Rural idyll where priest lived in fear of his flock

The Times, 23 December 2009

In an old pub high on the Worcestershire border a farmer stared out of the window across a majestic valley towards the mountains of Wales.

“He’s a baddie,” the farmer opined, frowning at the thought. “A real rotten bugger.” Alongside him at the bar, the other men concurred.

The alleged reprobate was none other than the rector, the man who was entrusted originally with the care of their souls.

For his part, the Rev Mark Sharpe, formerly of the parishes of Teme Valley South, alleges that villagers bullied and threatened him, slashed his tires, poisoned his dog, drained his oil tank and smeared excrement over his car.

This bitter dispute in an idyllic corner of England has baffled outsiders. Yesterday one of Mr Sharpe’s predecessors even alluded to “dark forces” at work in the district.

The Rev Francis Biddlecombe told The Times: “They say there was a witches’ coven up on Clee Hill. A Methodist preacher held prayers there and said the evil surrounding that place was very powerful … They’ve had 14 priests in 40 years. You can say one chap is an awkward so and so, but for that many, I suspect there is something more powerful there.”

In Mr Sharpe’s case, a disagreement that apparently began with “illegally” constituted parochial church councils and an improperly managed village hall refurbishment will end in an employment tribunal in May. Mr Sharpe, who left his post last week, will accuse his superiors in the Church of failing to warn him of the true nature of the parishes before he began his ministry and of failing to support him against his own parishioners.

The district of Teme Valley South spreads over a humpbacked ridge, known as Broad Heath. The Edwardian rectory enjoys views of the Cotswolds and the Malvern Hills; the gorgeous countryside is dotted with six tiny villages, each with its own church.

A few days after Mr Sharpe was installed in January 2005, he had a meeting with his archdeacon, his line manager. “He slides this big A4 file across the table,” Mr Sharpe said. The file detailed administrative irregularities in the parishes going back to 1979, when the Church had attempted to merge some of the parishes. Two parochial church councils had refused to merge and were still operating independently, he said. “The archdeacon said, ‘Your first job is to sort this out’.”

According to Mr Sharpe, his attempts to merge two of the parishes met with fierce opposition. He said that he was told to leave things as they were if he wanted to have “a nice life”, and that a churchwarden warned him: “We didn’t like our last rector so we chewed him up and spat him out”.

When Mr Sharpe persisted, things deteriorated further. He attended a fête where no one would speak to him, he was threatened and his apparently healthy dog died in mysterious circumstances. Eventually he installed closed-circuit television cameras on his rectory to protect himself from his own parishioners.

Churchgoers in the six villages are refusing to respond to these allegations until after the tribunal. The farmer in the pub spoke on condition of anonymity; the churchwarden accused of threatening the rector vehemently denied the story. In response to requests, Peter Thorneycroft, 64, a property surveyor who has lived in the area for 35 years, eventually issued a written statement, saying only that the accusations had caused “intense hurt” in the tight-knit community.

Those who did agree to speak, albeit anonymously, said that the rector had “form” when it came to falling out with his employers. He was a police dog handler, and left the force when he was bitten by a dog. After being ordained he joined the Royal Navy as a chaplain but sued the Ministry of Defence for sexual harassment, complaining that he had been exposed to violent pornographic images in sailors’ quarters. In both cases his complaints were upheld and he was compensated.

But if Mr Sharpe has a history of problems in the workplace, then Teme Valley South has a history of problems with its clergy. Fourteen priests in 40 years is a rapid turnover for any parish, let alone a rural one.

Mr Biddlecombe, 79, who was in the parish from 1979 to 1984, when he was forced out, recalled being asked to reorganise the parishes and the opposition that he faced. “People can’t get hold of the bishop, so the local priest becomes the fall guy,” he said. “One of those parishes in particular … gave me plenty of stick.”

Paul Lack, 52, who served there from 1990 to 2001 before leaving the Church, recalled warm, friendly people, fiercely loyal to their churches. But he added that this attachment could also cause them to oppose any attempts to change the way the parishes were run. “Some of the parishes were of a very different character,” he said. “If you try to force them to work together, it doesn’t work, if you try to force them to do that as an outsider … they won’t like it.”

Chris Elson, the vicar of Ripley, near Guildford, and a representative for the union Unite, which is representing Mr Sharpe, said that he had been inundated with calls from rural clergy alleging similar treatment.

Asked whether parishioners could really become so upset at the idea of two parishes merging, he referred to another case of two ancient parishes required to merge. “The vicar had been advised that they were on opposite sides during the war,” he said. “‘Which war?’ he asked. ‘Cromwell’s war’, they said.”

In Mr Sharpe’s case, he said that the diocese had placed a novice priest in an impossible position where “he would make a lot of enemies immediately”. “It’s like a novice journalist thinking he’s being sent to Newbury, when actually he’s being sent to Baghdad,” he said. “Without a flak jacket.”

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