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Bishop of Norwich orders vicar to apologise over ‘pastoral breakdown’ in Wymondham

19 November 2021

Report highlights ‘authoritarian style’ of the Revd Catherine Relf-Pennington

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Wymondham Abbey

Wymondham Abbey

THE Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, has ordered a vicar in the diocese to apologise without reservation to those who have brought complaints against her, after receiving a visitation report that highlights problems in the benefice. These include her “authoritarian style”, the termination of a longstanding choral tradition, and non-payment of parish share.

Bishop Usher’s directions to the Vicar of Wymondham, the Revd Catherine Relf-Pennington, and the churchwardens, published on 4 November, follow a visitation to the benefice of Wymondham with Silfield and Spooner Row. The Commissaries’ report was completed on 22 June.

Bishop Usher writes that matters at Wymondham Abbey have “monopolised a huge amount of my time”. Ms Relf-Pennington was appointed in 2017, having served as an assistant priest from 2014; she came to the benefice from St Mary Magdalene’s, Adelaide, where she was Rector. Several complaints were made against her under the Clergy Discipline Measure during 2019. She has denied any misconduct, and the complaints have not been resolved.

Bishop Usher writes that the complaints “reflect a deeply felt division of opinion between parishioners who are supportive of the Vicar and those who are not. The Vicar has, unfortunately, alienated many of those who spoke to the visitation team by her authoritarian style.”

The Eastern Daily Press reported last year on a leaked Clergy Discipline Commission report, in which Sir Mark Hedley, a former High Court judge brought in to investigate 19 complaints against Ms Relf-Pennington, admitted that he was “sceptical that these parties have the requisite Christian maturity to handle what would be a lengthy and inevitably painful experience”, describing the situation as a “disgrace to the Christian community” (News, 24 January 2020).

In his directions, Bishop Usher states that no further action is proposed to be taken on the complaints (with the exception of two), although he directs that Ms Relf-Pennington must meet with the complainants in person and “apologise to them without reservation for the behaviour which gave rise to the allegations which they raised . . . to set an example of repentance for the church community at Wymondham”. He notes that the visitation team met “a number of people who cried in front of them about the situation”. His own emails to Ms Relf-Pennington have “frequently been ignored or gone unanswered”.

He writes that there are parishioners who are “appreciative of the Vicar’s ministry and the work which she has done”, but also writes of her “refusal to admit that she has contributed in any way to the pastoral breakdown in the benefice, accept any error in the way she has interacted with people, accept the outcome of the parsonage exchange or any accountability to the Bishop or the Archdeacon, and to lead the benefice in the payment of any parish share during 2020 or 2021”. Both giving and volunteer numbers have fallen.

Although the complaints pre-date the pandemic, a central factor in the discord appears to be Ms Relf-Pennington’s response to it, which “disappointed many parishioners”. The longstanding choral tradition at the abbey was brought to an end, and abbey remained largely closed for daily prayer and visitors.

Among more than 30 directions from the Bishop are the re-establishment of a weekly pattern of public worship on Sundays and mid-weekdays; the reopening of the abbey and the church at Spooner Row for daily private prayer between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. each day; that morning and evening prayer shall be said daily; and that no request for occasional offices is to be refused without the approval of the Archdeacon. Ms Relf-Pennington must produce and implement “a clear plan for the restoration of pastoral care of the elderly, sick and bereaved”.

The directions note that Ms Relf-Pennington has maintained a “continuing grievance” about the loss of the former vicarage and its replacement with a more modern property, and “refuses to accept” that the former vicarage had been lawfully appropriated to the diocesan glebe by the diocesan board of finance. They state that the modern property has fallen into a state of disrepair, and that this decline must be “arrested without delay”.

They also note that Wymondham did not pay any parish share in 2020 or 2021, leaving a “significant shortfall in the diocesan revenue account”, which “may suggest that the financial position of the parish has fallen into a state of disarray”. The Bishop notes that “the obscurity of the PCC’s finances over the last two years is wholly unsatisfactory for a church charity”.

Among his directions are “clear limits” on the authority of any one person to authorise expenditure without prior reference to the PCC, and a separation of the positions of churchwarden and PCC secretary, to reduce the risk of the incumbent’s being able to exert “undue influence”.

Other directions address “significant changes” that have been made to the ordering of the abbey, including the removal of elements of new works and interpretative material funded by a recent National Lottery Heritage Fund grant, without the requisite faculties or approval from the grant-funders.

Last year, the Eastern Daily Press reported that Ms Relf-Pennington had described complainants as “anti-women priests”, and said that she and other abbey staff had received hate mail. She said that the tyres of her car had been slashed, and commented: “It is clear from the well-known recent history of the abbey that this is a difficult place to be a vicar.”

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