Unholy row in church

IT may not generate the mass murders of sectarian conflicts between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq or Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland in the latter half of the 20th century, but the normally sedate Hemingford villages have been riven by a cl

IT may not generate the mass murders of sectarian conflicts between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq or Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland in the latter half of the 20th century, but the normally sedate Hemingford villages have been riven by a clash between evangelicals and liberals in the Church of England.

The rift has led to the resignation of Lord Hemingford - the church's patron, though the patronage is suspended - from the parochial church council of the more conservative St Margaret's, Hemingford Abbots.

His resignation followed allegations from the Vicar, the Rev Peter Cunliffe, that clergy and lay ministers from its evangelical sister church in Hemingford Grey have been "abused" by members of the Abbots congregation.

However, who this involved and why it triggered Lord Hemingford's resignation is still not clear.


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He told The Hunts Post: "The dispute arose because Peter Cunliffe came to our Parochial Church Council and said some of his lay readers had been abused. He would not say what he meant.

"It's not reasonable to make an allegation and then to refuse to substantiate it. I have heard no evidence at all that would justify such language

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"It leaves me saddened, and I feel it's all very unfortunate. I think it would be best if he did resign."

He was further angered when the PCC - which is chaired by Mr Cunliffe - refused him space in the parish magazine to explain his resignation. It has, however, allowed him to post a copy on the church notice board this month.

Richard Turpin, lay chairman of the Huntingdon deanery synod - the church's local "parliament" - and a former leader of Huntingdonshire District Council, said: "I think it's probably a clash of churchmanship. The two churches are just so different."

Mr Cunliffe denied the issue was theological or that he had threatened to resign as priest-in-charge at Abbots.

"As far as we know it's sorted out. The village isn't split. It's behind me. If Nick Hemingford hadn't resigned and left the meeting, he would have heard the details. Other members of the PCC agreed that what was described was abusive."

He added that he had spoken privately to the individuals concerned.

In a statement the St Margaret's PCC said it was sorry Lord Hemingford had resigned.

"Both the editor of the parish magazine and the PCC felt that it was not in the best interests of the church to publish Lord Hemingford's letter.

"Lord Hemingford has been encouraged to be reconciled to the fellowship of the church, and to Rev Peter Cunliffe in particular.

"The Hemingford churches represent something of the wide spectrum of the Church of England and rejoice, that in their different styles of worship, they can also be united in a common faith."

Factfile:

Some sort of clash was almost inevitable. St James's Church, in Grey, has a long evangelical - "happy-clappy" - history. St Margaret's has an even longer tradition of Church of England orthodoxy. The two traditions are not natural bedfellows, and Peter Cunliffe has clearly tried to reconcile them.

As long as the Church Commissioners were subsidising clergy stipends, they could live side by side, following their separate paths to salvation. But the stock market crash in the late 1980s, combined with falling church attendance, wiped out those subsidies and there was a rapid reduction in the number of clergy the Diocese of Ely could afford to pay.

By the late 1980s retirements had left both Abbots and Houghton, across the river, without incumbents, and the Rev Dorothy Wilman was appointed to look after both - a task in which she was assisted by her husband, the Rev Arthur Wilman.

When they left in 2002, Abbots and Houghton were back to square one in the search for new incumbents.

Houghton eventually found the Rev Brian Atling as its new Rector. However, as he lives in Hemingford Abbots, had worshipped there for many years and had been chairman of the church council, he felt it would not have been proper to accept that benefice also.

He has not escaped the problem, however. He is now rural dean - the Rev Cunliffe's line manager.

Desperate for a new priest, St Margaret's PCC turned to its evangelical sister church, St James's in Hemingford Grey, and Peter Cunliffe eventually took charge of both parishes.

Although not quite the Vicar of Bray, he seems to have managed to satisfy the more traditional "churchmanship" of the Abbots congregation until this row erupted late last year.

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