Wymondham Abbey feud sees former High Court judge brought in to investigate6 min read

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A former High Court judge has criticised a bitter feud between the vicar of a historic abbey and members of her choir as ‘a disgrace to a Christian community’.

Sir Mark Hedley was brought in by the Church of England to investigate complaints about the alleged behaviour of the rev Catherine Relf-Pennington at Wymondham Abbey, Norfolk.

The initial allegations included a claim that the 63-year-old vicar bullied choristers and assaulted a worshipper, although the alleged victim reportedly refused to give a statement about it.

Other complaints centred on her alleged ‘over-authoritative and high-handed’ management, particularly in relation to the abbey’s annual parish meeting last year.

It has been suggested that many of the complaints are rooted in opposition to the vicar’s supposedly modernising approach being at odds with some of the tradition-loving worshippers.

Sir Mark Hedley was brought in by the Church of England to investigate complaints about the alleged behaviour of the rev Catherine Relf-Pennington (above) at Wymondham Abbey, Norfolk

Sir Mark Hedley was brought in by the Church of England to investigate complaints about the alleged behaviour of the rev Catherine Relf-Pennington (above) at Wymondham Abbey, Norfolk

The initial allegations included a claim that the 63-year-old vicar bullied choristers and assaulted a worshipper, although the alleged victim reportedly refused to give a statement about it. (Pictured, Wymondham Abbey)

The initial allegations included a claim that the 63-year-old vicar bullied choristers and assaulted a worshipper, although the alleged victim reportedly refused to give a statement about it. (Pictured, Wymondham Abbey)

Sir Mark described an atmosphere of ‘fear, resentment and unhappiness’ at the 12th century abbey in his report about the affair.

He urged both sides to settle their differences to avoid referring the case to a Church of England tribunal hearing which would lead to the allegations being aired in public.

But he declared: ‘I must confess myself sceptical that these parties have the requisite Christian maturity to handle what would be a lengthy and inevitably painful experience.

‘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.’

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Sir Mark said in his report that 37 complaints had initially been made against Ms Relf-Pennington, who became first female vicar of the abbey in 2017 after being appointed associate vicar in 2013.

The majority of the complaints were said to have been made by members of the abbey’s acclaimed choir.

Sir Mark (above) described an atmosphere of 'fear, resentment and unhappiness' at the 12th century abbey in his report about the affair. He urged both sides to settle their differences to avoid referring the case to a Church of England tribunal hearing which would lead to the allegations being aired in public

Sir Mark (above) described an atmosphere of ‘fear, resentment and unhappiness’ at the 12th century abbey in his report about the affair. He urged both sides to settle their differences to avoid referring the case to a Church of England tribunal hearing which would lead to the allegations being aired in public

A total of 19 complaints were taken forward to the Bishop of Norwich, who decided they were so serious that they should be passed on to the Church of England’s Clergy Discipline Commission.

Sir Mark was ordered to investigate on behalf of the commission and produced his damning report on November 7 last year in which he requested his hopes of a resolution being found to avoid a tribunal being held.

His findings raised concerns about the legitimacy of the allegations, saying some showed ‘an unusual emotional fragility’.

The rev Relf-Pennington and churchwardens denied the claims against her, according to Sir Mark’s report which was leaked to the Eastern Daily Press newspaper.

She and her churchwardens alleged that while her actions might have been ‘firmly expressed’, those making the complaints were ‘a small group of troublemakers, with a history of trouble making,’ Sir Mark wrote.

The judge warned that some complainants faced possibly being ‘publicly branded’ as liars if the case went to a full tribunal hearing which would cost tens of thousands of pounds and occupy many hours of a court’s time.

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Sir Mark also said it was ‘strange’ that the Abbey’s director of music, Rob Goodrich, who was at the ‘hub’ of many complaints, had not made a statement.

Built by Henry I’s master butler: A history of Wymondham Abbey

Wymondham Abbey was founded in 1107 and built as a Benedictine priory by William d’Aubigny, a notable Norfolk landowner and Master Butler of Henry I.

During the 15th Century, Pope Nicholas V granted Wymondham Priory the right to become an abbey.

The monastery was partly demolished in the 16th century during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, but much of the main building survived as a parish church.

The abbey was extended in 2015 with the building of a new refectory and chapel.

Wymondham Abbey was founded in 1107 and built as a Benedictine priory by William d'Aubigny, a notable Norfolk landowner and Master Butler of Henry I

Wymondham Abbey was founded in 1107 and built as a Benedictine priory by William d’Aubigny, a notable Norfolk landowner and Master Butler of Henry I

Reflecting on the issues, Sir Mark said he had become ‘increasingly appalled’ by the prospect of what tribunal proceedings would mean for the complainants, the abbey and the wider Christian community.

His report said: ‘On the 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.’

It added: ‘While the respondent’s actions may have been firm, and firmly expressed, such was necessary in respect of the small number of troublemakers, who were based in the choir.’

Having read all 884 pages of evidence in the case, Sir Mark condemned the ongoing dispute as ‘a disgrace to a Christian community’ and concluded that both sides should reconcile their differences.

He also said that any reconciliation must be ‘entirely unconditional’. 

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Sir Mark added: ‘Much of the evidence adduced by the respondent suggests real life and growth in this community.

‘Likewise the evidence adduced by the complainants suggests much fear, resentment and unhappiness here. It is quite likely there are real elements of truth in both views.’

The rev Relf-Pennington who was born in Australia and raised in Hong Kong, was a research scientist in the field of artificial intelligence before becoming a priest.

The Right Rev Graham Usher, the Bishop of Norwich, urged the warring factions to put their differences aside.

The Bishop said in a statement: ‘Following a number of formal complaints about the Rev Catherine Relf-Pennington, the vicar at Wymondham Abbey, the Clergy Discipline Commission has recommended that a process of conciliation is entered into to try to resolve these difficulties.

‘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.’

Kevin Hurn, the Mayor of Wymondham, suggested that the complaints could have been sparked by Rev Relf-Pennington’s ‘less traditional approach’.

He said: ‘I am aware of the ongoing issues at Wymondham Abbey but personally have a very good relationship with the vicar.

‘She is a radical thinker and takes a less traditional approach. Some services have been changed to reflect modern society, and I wonder if the town is ready for that.’

The rev Relf-Pennington, the Wymondham choir and director of music Mr Goodrich all refused to comment about the dispute.