THE Vicar and churchwardens of Wymondham Abbey have complained of “unrelenting” pressure exerted by the diocese of Norwich, accusing the diocese of “unremitting criticism of a church community doing its best in very difficult times”.
Their statement, published on the Abbey’s website on Monday of last week, is a defiant response to directions issued to them by the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, after a visitation of the benefice of Wymondham with Silfield and Spooner Row (News, 19 November 2021).
Bishop Usher ordered Ms Relf-Pennington to apologise without reservation to those who had brought complaints against her, after the report spoke of multiple problems in the benefice, including her “authoritarian style”, the termination of a longstanding choral tradition, and the non-payment of parish share.
In their response, Ms Relf-Pennington and the churchwardens write: “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: all this for the preferences of Bishop Graham Usher and Bishop Alan Winton to the detriment of the whole of the parish and indeed to the whole of the town.” The behaviour of the Bishops was “unethical, immoral and self-serving”, they write.
The response highlights a long-running dispute over the Abbey vicarage, acquired by the diocese, before Bishop Usher became diocesan bishop, to house the Bishop of Thetford, Dr Alan Winton. This was, according to Bishop Usher in his directions, “lawfully appropriated to the diocesan glebe by the Diocesan Board of Finance, albeit after the original exchange of the properties was carried out incorrectly by the DBF, and was void”.
The response counters that it was “taken from us for a Bishop without consultation or agreement and in breach of the law”. The former Rural Dean, the Revd Paul Burr, has said that “asking whether the vicarage had been lawfully appropriated was enough to require my resignation” (Letters, 26 November 2021). Mr Burr resigned before Bishop Usher arrived in the diocese.
The response speaks of a “long line of abusive Church of England processes used by the Bishops against the Vicar and Wardens”. It claims that complaints made against Ms Relf-Pennington came from “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”; it mentions “a small circle of white, wealthy, strongly interconnected men, all hostile to the vicar”.
Ms Relf-Pennington and the churchwardens reject the Bishop’s order that she apologise as “yet another attempt to humiliate the vicar who had in fact done nothing wrong”. And they describe requests for the payment of the parish share as “like Pharaoh asking for bricks without straw”.
A statement from Norwich diocese on Tuesday said: “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.”