’s first female bishop on September 10, while acting bishop, the Right Reverend Dorsey McConnell, fulfils the duties she is suspended from carrying out.

Will the healing commence after that? Or will still deeper wounds be opened?



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