Our church correspondent writes:
A packed church at Newbottle in early September (Saturday the 7th) saw the newly appointed vicar of King’s Sutton and Newbottle/Charlton, Rev Matthew Robinson, inducted by the Bishop of Peterborough and the Archdeacon of Northampton. The appointment is for an interim term of three years, during which time, the new incumbent will need to turn around several years of decline in congregation numbers, at the same time tackling mounting financial problems. A particular issue that the Rev Robinson will have to face is that many members of the King’s Sutton congregation reside outside the village, some coming from distant parishes.
First impressions of the new priest confirm the brief, which was to maintain a male-only, high Anglo-Catholic tradition at King’s Sutton. In making this decision, the committee of the parish church was split down the middle (six votes to six) – this despite research commissioned by the committee itself, which showed that over 75% of the King’s Sutton congregation were open to a woman priest. At the same time, all members of the Newbottle congregation interviewed were open to women priests.
Since the vote took place, it has become clear that the wider community in King’s Sutton is overwhelmingly opposed to the decision to exclude women as possible candidates. When the story first broke on the King’s Sutton parish council website and social media pages, there were 75 responses, 70 of them strongly criticising the outcome. And when The Times and BBC Radio Northampton sent reporters to interview villagers, they found no one who supported the exclusion of women candidates.
The ‘smells and bells’ tradition was introduced in the parish in the 1860s, creating at that time a high level of opposition – a situation echoed in recent months by news reports in local media as well as the national press, which noted an ‘undercurrent of anger’. One parishioner has observed that ‘we are being held to ransom by half a dozen people’. The question is: in 150 years, has the community at King’s Sutton ever warmly embraced an anti-women-priests version of Anglo-Catholicism?
However, perhaps the most ironic twist in the ongoing saga came during the Rev Robinson’s induction, when the Bishop of Peterborough, possibly in jest, enjoined the new incumbent (previously a barrister) not to be ‘legalistic’ in his dealings with the parish. It was ironic because, in a letter in February to the editor of the King’s Sutton Times, he had written:
The Church of England’s policy and rules (endorsed by Parliament) are perfectly clear: that the PCC has the right to make this decision, and that the Bishop and other parties must respect their decision.
The Bishop concluded: ‘We are working hard to appoint a new vicar, who will be acceptable to the whole community.’ This would appear to be a tall order.