Blue murder in the cathedral: At Lincoln, a war between priests long and poisonous. As Lady Howe advises on what cathedrals are for, Andrew Brown revisits the battleground

Once upon a time there was a cathedral at Lincoln in the heart of England. Rooks swirled around it through the centuries, and the perpetual dissensions of its chapter were like the perpetual cawing of its rooks: part of the incomprehensible traditions of the holy place. In 1989 Margaret Thatcher appointed a new dean in her image, and all hell broke loose.

So savage and grotesque was the civil war which then broke out that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York set up a commission to look into the whole work of cathedrals, under Lady Howe. This commission reported back last week, and its chief recommendation was that cathedral clergy should in future be very much easier to sack. It is being heralded as the greatest reform of English cathedrals since 1837; however, there is a noticeable backlash under way. It is quite possible that the civil war in Lincoln will continue long after the Howe report has been forgotten.

Lincoln is a medieval cathedral governed by a medieval constitution, which divided power between the dean, the subdean and the three other members of the chapter in a way that gives each of them just enough power to frustrate all the others. The last serious attempt to change that had been made in 1527. It failed.

The cathedral clergy were chosen for life. They were not expected to become executives in the tourism industry, or evangelists in the Jesus movement. They were chosen for their gifts of prayer and scholarship. They felt no pressing need to demonstrate these qualities in public.

All this is anathema to Brandon Jackson. That is why Mrs Thatcher chose him as the dean in 1989, when he burst into the feline world of the cathedral close like an angry if bewildered terrier. Before then he had been Provost of Bradford Cathedral, one of the least-visited in Britain, where he had sacked the organist for playing music that he thought too highbrow (provosts, unlike deans, actually run their cathedrals). Elitism and Radio-fourishness get in the way of communicating with a Godless world, he believes. In Lincoln he has locked away a mural by Duncan Grant because the model for Christ was one of the painter's boyfriends.

The man whom Brandon Jackson saw as his opponent and the animating spirit of the chapter was the subdean (and treasurer) of the cathedral, Rex Davis. Rex was originally Australian, though he had worked at the World Council of Churches in Geneva for nine years. He is one of the few men in the Church of England who could match Brandon Jackson for pugnacity and determination.

Hostilities broke out immediately. Rex Davis paid a courtesy call on Brandon Jackson, and, when the two men knelt to pray, launched into a parody of speaking in tongues as a way of mocking the other man's spiritual pretensions.

But real battle was not joined until Brandon discovered the Magna Carta. The cathedral owns one of the four original copies, and during the Eighties exhibited it abroad. It naturally had to be accompanied on its travels by a chapter member, and he by his wife. After a while the chapter passed a resolution that if the Magna Carta went abroad on an itinerary that needed a change of flights, it had to be accompanied by two chapter members. All this seemed outrageous featherbedding to Brandon Jackson when he discovered it. He believed that all the chapter members were conspiring against the dean. Worse was to come.

In 1988 Rex Davis had taken the Magna Carta to Brisbane in Queensland, for a huge fair called Expo 88. He also took his wife, one of their daughters, and two family friends as the party who would mind the pavilion. There was one other member of the party, a woman called Catriona Mathisson, who was imposed on them as pavilion director. She was sacked by Rex Davis after a few weeks, and returned to England. Her place was taken by one of the Davis family friends, Jo Brogden. In all, the party from Lincoln was in Queensland for six months, though Mrs Davis returned to England early.

The collection box beside the Magna Carta raised the equivalent of pounds 963; the conference organisers bore a cost, for that one exhibit, of more than pounds 600,000, and the cathedral was left with a loss of pounds 56,000. Canon Davis maintained ever afterwards that the trip had never been meant to raise funds (though the earliest press coverage suggests otherwise). It was meant, he now says, to raise awareness of Lincoln.

Awareness of Lincoln was raised dramatically as soon as Brandon Jackson learnt details of the Australian trip. He saw it simply as a gross and unjustified freebie for the Davis family and their friends.

He interviewed Catriona Mathisson about the Magna Carta trip, got hold of the accounts, and then leaked the entire story to the Church Times, which published it at considerable length (though to spare excitable readers, it put the whole thing on Page 9). When other journalists came after the story, Brandon followed it up with copious gossip, often in the low church form where you don't actually quite say what you mean: 'Well, I don't know if it's true what people are saying about Rex and . . .' (here would follow some colourful assertion) 'but if it is, then it's very wrong.'

Brandon Jackson expected that Rex Davis and the three other canons who made up the chapter would resign as soon as the story came out. But they were outraged rather than overwhelmed with shame. They reported the dean to Bob Hardy, the Bishop of Lincoln, and the Church Times to the Press Council. The bishop launched a formal inquiry, or 'visitation', into the scandal. This was the utmost extent of his powers over the cathedral. The inquiry lasted four months, heard evidence from 20 people, and cost the Church Commissioners pounds 20,000. In September 1990, the bishop published his conclusions. He urged each member of the chapter 'very seriously to consider his position'.

They may have considered, but they did not resign. On 17 November, the General Chapter, the governing body of the cathedral, passed an unprecedented vote of no confidence in the canons. That hint, too, went unregarded. On 22 November, the bishop wrote formally to each canon demanding his resignation. All refused. Brandon Jackson fired off a final salvo of abusive memos to his opponents, proposing that David Rutter, the precentor, retire to sheltered housing, Dr John Nurser, the chancellor, to a country parish, and Rex Davis should go anywhere. 'The matter has got to be resolved. It could destroy you; and, believe me, I do not want that.' These were promptly leaked to Private Eye.

The dean called in the Fraud Squad. The bishop called in professional counsellors from the University of East Anglia, who met with the dean and chapter once a week for six months. Neither of these characteristic attempts to resolve the situation worked: both Fraud Squad and counsellors went away without finding either crime or forgiveness.

This first act came to a close with a swift and terrible curtain drop. Sarah Davis, the subdean's daughter, who had been one of the party in Brisbane, developed cancer and died on December 30 1990. She was 26.

In the second act, the bishop gave up. Preliminary calculations suggested that it could cost pounds 100,000 each to sack the canons, or pounds 250,000 in the case of David Rutter, who had gone blind.

The two sides settled down to trench warfare. Mrs Brogden, who had been appointed director of merchandising, left the cathedral. At about that time, one of the residentiary canons took me out to supper and explained with every appearance of sincerity that the dean was a paranoid schizophrenic.

David Rutter died in June that year. Rex Davis preached a sermon in the cathedral, which celebrated everything that had maddened successive deans: 'David was not of the school who saw giving in as a mark of Christian virtue.

'He was a man who knew his guns and stuck to them . . . His skill in obduracy had no match in my experience. And he carried 'the tradition' in a conscious way, aware of the nuances of what had gone before; the significance of what should be done and when. He had a prodigious memory.

'No one would say that David was hyperactive; he was not a workaholic, in these days when such adrenalin-driven vices are seen as virtues.'

And he had managed to die in office.

On New Year's Day 1992, the surviving three residentiary canons issued a statement headed: 'Why we have not resigned.' It showed they had learnt many of Canon Rutter's techniques. 'We do not believe that we have failed to fulfil our canonical obligations in any way by our disagreement with the Bishop. Divergent personal views, as distinct from criminal, immoral, or improper actions, seem to us to call more for mutual discussion and conciliation than for radical removal of 'other voices'.'

In a touch that would have made David Rutter proud, they pointed out that the bishop had decided the previous year that 'we were at an impasse'. However, 14 months later, they replied that 'This seems to us to be a matter requiring further discussion'.

The dean did that year manage to pinch out two salients. In May 1992, Christopher Laurence retired as a residentiary canon, though he remained Archdeacon of Lincoln, leaving behind a final blast against the cult of management in the cathedral newsletter; later that year, the chancellor, Canon John Nurser, retired, too. That leaves only Rex Davis. He preached a sermon on his predicament entitled 'Living with the beast'. He is 61, and need not retire for another nine years. He has no plans to do so, either.

In his exquisite subdeanery last week, he blamed the whole thing on 'Wickedness in high places': Mrs Thatcher's, principally, and Bishop Hardy's. He showed me a photocopy of a handwritten letter from the Bishop to Brandon Jackson, before the new dean took up his post: 'Clearly folk are pretty agitated . . . and you will have to move fairly smartly when you come to look into Rex's activities. He is inclined to be a fixer and to ride over folk.'

Of course, he maintains his innocence of the charges, official and otherwise, that were brought against him. I asked him what has always puzzled me: why did he not go in any case, just to avoid a scandal which has damaged the whole church?

'I think there is a real principle at stake,' he replied. 'If you look at Brandon's history, he was very proud of having ousted people, And, quite frankly, to have capitulated to Brandon would have been to capitulate to the weaker part of one's self. If I were to come through this with any integrity, any sense of salvation, it was a duty to resist.'

But, I said, Brandon sincerely believed you a wicked man. 'Had it been true, it would have been so . . .' He left the sentence unfinished, and tried again. 'It would have been so . . . It would have been right to have resigned.'

Then he asked what I made of the story. I said I thought it was just like the English Civil War, as described in 1066 And All That: his side were the Royalists, wrong but romantic; Brandon was the Roundhead, right but repulsive. He interrupted at once: 'No, no: Brandon is not right] He's repulsive and wrong]'

We emerged from the subdeanery into the Close, where the afternoon sun struck the west front of the cathedral almost horizontally. In that shadowless light the whole building glowed like a vast honeycomb, from which rolled mercy and abundant love. Rex gathered his black cloak around him and hurried away to pray beside the dean. He looked like a little black bee, still buzzing, still stinging, still laughing at his own joke: 'No, no, he's repulsive and wrong]'

(Photographs omitted)