A vicar at the center of a line of bullying with a ‘white and wealthy’ choir has quit one of Britain’s most iconic churches.
Catherine Relf-Pennington, 64, is leaving historic Wymondham Abbey in Norfolk after receiving dozens of complaints against her, including for bullying, which she has vehemently denied.
She was also charged with assaulting a woman after banishing her from the choir and ramming a truck into a vehicle parked in the Abbey parking lot, causing a ‘six-inch-long gash’ and leave.
A 2020 report listed a total of 37 formal complaints made against the priest, leading to mediators and an investigation by a High Court judge.
But Relf-Pennington, who had become the first female vicar in the church’s 900-year history, claimed she was in fact the victim of a cabal of “rich, highly interconnected white men” who did not were unhappy with a woman running the show. .
She alleged that she had received poison letters and that her truck’s tires had been slashed.
There were also disagreements over his style of preaching, with Kevin Hurn, the mayor of Wymondham, describing him as “very historic” and something that “reverted to the ways of a previous generation”, while others called “authoritarian”.
Catherine Relf-Pennington, 64, leaves historic Wymondham Abbey in Norfolk after receiving dozens of complaints against her, including for bullying, which she has always vehemently denied
The years-long feud saw mediators having to be brought in, while a second choir has not performed at the Abbey for the past three years.
The vicar’s supporters said a “small circle of rich, highly interconnected white men” were all “hostile” to him.
Former High Court judge Sir Mark Hedley investigated and in his report ordered the warring factions to settle, calling the dispute a “disgrace to the Christian community”.
Following Relf-Pennington’s resignation, Mayor Hurn said he hoped a new vicar would be able to restore community spirit to the town.
He said: “Catherine had a very torrid time at Wymondham and I think she was under incredible pressure.”
“His way of preaching the Bible was very historic and reminiscent of the ways of a previous generation, which I think did not sit well with some members of the church community.
“Whoever succeeds him will have a great challenge in restoring harmony to the church community and bringing back some of the people who left to join other churches.
“The Abbey is the true jewel in Wymondham’s crown and I hope whoever takes over can help open it up and meet this challenge.”
The Wymondham Choral Society, which has not given a concert at the Abbey for three years, said they hoped his departure would mean they could return to the historic venue.
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 support the vicar and those who do not.”
The society, which is a separate organization from the abbey’s own choir, previously held three concerts a year at the landmark, but was only allowed to perform there in 2019.
They said: “The dispute has made things incredibly painful for our members and the community as a whole.
“A new vicar will be an entirely new person and we hope he will welcome us with open arms.”
A spokesperson for the Diocese of Norwich said: “Catherine Relf-Pennington has resigned as Vicar of Wymondham effective June 30, 2022.
“The Bishop of Norwich and his senior colleagues will be working with the parish on plans for the future and the people of Wymondham continue to be in his prayers.”
In January (2022), the Reverend Relf-Pennington delivered a 12-page poster claiming that she and her Abbey keepers had been victims of “false allegations, delays and threats, and relentless criticism from a ecclesial community doing its best in very difficult situations”. time’.
She claimed there was an ‘anti-women’ element in the parish and she surprisingly accused the Bishop of Norwich, the Very Reverend Graham Usher, of ‘unethical, immoral and selfish’ behaviour.
In its response at the time, the diocese said the vicar had a “legal obligation to comply with the bishop’s instructions and failure to do so could result in disciplinary action for misconduct.”
He said in January: “At this time, a number of the Bishop’s instructions still need to be followed, and he will work to ensure these matters are properly addressed.”
“The Bishop is very keen to resolve the issues at Wymondham for the benefit of the whole community.”
Last November, the bishop issued a series of recommendations for the vicar and the Abbey Church Council (PCC), including ordering him to apologize to his congregation.
He also expressed his concerns about the finances of the abbey.
In his own 2021 investigation into the case, the Bishop said the allegations against the vicar “reflect a deeply felt division of opinion between parishioners who support the vicar and those who do not.”
He said: “These questions have taken up much of my time since becoming Bishop of Norwich.
“The vicar unfortunately alienated many who spoke to the visiting team through her authoritarian style.”
She had refused to admit her part in the breakdown or “to accept any errors in the way she interacted with people”, Bishop said.
But her 12-page response, made public in January (2022) and believed to be from her and the Abbey keepers, said: ‘We have been harassed.
Relf-Pennington, who had become the first female vicar in the church’s 900-year history, claimed she was in fact the victim of a cabal of “rich, highly interconnected white men” who did not were unhappy with a woman running the show. (Photo: Wymondham Abbey)
“For three years, the pressure here has been unrelenting. We believe the intention was to break the vicar, to break the CCP, and to break the community of worshipers.
The response said complaints about the vicar came from “people opposed to women’s ministry, disgruntled former employees, and people fiercely opposed to changes that have opened the church up to the wider community and modern ways of thinking.” .
He added: “Throughout all of these processes, the diocese has listened much more to certain people – particularly a small circle of wealthy, highly interconnected white men, all of whom are hostile to the vicar, who have enormous influence over business. of Wymondham Abbey and in the direction of the diocese.
“When the vicar became incumbent, there was no real transfer of finances. They were in a disorganized and confused state.
“The Abbey was fortunate to have a director 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 into line with the Charity Act .
“At this point it became apparent how much money had been taken from the CCP reserve funds to pay the parish’s share over the past decade – making the parish’s financial situation unsustainable.
“For many years the parish’s share of over £100,000 a year was a huge burden and was only obtained by using the reserves of Wymondham Abbey which were left as an inheritance by the inhabitants of Wymondham for the use of the parish. On average, this has been £30-40,000 a year from reserves over the past 10 years.
“These reserves are now empty and the CCP had limited funds to support the church and the people of Wymondham and Spooner Row during the pandemic.
‘Raising the money for the parish share involves time, love and generosity – more and more parishioners are unwilling to give their time or money when taken by the central church, and this very long and protracted process initiated by the diocese has drained people of good will to support the Church of England.