Vicar’s astonishing outburst against the Bishop in town's long-running row

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

The long-running row between a Norfolk town's vicar and the Bishop of Norwich has taken another extraordinary twist.

The actions of the vicar of Wymondham Abbey, The Revd Catherine Relf-Pennington, have been under the microscope for nearly five years when, a few months after she was appointed in 2017, 37 complaints were made against her, alleging inappropriate behaviour, all of which she denied.

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

This led The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Reverend Graham Usher, to publish last November a series of recommendations for the vicar and the Abbey's church council (PCC), including ordering her to apologise to her congregation.

However, now the saga has taken a fresh twist, as the vicar issued her own 12-page response, in which she and the Abbey wardens claim to have been the victim of “false allegations, delays and threats” and “unremitting criticism of a church community doing its best in very difficult times”.

The report, said to be from the vicar and her wardens, goes on to accuse the Bishop of Norwich of “unethical, immoral and self-serving” behaviour. 

“We have been harassed,” they add. “For three years the pressure here has been unrelenting. We believe the intention has been to break the vicar, break the PCC (the Abbey's parochial church council) and to break the worshipping community.”

In response to the latest twist, a Diocese statement said today 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.  

It said: “The Bishop of Norwich notes the response from the vicar and churchwardens of Wymondham to his directions published in November, following the formal visitation to the parish during 2021. 

“The visitation itself was commissioned because of a number of concerns relating to the ministry of Wymondham Abbey. 

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“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.”

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 Revd Relf-Pennington first hit headlines in 2020 when she claimed to have had her car tyres slashed and been the victim of poison pen letters in a row with members of the choir. 

But the dispute started in 2017, a few months after she was appointed Wymondham’s first woman vicar in 900 years, when complaints were made against her, alleging inappropriate behaviour, which she denied.

In his own 2021 investigation into the matter, 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”. 

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

“The vicar has, unfortunately, alienated many of those who spoke to the visitation team by her authoritarian style." 

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”. 

He published a series of recommendations for the vicar and the PCC, including ordering her to apologise to her congregation. He also raised concerns about the Abbey’s finances.

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

In the response letter, the vicar claims complaints had come 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”.

“Throughout all these processes the Diocese has listened much more to some individuals – in particular a small circle of white, wealthy, strongly interconnected men, all hostile to the vicar, who have a huge influence over the matters at Wymondham Abbey and in the leadership of the Diocese,” it adds.

As part of efforts to defuse the row a visitation team sent in to investigate that met complainants and those supportive of the vicar. 

But the response claims they refused to meet everyone who requested an interview, adding: “despite agreeing to meet with the PCC, this never happened”.

Wymondham Abbey (photo: Nick Butcher)

The vicar and churchwardens have written a damning response the Bishop's letter raises concerns about the way the historic Abbey is being run. - Credit: Nick Butcher

The letter adds that that neither the vicar or the PCC wanted to “engage in ongoing hostile
communications” that are “counterproductive and cause stress and upset”, but that response to the Bishop's directions was necessary “so that the local and wider community are properly informed”.

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 the report says about concerns over handling of finances at the Abbey

"This direction implies that the accounts of Wymondham Abbey are not in order. There has been no deliberate lack of transparency of finances.

"When the vicar became incumbent, there was no proper handover of finances. They were in a disorganised and confused state.

"The Abbey was fortunate to have a warden who was a forensic accountant, and he gave over 100 hours of his time to make sense of the financial history and to bring the accounts in line with charity law.

"At this time it became apparent how much money had been drained from the PCC reserve funds to pay the parish share over the past decade - making the financial position of the parish unsustainable.

"For many years, the Parish share of over £100,000 per annum has been a huge burden and only achieved by using Wymondham Abbey reserves which were left in legacy by people of Wymondham for the use of the Parish. On average this has been £30-40,000 per year from the reserves for the past 10 years.

"These reserves are now empty and the PCC had limited funds to sustain the church and people of Wymondham and Spooner Row over the pandemic.

"Raising the money for the parish share involves time, love and generosity - increasingly parishioners are unwilling to donate their time or money when it is taken by central church, and this very lengthy and protracted process initiated by the Diocese has drained people of good will to support the Church of England."

The EDP says:

The continuing back and forth between some of Norfolk's leading church figures has gone on for too long.

In any position of authority there is an expectation to lead by example.

This is little more true than in religious communities, which are built on messages of harmony, faith and togetherness.

Bickering and outbursts are not in any way in the spirit of the church or the community being represented by those involved.

At a time when there is so much division in society, it is up to our community leaders to set a proper example.

The nation as a whole has been through tumultuous times in the past two years, perhaps now is the time to turn over a new leaf and start afresh.

It is time for the animosity to end - this community needs togetherness now.