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Teesside church says it was closed down without consultation, as Free Church of England faces questions about 'missing' money

St Stephen's Church Teesside in Middlesbrough says it has been closed down by its Free Church of England bishop, claiming their church minister was "forced into an unreasonable and illegitimate process of redundancy". 

St Stephen's congregation have accused the Free Church of England Bishop John Fenwick of 'uncanonical practices' or proposing to reduce their minister's stipend and possibly terminate employment in six months' time in November 2020. 

The Free Church of England (FCE) is a 19th century break away from the Church of England. 

The FCE told Premier that the minister, Rev Jonatas Bragatto, was hired using money from selling the church building but that he did not revive the congregation (of less than 10 people) in two years enough to supply new funding for his ministry - and that funds were depleting. 

The FCE says the notification given to Rev Jonatas Bragatto in November 2020 was reminder that finances were running out, whereas the church suggests it had not been consulted before this, and said of the six month warning:

"This proposal was rejected by Rev Jonatas in a letter to Central Trust, affirming the illegitimacy of such proposal, since Central Trust was never our minister's employer. His contract was with the local church. The response from the denomination was that the diocesan Bishop went behind the back of our minister, calling a minority of members in the Church to seek their support to close St. Stephen's and force our minister into redundancy."

In February 2021, the FCE say Church Council representatives of St Stephen's members were asked about the future of the ministry, the FCE claims that apart from two members: "all expressed dissatisfaction with the Minister's ministry. They also unanimously agreed that things had not worked out as hoped and that, since the funds had now run out, the Church should be closed. They have all confirmed this in writing."

The minister was then made redundant in February 2021 and the church became 'unrecognised'. 

In the church's statement, members explain that they have sought to stay with Rev Jonatas Bragatto: "Our minister was forced into an unreasonable and illegitimate process of redundancy that left us no option other than leaving the Free Church of England. Bishop Fenwick claimed that when St. Stephen's was closed, the remaining members could stay in the denomination as "scattered members". We were not consulted about such a decision and we reject such a proposal on the basis that we no longer want to be associated with his leadership. After St. Stephen's was closed uncanonically, the Revd Jonatas Bragatto announced that he would establish a reformed evangelical Church in Teesside. We have requested membership in such a church under his spiritual leadership."

The church has accused Rt Rev Dr John Fenwick of undermining the identity of the denomination. They also claim there has been malpractice to do with the church's funds, which they say should have been returned to the FCE Central Trust. 

According to The Telegraph, the Charity Commission is now also looking into allegations that there are irregularities in the accounts over there being no trace of money from the sale of another church. The FCE “vigorously refutes the allegations”.

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