04 Pam Dignum – cathedral guides

This article is based on the record of an electronic note taker (ENT) hired to provide deaf attendees with a rendering of what people said in real time. It is a phonetic account, first and foremost, taken down in the heat of the moment. An echo of what was said rather than a reflection of what might have been written before or since.

Pam Dignum: I have been a guide in the cathedral for 18 years. Attitudes to Bishop Bell have changed – when Colin trained me, we were told the proper terms of reverence for him, the things he had done that we take for granted, like arts festival. We learnt about his work with those in poverty in Britain, about his wartime experiences, and how he said war should be conducted on humane lines. We learnt about his post-war activities, the painter who called him ‘the finest man I have ever met’. He had the freedom of the city.

Colin, I was just praising you for your good training. Come 2008, Bishop Bell was given a much higher focus. There were, that year, an exhibition in the House of Lords, portraits which had been done, workshops for everyone in the education department; there was a study programme for the whole congregation, praised for its reach of theological depth. So the congregation was aware of what he had done. We guides gave one-hour tours on him alone. Bishop Bell felt responsible for everyone, not just the diocese. That’s a big indicator of the man. The guides stressed the importance of Bishop Bell in terms of exchanges with other countries and schools. This was a major feature of my time, and university students here re-enacted his speeches in the House of Lords. He was played by a woman.

In 2015, I was giving a tour and talking about Bishop Bell – the visitor’s officer took me to one side and told me not to mention Bishop Bell at all. My mouth dropped open. We thought this was an overreaction, but we had our instructions. We could recall the sufferings of the victim; a letter was sent to all guides, saying we must think about the abuse survivors. We said nothing until January when we were given new instructions. A letter came from the Dean and Chapter, telling us what to say: ‘It is no longer appropriate to speak of his achievements as though the allegation has not been made.’ The letter told us rather a lot. The first paragraph was about his achievements; the second was about settling a legal claim – ‘some have doubted the investigative process and wanted to look into it themselves… the importance of his work remains, but we recognise the likelihood of the same man who showed moral courage was also responsible for the abuse of a child… Chichester Cathedral is committed to listening to those who have been abused’. Then: ‘this text is intended to give you guidance, but if you prefer to leave Bishop Bell out of your tour, this is perfectly acceptable. If you decide not to, there is no shortage of material. If you do mention him, please be careful to convey the correct tone. 1 in 20 of visitors will have been abused.’

This was clear, indeed; what was the reaction? We did have a meeting with Anthony Cane, to whom we said; you can’t read three paragraphs out to visitors. We also disagreed about where this should be said. Ruth said in front of the memorial, but then said we could sit people down. I said that we needed a shorter version and to be able to mention him by the font. I wrote a short version.
‘Having mentioned Bishop Bell, I have to tell you what the cathedral wants you to know – he was accused of child abuse. The Church apologised, paid compensation, and shows sympathy. But many people feel this has not been proven.’

I felt that was justified. There is no way you can give a tour without mentioning the modern art for which he was the stimulus, or the work with Peace and Reconciliation, without mentioning Bishop Bell.

Some guides did omit him altogether. Another mentioned him without giving an apology and was reprimanded. Jeremy, I don’t know what you did. We are independent people, without a script. We don’t say the same thing. Some visitors knew about Bishop Bell and asked; others didn’t. With a mixed group with, say, two people from China, or a group with children, you have to think on your feet. The flowers under the memorial appeared quite quickly and were sometimes removed. Some had kind messages about him.

Ironically, I had some German exchange students on a tour who had booked their tour before the difficulties. I had a happy hour talking to them and there was a book by Bishop Bell in a display case outside the verger’s room. But references to Bishop Bell were removed from the training manual for new guides. We got a new, slimmer version. The guide book for sale in the shop had the word ‘likelihood’ in it. When we trained new guides, in January 2016 and January 2018 – what do you say to them when you want to talk about Bishop Bell? The head guide told the candidates; don’t mention Bishop Bell when you come to be assessed. I was asked to give a 45-minute talk on Bishop Bell after the training last year, though it wasn’t part of the training. There is plenty to find out if people want to.

There was no official guidebook in English – we must be the only cathedral in England without one. I’ve been told they are under the counter. That’s a loss of revenue as well. At the end of it – I can’t speak for all, but I think the older guides would like freedom to speak on Bishop Bell again. It could be that those have not mentioned him to date may feel free to do so. There is a danger of Bishop Bell being airbrushed out. A boy said to me recently Bishop Bell was a paedophile. What have these children picked up from the renaming of these buildings?

I am looking forward to a new guidebook and a restoration of Bishop Bell to his proper place.

In 2008, this book was on sale in the shop – it’s a plain notebook with his picture on the front and a list of his achievements inside, including some people may not know about, like speaking out against capital punishment [reads quote].

Sandra Saer: Is that still on sale?

Pam Dignum: No. Though it may have sold out. I also have the words of the German ambassador here; ‘he was an exceptional figure’.

Sandra Saer: Any questions?

New speaker: Thank you so much – so much hangs on this declaration of his innocence.

Pam Dignum: Lord Carlile and Briden have spoken, but we are still under the last instructions we had. It’s a matter of conscience.

New speaker: As a former guide, I took absolutely no notice whatsoever – but we must have a guidebook. It’s an embarrassment.

New speaker: I thought the remark about the schoolboy related what he believed – it’s such an important thing you have reminded us of. It is about continuing damage.

Pam Dignum: I think there are eight forms of entry in that school.

New speaker: Explicit lifting of the cloud – it’s to avoid this wrongdoing.

New speaker: Was the first intervention from the Bishop in 2015? It just seems at odds with his protestations earlier…

Pam Dignum: The Dean and the Bishop were seen as a team.

New speaker: It’s very important we get the guidebook, but how can we ensure it doesn’t use the same language that the Dean and Bishop are using? Will guides be able to see drafts?

Pam Dignum: I did write to the Bishop soon after we realised the guidebook said what we thought were the wrong words. I wrote a letter to two guides who had asked what we should say; ‘many objected to the guilt association. Some of us wrote to the Bishop, who said it was not his responsibility’. It was still on sale at the time. We made this clear to the chancellor. We think he was constrained in terms of what we could say. It was as though he was working under difficulties.

Sandra Saer: Could you remind us what was on page 37?

Pam Dignum: It was along the lines of what was said in 2015, about a man of great achievement…

Richard: The book is in the other room.

New speaker: It was a third of the page.

New speaker: It was an inset, in a different colour.

Pam Dignum: It was the ‘likelihood’ that people didn’t like. It didn’t doubt that he had done good things. It wasn’t what people came to the cathedral to hear about.

New speaker: I proofread the book and when this blew up we had to add the page in. I objected to it going in and to the wording. I said; I know the book has not been printed yet. But he went ahead. The Dean and Chapter then decided to pulp it.

New speaker: I can quote it…


‘Since October 2015, some aspects have been called into question… allegations are plausible… it now seems entirely possible that the same man who showed moral courage was also responsible for the abuse of a child’.

Sandra Saer: Thank you.

New speaker: Can I just ask ..? This gentleman raised an important point. I think we should develop that further. There was a contradiction between what the bishop said today.

Sandra Saer: You can ask that question?

Pam Dignum: I don’t mind asking anything providing I have a clear statement.

New speaker: Something to be directed to the bishop in person?

Sandra Saer: I’m not au fait with the dialogue of our church. The Bishop is the head of it. You cannot hide behind the Dean and Chapter.

New speaker: It seems to suggest he might issue instructions when it suits him.

New speaker: Part of the statement was issued by the Bishop.

New speaker: We need to remember there is always balanced authority in the church. The Bishop doesn’t have full authority over the Cathedral. There is a relationship between the Bishop and the parish. The Bishop cannot force entry. I think Bishop Martin doesn’t have the authority you feel he has.

Pam Dignum: The Bishop said he wasn’t responsible for the wording. Who wrote the text?

New speaker: Anthony Kane.

New speaker: Can I add a rider? What you say is right. I have been connected to the diocese and have known several Bishops and Deans. Both Deans and Chapters are subject to influence and pressure. If their congregations revolt … My concern is Bishop Martin doesn’t have the power but he does have the influence. He doesn’t have our convictions. He doesn’t share our convictions. We are seeking to change a climate of opinion. It will affect both Dean and Chapter. We should continue to do it.

Sandra Saer: Thank you Pam.

New speaker: Thank you for keeping the papers. They are very important.

Pam Dignum: I’m interested in record keeping. It is important to have a copy of what was being said. We are aware of subtle changes over time. As guides we have to keep within the limits set. We have to keep the tone right. There are other papers as well.

New speaker: Thank you for the way you chaired it.

Pam Dignum: One guide could not accept it and was asked to leave. As was a door keeper. How many others I can’t say. It did pose difficulties for those with a different viewpoint.