THE BISHOP of Ely, Dr Anthony Russell, has accepted the findings and recommendations of an ecclesiastical tribunal that serious pastoral breakdown occurred at St Mary and St Michael, Trumpington; that the Vicar, Dr Tom Ambrose, was primarily responsible; and that the break-down could not be remedied if he stayed.
The benefice has accordingly been declared vacant, and Dr Ambrose must leave by 9 July. He is to receive appropriate financial support in accordance with the Incumbents (Vacation of Benefices) Measure 1977 (as amended 1993), under which the required two-thirds of PCC members brought the case (News, 25 January).
Dr Russell has made the findings public. In his written response to the tribunal’s report, he says: “I think there is a legitimate public interest in the matters considered in [it], and I think it would be unfortunate if the basis for the tribunal’s conclusions were not generally made available for those to read who have an interest in the matter.”
The tribunal report chronicles the dispute between Dr Ambrose and some of his parishioners that has continued since 2001. The tribunal found him to be an “unimpressive witness”, and said it had seen “evidence of the arrogant, rude, bullying, high-handed, disorganised, and at times petty behaviour of Dr Ambrose, about which the applicants have complained.”
Minutes of PCC meetings showed that those on the PCC whom Dr Ambrose perceived as hostile “regularly proposed or seconded motions supporting his plans, voted in favour of them, and acted upon the relevant resolutions”. The tribunal report emphasised: “We specifically find that the applicants are not opposed to improving access to the church for disabled people, and for Dr Ambrose to describe them as such, particularly to the media, is both inaccurate and hostile.”
There was evidence that Dr Ambrose “had a strong need to be in control of all aspects of the church community, was not able to recognise his own limitations, and was uncomfortable allowing other people, apart from his wife, to have any power or responsibility. He reacted badly when he perceived that his power or authority was being undermined, as he felt it was by a PCC that wished to question and investigate suggestions made by him.
“He regarded any disputes or disagreements as personal attacks, in respect of which he then bore grudges and planned revenge. His attempts to remove people unlawfully from the elected office of sidesperson, and to prevent qualified people from standing as churchwarden, are clear ex-amples of this.”
Dr Ambrose was deemed to have “attempted to use the law to manipulate and browbeat parishioners, and, in doing so, misrepresented the legal position”. No one, it was judged, had behaved inappropriately with regard to finances.
Dr Russell expressed “astonishment and dismay” that two occasions had been recorded where Dr Ambrose “spat at parishioners, allegations which were not challenged in cross-examination”. He continued: “Dr Ambrose’s case before the tribunal evidently was that the difficulties in the parish were the responsibility of a group of people unable to accept his leadership, and that parish life continued in good order. The tribunal did not accept this analysis; and it seems to me that it was correct not to do so.”
The tribunal concluded: “The complete breakdown in relation-ship between Dr Ambrose and the majority of the PCC therefore impedes the pastoral mission of the church. . . Dr Ambrose not only admits that the breakdown in good governance has occurred, but appears happy to run the church without reference to the PCC and to advertise this fact to the media.”
But the tribunal was critical of the way in which the diocese of Ely had dealt with the situation, describing the procedure of handling complaints from parishioners as “somewhat haphazard and informal, leading to confusion”.
The report said: “We note that we have not heard directly from any bishop or archbishop concerned with this case, and repeat that, as far as we are aware, no representative of the diocese attended the hearing. This absence causes us some concern, and we very much hope that the senior staff of the diocese will now be positively proactive in seeking to heal the damage that has taken place in Trumpington.”
Dr Russell defended his decision not to attend the tribunal on the grounds that Code of Practice guidelines clearly indicate that that would have been inappropriate.
The tribunal also expressed concern that it had “not been possible to identify what pastoral support for Dr Ambrose, Mrs Ambrose, or indeed the Applicants, has been provided by the diocese during the protracted period of these difficulties”. It also advised the diocese to consider what advice and information it gave to parishes, and what training and advice it gave to lay office-holders, and whether this needed to be improved.
The Bishop notes in his response to the report that he referred this matter to a provincial tribunal on 9 May 2005. Although not wishing to criticise anyone over the length of time taken, he said: “I do, however, feel it right to say here that, whatever the explanation for the delay, I regard it as a matter for considerable regret.”
The tribunal report describes PCC members as “battle-weary”, and Trumpington as a parish “in need of very great pastoral care and support”. It recommends that it should not be left without a priest for any significant period of time.
Dr Ambrose vigorously disputes the findings. He continues to deny that he ever spat at anyone, describing the woman who made the allegation as “not a truthful person”, and has announced his intention of taking the case to the High Court and to an employment tribunal.
He told the Cambridge Evening News after the ruling: “I am here to stay. What I will do is remain here and appeal against the decision, which could take months, or even years. I am confident I will win.”