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‘Disgrace to the Christian community’: Warring factions at abbey told to settle feud

PUBLISHED: 12:08 30 January 2020 | UPDATED: 12:08 30 January 2020

Catherine Relf-Pennington, the vicar of Wymondham Abbey. Picture: WYMONDHAM ABBEY

Catherine Relf-Pennington, the vicar of Wymondham Abbey. Picture: WYMONDHAM ABBEY

Archant

It has been revered as a spiritual sanctuary for Christians for 900 years. But a bitter feud between the choir and vicar at Wymondham Abbey is threatening to “seriously damage” the community, a leaked report has revealed.

Wymondham Abbey. Photo: ArchantWymondham Abbey. Photo: Archant

Sir Mark Hedley, a former High Court Judge, was brought in last year to investigate complaints made against the abbey's vicar, Revd Catherine Relf-Pennington. He has now ordered the factions to settle their differences.

"I must confess myself sceptical that these parties have the requisite Christian maturity to handle what would be a lengthy and inevitably painful experience," he wrote.

"Attitudes are clearly hardened and must now be recognised as such. However… if Ireland could do it in 1997, who are we to say that Wymondham could not do it in 2020."

Sir Mark said 37 complaints had been made against Revd Relf-Pennington, the abbey's first female vicar, the majority of which were made by members of the choir.

Catherine Relf-Pennington, the vicar of Wymondham Abbey Picture: Ian BurtCatherine Relf-Pennington, the vicar of Wymondham Abbey Picture: Ian Burt

Of these, 19 were taken forward to the Bishop of Norwich, who ordered an investigation and the matter was passed on to the Clergy Discipline Commission (CDC).

In Sir Mark's report for the commission, dated November 7, 2019, he ordered those involved to find a resolution, or risk settling the row at a Bishop's tribunal.

He describes "fear, resentment and unhappiness" at the abbey and condemns the ongoing dispute as a "disgrace to the Christian community".

The evidence, which fills 884 pages, centres on claims about the vicar's alleged behaviour, alleging "high handed" management, particularly in relation to the 2019 Annual Parish Meeting.

Sir Mark also raised concerns about the legitimacy of the allegations. He said some of the complaints showed "an unusual emotional fragility".

He wrote that the vicar and churchwardens denied the claims against the vicar.

They alleged that while the vicar's actions might have been "firmly expressed", those making the complaints were "a small group of troublemakers, with a history of trouble making," Sir Mark wrote.

He warned that, should the case go to a tribunal, those involved faced the possibility that they would be "publicly branded a liar" and that such a hearing would cost tens of thousands of pounds and occupy many hours of the court's time.

Reflecting on the issues examined in the report, Sir Mark said he had become "increasingly appalled" with what tribunal proceedings would mean for the complainants, the Abbey and for the wider Christian community.

He went on: "Much of the evidence adduced by the respondent suggests real life and growth in this community. Likewise the evidence adduced by the complainants suggests much fear, resentment and unhappiness here. It is quite likely there are real elements of truth in both views."

He concluded that both sides should reconcile their differences.

The message was echoed by the Rt Rev Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich, who said: "The Church of England takes complaints about its clergy very seriously and seeks where possible to find ways in which a community and its priest can come together and move forward.

"I urge all involved at Wymondham Abbey to find ways to demonstrate the love and grace of Christ to one another and to work together in healing hurts and divisions."

Beyond the walls of Wymondham Abbey, there is much speculation about what caused relations to break down.

Mayor of Wymondham Kevin Hurn suggested that the complaints could have been sparked by Revd Relf-Pennington's "less traditional approach".

"I am aware of the ongoing issues at Wymondham Abbey but personally have a very good relationship with the vicar," he said.

"She is a radical thinker and takes a less traditional approach. Some services have been changed to reflect modern society, and I wonder if the town is ready for that."

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Revd Relf-Pennington, Wymondham Choir and its director of music were all contacted for comment, but declined to discuss the dispute.

Revd Relf-Pennington was appointed to the role of associate vicar at Wymondham Abbey in 2013 and became the vicar in 2017.

-Vicar complaints

The Church of England has a strict complaints procedure for people who are unhappy with the behaviour of its deacons, priests and bishops.

First, the person complaining must speak to their area dean, or archdeacon, about the issue.

The bishop will then decide whether to deal with the complaint or dismiss it.

They might decide to impose a penalty, or refer the complaint to a conciliator in an attempt to reach an agreement.

However, if the misconduct reported is serious enough to result in disciplinary action, it will be referred to the Clergy Discipline Measure.

At this point, the president or deputy president must decide whether to refer the dispute to a tribunal.

They will take into account the severity of the complaints and how much evidence has been gathered.

If it is referred to a tribunal, the clergy member can be struck off.

-History of the Abbey

Wymondham Abbey was originally built as a Benedictine monastery and founded by William d'Aubigny in 1107.

William was a notable Norfolk landowner and served as a butler to Henry I.

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

The monastery was then demolished during Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th Century.

Wymondham Abbey was one of more than 800 monasteries to be dissolved across England, Wales and Ireland between 1536 and 1541.

But part of the structure survived and still stands today.

In 2015, the abbey was extended, and a new refectory and chapel were built.

Today, Wymondham Abbey serves as a parish church and offers people a place to walk and pray

-Have you been impacted by the dispute at Wymondham Abbey? Email our reporter on bethany.wales@archant.co.uk.


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