Wymondham Abbey vicar had tyres slashed in row

Catherine Relf-Pennington, the vicar of Wymondham Abbey Picture: Ian Burt

A vicar claimed she was sent poison pen letters and had her car tyres slashed in a bitter dispute with church members, leaked documents reveal.

ShareWymondham Abbey. Photo: ArchantWymondham Abbey. Photo: Archant

Almost 20 complaints against The Revd Catherine Relf-Pennington at Wymondham Abbey, mainly from members of the choir, were investigated last year by a retired High Court judge, who ordered the two sides to resolve their differences.

They included allegations of bullying and one claim of an assault, which the Revd Relf-Pennington, 63, strongly denied. Now a file passed to this newspaper reveals the full extent of complaints made against the vicar and her response to them. The bulk of complaints regard an incident on December 16, 2018, during which members of the choir claimed the Revd launched an "unprovoked (verbal) attack" at a former employee who was in the choir.

According to the vicar the woman had been "expressly forbidden" from singing with the choir, but had turned up "unexpectedly" that evening.

Director of Music at Wymondham Abbey, Rob Goodrich, is one of the complainants in the ongoing dispute. Photo: Wymondham Symphony OrchestraDirector of Music at Wymondham Abbey, Rob Goodrich, is one of the complainants in the ongoing dispute. Photo: Wymondham Symphony Orchestra

A report into the allegations, written by a staff member at the Diocese of Norwich, a witness "asserts that the respondent (Revd Relf-Pennington) very publicly and forcibly told (the woman) that she was not permitted to sing in the choir.

He refers to the respondent shouting at (the woman), who was visibly distraught." Complainants then allege that the vicar grabbed the woman's arm "forcibly". The vicar denied all the allegations "in the strongest possible terms" and said her actions "did not even come close" to assault.

In her response in March 2019 she added: "At no point did I raise my voice, even in the face of a very emotional outburst from (her)...I did at one point place my open, relaxed hand, gentle near her upper arm... I was attempting to guide her to a seat and offering her tea. "I do not shout and I cannot imagine ever being described as ferocious, abusive.

Such emotive language undermines the credibility of the complainants because it is so obviously used to support the narrative of misconduct in the complete absence of any evidence." In one of the more bizarre complaints, the vicar was accused of leaving the scene of a car accident, something again which she again denied. Revd Relf-Pennington became the town's first female vicar in 2017.

She said those making complaints were "anti-women priests", and that she and other Abbey staff had been bullied by the "same members of the choir, and many of the individual complainants". "We have received hate mail, I have had my tyres slashed... had threats made against me. It is clear from the well-known recent history of the Abbey that this is a difficult place to be a vicar."

Of the 19 allegations investigated by the Diocese 13 were made by members of the choir. The complaints also detail how the relationship between the vicar and choristers deteriorated over a two-year period. She said this was due to changes she had introduced which had brought "significant progress and development" to the life of the Abbey.

She added that this had required a "more involved style of management", and that a small group of people had "objected to every change". The complaints also detail how the vicar told choristers they would have to sign a written agreement in order to sing with the group. In November last year, former High Court judge Sir Mark Hedley wrote a report into the complaints for the Church of England's Clergy Discipline Commission.

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He called on both sides to reconcile their differences.

Sir Mark described "fear, resentment and unhappiness" at the abbey and condemns the ongoing dispute as a "disgrace to the Christian community". "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," the report said.

Earlier this month the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham Usher, also called on both sides to reconcile. "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," he said. Revd Relf-Pennington did not respond to requests for comment.

-Car Accident In one the more bizarre allegations made, the vicar was accused of accidentally reversing her truck into a parked car in the Abbey carpark and causing a "six-inch-long gash", before driving away. Revd Relf-Pennington said this was not true.

She said it was "highly improbable" her truck had been involved in the incident, given that her vehicle showed no signs of being in a collision. She added that there were two other black trucks, similar to her own, using the car park regularly at the time, and that people used the car park to visit the pub in the evening. "This complaint has left me feeling very distressed, as I genuinely had no knowledge that any accident had taken place," she said in her response to the complaints.

-Non-disclosure agreements The documents also show that at least one members at the Abbey left in "unhappy circumstances" and signed a non-disclosure agreement. The registrar, who looked at the complaints before handing them to the Bishop of Norwich, said the agreements "may constitute a concern".

He said that although not unusual, if the NDAs were "intended to restrict discussion of the respondent's behaviour... that would be a matter of considerable concern". In response Revd Relf-Pennington said: "These are entirely normal and every settlement agreement contains standard confidentiality provisions. "There is no suggestion that I.. did anything that we wanted to hide."

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