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Dr Penberthy resigns from St Davids

22 May 2023

Church in Wales

Dr Joanna Penberthy

Dr Joanna Penberthy

THE Bishop of St Davids in the Church in Wales, Dr Joanna Penberthy, is to retire this summer on the grounds of ill health, it was announced on Thursday.

“This is not a decision I have taken lightly. The migraine, with which I have been living constantly, has adversely affected my ability to function at the level required to fulfil my role,” she said in a statement.

In January 2017 Dr Penberthy became the first woman to be consecrated as a bishop in the Church in Wales, but has been absent on grounds of ill health for more than half of the past two years.

Dr Penberthy first took leave of absence on grounds of ill health in June 2021, shortly after receiving widespread criticism for a Tweet, sent on 25 March that year, in which she wrote “Never, never, never trust a Tory” (News, 4 June 2021).

She apologised for the post, which was made in response to reports that the Conservative Party was planning to abolish the Welsh Senedd, and deleted her Twitter account, admitting that some of her comments on politics had been “expressed . . . in a way which was both irresponsible and disrespectful and I deeply regret this.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury said at the time that he was “deeply embarrassed” by Dr Penberthy’s Twitter posts, which he described as “unacceptable” (News, 19 June 2021).

A one-month leave of absence “on the advice of her doctor” was announced shortly afterwards, on 21 June 2021, and a letter sent to clergy in the diocese of St Davids which referenced the fall-out from Dr Penberthy’s Twitter post.

“Please be assured that the Bench of Bishops, supported by national and diocesan officers, are engaging with both Welsh and UK Governments to ensure that Bishop Joanna’s apology is heard and that steps are taken to restore damaged relationships,” the letter said.

After she had taken four months of sick leave, the diocese announced that Dr Penberthy was making a “phased return to work”; but in August 2022 a further period of sick leave was announced.

At a meeting of the Church in Wales Governing Body in April, a Private Member’s Motion was passed which allows the Archbishop of Wales to “perform any duty and exercise any right belonging to that Bishop within the Bishop’s Diocese” following an absence for ill-health which lasts more than 60 days (News, 28 April).

The Archdeacon of St Davids, the Ven. Paul Mackness, said in the debate that, during the bishop’s eight-month leave of absence, the diocese had been “well supported by senior lay leaders and commissaries, but there are certain things we can’t do.

“We are acting as regents. The diocese can’t move strategically forward. It is lacking steer and vision,” he said.

Announcing Dr Penberthy’s retirement on Thursday, the Archbishop of Wales, the Most Revd Andrew John, thanked her for her ministry. “She has contributed significantly to areas of church life, in particular on environmental matters and with our social-responsibility network.

“A decision like this is never easy to make,” he said, and asked people to hold Dr Penberthy and her family in their prayers.

Dr Penberthy’s staff also issued a statement thanking her, and saying: “We have all enjoyed working with her and wish her and her family every blessing in her retirement.”

Dr Penberthy was one of the first women to be ordained as a priest in Wales, in January 1997. She had been a deaconess since 1984, and was ordained deacon in 1987, after studying at Newnham College, Cambridge, and for ordination at Cranmer Hall, Durham.

She also studied at the University of Nottingham, completing a Masters in theology in 1984, and a Ph.D. in quantum physics in July 2019 with a thesis titled Reading the “Paradoxical Book of Bell”: A case study in theology and science.

As a deacon, she served as a non-stipendiary minister in a number of parishes around Wales between 1987 and 1995, before taking a post overseeing parochial development and renewal in the Church in Wales.

From 1999 until 2010 she was Priest-in-Charge and subsequently Vicar of St Cynwyl, Cynwyl Gaeo. In 2007 she was made an honorary canon of St Davids Cathedral. In 2010, she left Wales to serve as Rector of Charlton Musgrove in the diocese of Bath & Wells. She returned to Wales in 2015 as Rector of Glan Ithon in Powys, before being elected Bishop of St Davids in 2016.

Dr Penberthy will retire formally on 31 July. A new bishop is likely to be elected in October.

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