'Apologise': Bishop tells ‘authoritarian-style’ vicar to change her ways

Bishop of Norwich

The Bishop of Norwich (l) has come up with a list of damning recommendations for Wymondham Abbey's vicar, Catherine Relf-Pennington (r) - Credit: Archant

A Bishop has accused a vicar of acting in an “authoritarian style” and directed her to make a host of changes following dozens of complaints from her congregation. 

The vicar of Wymondham Abbey, The Revd Catherine Relf-Pennington, hit headlines last year when she claimed to have had her tyres slashed and been the victim of poison pen letters in a row with members of the choir. 

The dispute started a few months after she was appointed in 2017 and 37 complaints were made against her, alleging inappropriate behaviour. She denied all misconduct allegations.  

The allegations were investigated by a retired High Court judge in 2019, who ordered the two sides to resolve their differences, but the dispute has since escalated. 

Wymondham Abbey and town centre

Some 2,600 new homes will have been built in Wymondham by 2038. - Credit: Mike Page

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Reverend Graham Usher, has now attempted to defuse the row by publishing a series of recommendations for the vicar and the Abbey's church council (PCC), including ordering her to apologise to her congregation.  

In the extraordinary seven-page letter, the Rt Rev Usher also raises concerns about the Abbey’s finances. 

The vicar has not responded to requests for comment, but the Bishop said he had met her to discuss his findings. 

He wrote: “These matters have monopolised a huge amount of my time since becoming Bishop of Norwich.” 

He said a team sent in to investigate, called a visitation team, had “met a number of people who cried in front of them”. 

What caused the rows now rocking the future of one of the county’s most historic institutions and what happens next? 

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'Deep division’ 

The Bishop said the allegations against the vicar “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,” he added. 

The Bishop said she had refused to admit her part in the breakdown or “accept any error in the way she has interacted with people”. 

A service to commemorate Anzac Day was held at Wymondham Abbey. Pictured is the Reverend Catherine R

The Reverend Catherine Relf-Pennington took over as vicar of the Abbey in 2017 - Credit: Ian Burt

He said no further action would be taken about the allegations other than a claim the vicar damaged a parishioner’s car which, according to the letter, could be referred to a church tribunal. She previously denied this allegation.  

The Bishop wrote: “It is a matter of regret that these (allegations) have gone unresolved and that the Incumbent (the vicar) has done so little to bring about reconciliation with the complainants.” 

He said she should “apologise to them without reservation". 

Responding to the Bishop’s letter, one of the complainants said: “We are disappointed that our complaints are not being taken forward to the tribunal but he has directed her to apologise. I’m happy to forgive her providing she admits what she has done.” 

'State of disarray’ 

A frosty start to New Year's Eve covers Norfolk with a blanket of ice. Wymondham Abbey, South Norfol

The Bishop's letter raises concerns about the historic Abbey's finances - Credit: Sonya Duncan

The Bishop also said the vicar’s response to the pandemic had “disappointed many parishioners”.  

It was used as a reason to “bring to an end the long-standing choral music tradition at Wymondham Abbey and the Abbey has remained largely closed to daily prayer and visitors,” he wrote. 

He also said “significant changes” had been made to the ordering of the Abbey, without getting approval from the Diocese. 

Alongside fewer volunteers, congregation numbers fell from an average of 180 in 2019 to 129 at the start of 2020. Post lockdown the average attendance from July to December last year was just 28 people.

This he said, was harming the finances of the church council which runs the Abbey, the PCC. 

“The financial position of the PCC remains uncertain and has not had the transparency or financial management it requires,” he wrote. 

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham Usher. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham Usher - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

The letter also revealed that the Abbey had not paid the Diocese its “parish share” - a contribution towards the cost of the church which mainly covers salaries. The Abbey is meant to pay £107,000 a year but failed to do so in 2020 and this year so far.  

The Rt Revd Usher wrote this had “left a significant shortfall in the diocesan revenue account, and may suggest that the financial position of the parish has fallen into a state of disarray”. 

The PCC has not responded to a request for comment but on the Abbey’s website wrote it was “not possible” to pay the share. 

The Abbey’s accounts for 2020 show that it will struggle to pay the money. Its funds fell last year from £300,000 to £238,000 and it also owes other people more than £100,000.  

He also raised concerns about the PCC wasting money on solicitors in a legal dispute over property owned by a local charity, the Reverend William Papillon’s Charity. 

The letter also said that the Revd Relf-Pennington had a “continuing grievance” about the vicar’s house.  

The traditional vicarage was not given to her by the Diocese when she started her role and she was offered a different house, the letter said. It added she “refuses to accept” this but her position was “irrational and unsupported by legal opinion”. 

A service to commemorate Anzac Day was held at Wymondham Abbey. Pictured is the Reverend Catherine R

A series of complaints have been made against Rev Relf-Pennington - Credit: Ian Burt

What now? 

The Diocese said the vicar had a legal duty to comply with the Bishop’s directions and failure to do so could lead to disciplinary action for misconduct.  

But the Bishop ended his letter with a call for reconciliation.    

“It is my earnest prayer that the parochial life of Wymondham and Spooner Row will find new stability and much needed healing so that God’s love may be revealed,” he wrote.  

“This will take a change of heart on the part of the Incumbent to a more conciliatory and collaborative way of working, as well as major bridges to be built to and from parishioners, former attendees of Wymondham Abbey and the wider town.”

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