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Dispute between vicar and choir labelled a 'disgrace to a Christian community'

by Press Association
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Photo © G Laird (cc-by-sa/2.0)

A dispute between a Norfolk vicar and her choir has been labelled a "disgrace" to the Christian community by a retired judge called in to investigate.

Wymondham Abbey's first female vicar, Rev Catherine Relf-Pennington, faced 37 allegations, including claims of bullying made by members of the choir.

Former High Court judge Sir Mark Hedley was brought in last year to assess whether the allegations should go before a church tribunal.

His leaked report, dated 7th November 2019 and seen by the PA news agency, said: "On one side are a group of choir members and others associated with them.

"Their complaints are essentially of high-handed and over-authoritative behaviour amounting to bullying."

Complaints also arose from the handling of the 2019 annual parish meeting, Sir Mark said.

But the ex-judge's report said the vicar's "firm" actions, supported by church wardens, were necessary because a small group in the choir had a "history of troublemaking".

Of the 37 complaints made against Rev Relf-Pennington, 19 were taken forward by the Bishop of Norwich, who ordered for a formal investigation.

Sir Mark said that after having read all 884 pages of evidence in the case, "the picture that emerges can only be described as a disgrace to a Christian community".

The former Family Division judge, who is the deputy president of tribunals for the Clergy Discipline Commission, concluded that both parties should reconcile their differences.

Sir Mark said: "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 said that any reconciliation must be "entirely unconditional", adding that "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.

He said should the case go to a tribunal, it would cost "tens of thousands of pounds" and "occupy many days".

Rt Rev Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich, 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."

Rev Relf-Pennington and the choir's director of music have been contacted for comment.

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