Petition asking Primus of the FCE to resign launched

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A group of clergy and churchwardens in the Free Church of England has urged their Primus, John Fenwick, to step down this month. 

The signatories to a letter sent in February, passed this week to Anglican Ink, have also threatened Bishop Fenwick with a complaint to the Charity Commission for England and Wales about his alleged failure to follow ‘normal processes of accountability’.

The letter went to the FCE’s General Council, which is elected by Convocation, the denomination’s governing body. Among the 15 signatories, who include half of the UK FCE’s active clergy, include Steven Hanna, a former Church of England vicar who is now minister of Christ Church Exeter, Peter Sanlon, also a former CofE vicar, now the FCE’s director of training, and the churchwardens of Christ Church Exmouth, one of the FCE’s largest UK churches. 

The letter declares: ‘We are concerned that leadership decisions being taken by the Bishop of the Northern Diocese and our Primus are endangering the peace and future flourishing of our Church.

‘At a recent General Council meeting, a bishop shared concerns that had been reported to him about Bishop John’s leadership. In response Bishop John gave a lengthy justification, without apology, as to how his behaviour could be defended – but that does not alter the fact that numerous churches are stepping away from our denomination due to his behaviour.

‘Similarly, a number of former CofE ministers are opting to join AMiE (the Anglican Mission in England) rather than join the FCE, saying their reason is primarily due to his leadership. It is undeniable that he has, regrettably, been a cause of disunity.

‘We are a small denomination with a meaningful role to play – but we are repeatedly told that he is the primary reason for difficulties we face. This is not a personal comment or a personalised attack – it is the reason people give for leaving or choosing not to work with the FCE.

‘The Northern Diocese itself, after 15 years under his leadership, is in a parlous state, having only 7 congregations, at least two of which have fewer than 7 members.’ 

The signatories, who mostly serve churches in the FCE’s larger Southern Diocese, also raised concerns about ‘a number of cases of ignoring normal processes of accountability’ which they said the Charity Commission expects the FCE to uphold. They claimed one FCE member told them that ‘there are several prima facie compliance issues which we feel are being ignored and if not addressed will leave no recourse but to report to the Charity Commission’.

They added: ‘There has been more than one instance of information being withheld from General Council, which prevents trustees from discharging their charitable duties.’

Church of England evangelicals in the 19th Century formed the Free Church of England because of their concern about growing Anglo-Catholic influences. The FCE’s founding Declaration of Principles states: 

‘This Church accepts the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, with such revisions as shall exclude sacerdotal doctrines and practices. This Church, as a Reformed and Protestant Church, doth hereby re-affirm its constant witness against all those innovations in Doctrine and Worship whereby the primitive Faith hath been from time to time defaced or overlaid, and which at the Reformation were disowned and rejected.’

The signatories to the letter urging Bishop Fenwick to step down in April, when he turns 70, alleged:

‘The standards of our denomination have been ignored and undermined by our Primus doing such things as publishing a document online that seeks to explain away the plain meaning of some of our Principles; omitting parts of creeds he has published; declining to oppose prayers for the dead. His books sometimes undermine a plain reading of the Principles – but he insists on them being read as a condition for ministry candidates joining the FCE.’

The Bishop of the FCE Diocese in South America, Josep Rossello, was among the signatories. AI reported last week that the FCE South American Synod, representing growing churches in Brazil and Venezuela, voted to break links with Bishop Fenwick.

Bishop Fenwick and the Bishop of the FCE Southern Diocese, Paul Hunt, were invited to comment on the letter urging the Primus to step down. But they have not replied.

Julian Mann is an evangelical journalist based in the UK and author of Christians in the Community of the Dome