Female vicar accuses Bishop of relying on 'false allegations' in feud

Female vicar accuses the ‘unethical, immoral and self-serving’ Bishop of Norwich of relying on ‘false allegations’ she attacked chorister

  • Rev Catherine Relf-Pennington, 64, alleged that the Bishop of Norwich had taken the side of ‘a small circle of white, wealthy’ men rather than supporting his clergy
  • She said that he had ‘hounded’ her just after he publicly attacked ‘the dark forces of cruelty’ who targeted TV personality Caroline Flack before she died
  • Ms Relf-Pennington faced complaints about her supposed ‘authoritarian style’
  • She claimed she was bullied and subjected to false accusations by choristers

A vicar involved in a bitter feud with the choir at her historic church has accused her Bishop of conducting an ‘unethical, immoral and self-serving’ campaign against her.

The rev Catherine Relf-Pennington, 64, alleged that the Bishop of Norwich the Right Rev Graham Usher had taken the side of ‘a small circle of white, wealthy, strongly interconnected men’ rather than supporting his own clergy.

In an extraordinary attack, she accused him of hypocrisy by stating that he had ‘hounded’ her just after he had publicly attacked ‘the dark forces of cruelty’ who targeted TV personality Caroline Flack before she took her own life.

The bust-up began after Ms Relf-Pennington faced a string of complaints about her supposed ‘authoritarian style’ in 2017, soon after she was appointed as vicar of 12th century Wymondham Abbey, Norfolk.

They included claims that she assaulted a chorister after banning her from the choir and reversed her truck into a parked car in the Abbey car park, causing a ‘six-inch-long gash’, before driving away.

Ms Relf-Pennington in turn claimed to have been bullied and subjected to false accusations by choristers who were ‘anti-woman priests’.

She has also alleged that she has received poison pen letters and had the tyres of her truck slashed.

The rev Catherine Pennington who has been fiercely criticised by some of her choristers at 12th century Wymondham Abbey 

The Rt Rev Usher attempted to defuse the row by publishing ‘directions’ last November including an order for her to apologise ‘without reservation’ to those who had complained ‘to bring about reconciliation’.

His seven page report also called for moves to improve the running of the parish and tackle concerns about the Abbey’s finances, caused in part by its dwindling congregation.

The Bishop drew up his report after sending three Commissaries including former Bishop Graeme Knowles who is a retired Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, to investigate issues in the parish.

Ms Relf-Pennington, the first woman priest in the Abbey’s 900 year history, did not respond to the report last November, but has now published her own 12 page statement on the Abbey website.

Former High Court judge Sir Mark Hedley was brought in by the Church of England in 2019 to investigate ill-feeling at the Abbey 

It said that she and her parochial church council and church wardens as well as the ‘worshipping community’ had been surprised and disappointed by the actions of the Rt Rev Usher and other Diocese officials ‘in relation to their behaviour’.

The vicar said: ‘There have been false allegations, delays and threats and unremitting criticism of a church community doing it’s best in very difficult times and widely appreciated by other groups.

‘We have been harassed. For three years the pressure here has been unrelenting. We believe the intention has been to break the vicar, break the PCC people and to break the worshipping community’.

Ms Relf-Pennington also criticised the Bishop of Thetford, the Right Rev Alan Winton, saying he had been wrongly given the Abbey’s vicarage to live in, meaning that she was offered other accommodation.

She said: ‘Bishop Alan Winton and Bishop Graham Usher’s behaviour in relation to Wymondham Abbey is unethical, immoral and self-serving.

‘They have caused a huge amount of damage to the Church of England’s reputation, to people in Wymondham and in particular to the members of the church council, worshipers, vicar and Wardens

‘Throughout all these processes the Diocese has listened much more to some individuals – in particular a small circle of white, wealthy, strongly interconnected men, all hostile to the vicar, who have a huge influence over the matters at Wymondham Abbey and in the leadership of the Diocese.

‘It is time to call this to account and ask for the Church of England to make their position on Freemasons within the church open and transparent.’

Ms Relf-Pennington described the Bishop’s report as ‘the most recent of a long line of abusive Church of England processes used by the Bishops against the Vicar and Wardens.

The bust-up began after Ms Relf-Pennington faced a string of complaints about her supposed ‘authoritarian style’ in 2017, soon after she was appointed as vicar of 12th century Wymondham Abbey, Norfolk 

She added: ‘These include an extensive and protracted Clergy Discipline Measure process, humiliation of the vicar in the national press, an episcopal visitation, publishing inaccurate and disingenuous directions, and a spurious safeguarding assessment.

‘These are abuses of power. It is not new for the Church of England to pursue priests who fall foul of Bishops agenda’s even to death.

‘The Bishop of Norwich has revealed the same unkindness that he decried in others when Caroline Flack took her own life – his comment on twitter ‘May this light illuminate and change the dark forces of cruelty that hound people and make their life a misery. More caring, less judging.’

‘And yet he has hounded the vicar and this parish relentlessly and publicly by misusing his position of power to silence voices asking difficult questions.’

Ms Relf-Pennington described the claims against her as ‘petty allegations and complaints’

She added: ‘The ‘complainants’ were people opposed to women’s ministry, disgruntled past employees and people vehemently opposed to changes which opened up the church to the wider community and modern ways of thinking.

Built by Henry I’s master butler: A history of Wymondham Abbey

Wymondham Abbey was founded in 1107 and built as a Benedictine priory by William d’Aubigny, a notable Norfolk landowner and Master Butler of Henry I.

During the 15th Century, Pope Nicholas V granted Wymondham Priory the right to become an abbey.

The monastery was partly demolished in the 16th century during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, but much of the main building survived as a parish church.

The abbey was extended in 2015 with the building of a new refectory and chapel.

Wymondham Abbey was founded in 1107 and built as a Benedictine priory by William d’Aubigny, a notable Norfolk landowner and Master Butler of Henry I

‘Complainants included people who wrote poison pen letters and made death threats and someone with stalking behaviour which required police involvement.

She described the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) process which started against her three-years-ago as being ‘not fit for purpose’, saying it was a ‘deliberately and deeply humiliating process and insurmountable stress for the vicar as well as all those at the Abbey’.

Ms Relf-Pennington added: ‘It has been a malicious and vexatious process’.

She claimed that she and her supporters had compiled nearly 1000 pages of documentation to defend themselves, but the ‘disingenuous directions’ issued by the Rt Rev Usher suggest ‘these have not been fully read or have been ignored’.

Her report went on: ‘For the Bishop to order the vicar to apologise unreservedly to all complainants – including those whose complaints did not meet the bar- is not acceptable.

‘To offer an apology implies that there is reason to apologise, and this in itself incriminates the vicar. It is yet another attempt to humiliate the vicar who had in fact done nothing wrong. This is a misuse of Bishop Graham Usher’s position of power.’

The Rt Rev Usher stated in his report that his visitation team, had ‘met a number of people who cried in front of them’. He added: ‘These matters have monopolised a huge amount of my time since becoming Bishop of Norwich.’

He criticised Ms Relf-Pennington for her ‘refusal to admit that she has contributed in any way to the pastoral breakdown in the benefice’ or ‘accept any error in the way she has interacted with people’.

A total of 37 complaints were initially made against her after she was appointed associate vicar at the Abbey in 2013, and promoted to become vicar in 2017. They were reduced to 19 complaints including 13 from choristers

One witness accused the vicar of shouting at a woman who had turned up to sing in the choir after being told she was not permitted to attend.

The witness claimed that the woman was ‘visibly distraught’ and the vicar assaulted her by grabbing her arm ‘forcibly’.

Ms Relf-Pennington who was born in Australia and worked as a research scientist in artificial intelligence before joining the priesthood, denied the allegation ‘in the strongest possible terms’, saying her actions ‘did not even come close’ to assault.

She said: ‘At no point did I raise my voice, even in the face of a very emotional outburst from (her)…I did at one point place my open, relaxed hand, gentle near her upper arm* I was attempting to guide her to a seat and offering her tea.

‘I do not shout and I cannot imagine ever being described as ferocious, abusive.’

The Bishop said no further action would be taken other than a claim the vicar damaged a parishioner’s car which should be referred to a church tribunal.

But she claimed it was ‘highly improbable’ her truck had been involved in the collision in the car park as it showed no signs of damage.

The Rt Revd Usher also revealed that the parish had not paid its dues to Diocese funds for 2020 and initially in 2021, saying it had ‘may suggest that the financial position of the parish has fallen into a state of disarray’.

But Ms Relf-Pennington alleged that the church accounts had been left ‘in a disorganised and confused state’ before she took over and the Abbey’s reserves had been drained in previous years by being used to make payments to the Diocese.

The Bishop’s report described Ms Relf-Pennington’s insistence on wanting to stay in the old vicarage as ‘irrational and unsupported by legal opinion’.

Former High Court judge Sir Mark Hedley was brought in by the Church of England in 2019 to investigate ill-feeling at the Abbey.

Sir Mark urged both sides to settle their differences to avoid a public tribunal hearing and described the ongoing issues in his report as ‘a disgrace to a Christian community’.

The Diocese of Norwich said in a statement today that the vicar had a legal duty to comply with the Bishop’s directions and failure to do so could lead to disciplinary action for misconduct.

It said: ‘The Bishop of Norwich notes the response from the vicar and churchwardens of Wymondham to his directions published in November, following the formal visitation to the parish during 2021.

‘The visitation itself was commissioned because of a number of concerns relating to the ministry of Wymondham Abbey.

‘As yet, a number of the Bishop’s directions remain to be complied with, and he will be working to ensure that these matters are properly addressed. The Bishop is very keen to resolve matters in Wymondham for the benefit of the whole community.’  

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