Tory quits as leader of church council engulfed in sexism row

Cornish church council refuses to hire a female priest-in-charge – sparking sexism storm and forcing leader to quit

  • Andy Virrhas quit as warden and chairman of the Parochial Church Council 

A Tory church council chief has quit after being accused of sexism because he didn’t want a female priest in the former town of Vicar of Dibley star Dawn French.

The controversy first flared in March after the 800-year-old St Fimbarrus parish church in Fowey, Cornwall, passed a resolution to only have a male vicar.

Now, with no sign of the row abating, Andy Virr, the Conservative councillor for Fowey, Par, Tywardreath and Golant, and Cornwall Council’s portfolio holder for adult social care and health, has quit as warden and chairman of the Parochial Church Council (PCC).

Fellow church warden Carol Carruthers and her husband, PCC treasurer Graham, have also resigned after supporters of the ‘no woman priest’ rule were labelled sexist.

Dawn French, 65, whose performances as the Vicar of Dibley made her a TV icon, bought a Grade-II listed mansion in Fowey with her then-husband Sir Lenny Henry for £2.3 million in 2006.

Andy Virr, the Conservative councillor for Fowey, Par, Tywardreath and Golant, and Cornwall Council’s portfolio holder for adult social care and health, has quit as warden and chairman of the Parochial Church Council

St Fimbarrus parish church in Fowey, Cornwall, passed a resolution to only have a male vicar

The actress sold the house to Welsh professor and scientist Sir Christopher Evans for £6.6 million in 2021. Sir Christopher, who founded biotech companies in the UK, made the Sunday Times Rich List 2020 in 583rd place with an estimated fortune of £208 million.

One resident, who didn’t want to be named, said: ‘A prominent resident of Fowey used to be Dawn French, well known for playing the lead role in The Vicar of Dibley.

‘So you might think the local church would be familiar with lady clerics and the associated comedy.’

Another said: ‘These individuals need to wake up and come into the real world. I think it would be quite refreshing to have a female vicar.’

The ‘no woman vicar here’ decision was made by the PCC after some of the congregation said they could not remain within the church on theological grounds unless the priest was a man.

St Fimbarrus, built in the 13th century and one of the oldest churches in Cornwall, has been without a vicar for almost four years.

The previous incumbent, the Rev Phillip de Grey-Warter, controversially set up a rival Anglican church, Anchor, in the town after leaving the Church of England.

Earlier this year, the neighbouring parishes of Tywardreath and Golant welcomed a female vicar, the Rev Shona Hoad, as priest-in-charge.

But Fowey PCC had previously made its decision not to have a woman as vicar and is still without a priest despite initial hopes it would join forces with Tywardreath and Golant and welcome the Rev Hoad.

Dawn French, best known for her role as Geraldine Granger in the BBC’s Vicar Of Dibley, is a former resident of Fowey

Now, following what is described as a ‘heated meeting’ of the PCC last Sunday, it has been revealed that Andy Virr has quit as church warden and chairman of the PCC, taking fellow church warden Carol Carruthers and her husband, PCC treasurer Graham, with him.

Townsfolk are dismayed at the continuing controversy which they fear is making Fowey a laughing stock.

One said: ‘The congregation dwindles further as less misogynistic worshippers have started go to Golant or Tywardreath for the services there.

‘So Fowey hasn’t got a comic lady vicar, nor a functioning vicar of either gender, and even the vicarage stands empty.

‘It doesn’t bode well for the long-term future of a classic church in the centre of the town.’

Sunday’s annual PCC meeting was chaired by St Austell vicar the Rev Howard Flint who admitted that ‘Fowey is in a difficult place’.

He ended the meeting by asking those present ‘to please pray for a way forward’.

A new PCC was elected and there was a discussion about the possible sale of the town’s vicarage, said to be worth £2.5m.

But one woman at the meeting said: ‘It’s time to talk about the elephant in the room. It appears we are avoiding a discussion about a vicar. We are not talking about what we are all here for.

‘When are we going to get a vicar – male, female, homosexual, lesbian or green?’ she asked, with several people applauding her.

A man who gave his name as James said of the choice for a male-only vicar: ‘We strongly believe this was wrong and unrepresentative of the parish and the town. We recommend that the PCC urgently revisit the resolution.

‘This church has had an opportunity to differentiate itself from Anchor Anglican Church but has failed to do so. We would wish Fowey Church to become mainstream rather than, in our words, extreme evangelical. There is now unfortunately no choice for mainstream Christians in Fowey.

‘We believe that Fowey Parochial Parish Council should be inclusive not exclusive. I would ask that the new PCC takes into account some of the feelings which are different to the minority who passed the resolution.’

The meeting heard that only one person responded to a previous advert for the job and ‘he was not qualified for the post’.

A member of the public at the meeting said: ‘One of the reasons people wouldn’t have applied to be a priest in this church is because we hit the press because we were the last church, probably in the world, to be totally sexist.

‘I am really offended on behalf of Fowey. It’s not the town’s fault – it was the sexism of only having a male priest.’

The Diocese of Truro said it could not comment on the PCC meeting because it was ‘an internal parish meeting’ and representatives from the diocese were not present.

A spokesperson for the diocese said: ‘In terms of the recruitment for a new vicar in Fowey, the role will be going out to advertisement in the next couple of weeks. It is hoped this second round of advertising will be successful and there has already been expressions of interest.

‘Fowey PCC passed a resolution under the House of Bishops Declaration. Nothing has changed in relation to this. Any change would require the PCC to revoke it and that is a decision for them. The diocese has no authority in that regard.’

The PCC said in March: ‘Fowey Parish Church is excited about the opportunity of a new vicar in Fowey after a gap of four years. We have funding for a part-time priest living and working in Fowey, allowing time for Sunday services and midweek outreach activity in our community.

‘As an evangelical church we look to the bible for all matters of faith. The bible is very clear on equality – all are equal. The bible, much written 2000 years ago, was ahead of its time in its progressive attitude to women.

‘There is, however, debate over the roles women play within the church. The church council has agreed a compromise position where we will both welcome women priests to teach the bible faithfully each Sunday and lead communion, but seek an overall male priest in charge.

‘We appreciate this can be difficult to understand looking from the outside into the church, but would robustly defend that this position is not sexist, is widely established in the worldwide church, and accommodates all views in the membership of our church without exclusion.’

Pictured is the Cornish coastal town, Fowey – where residents are divided on the decision (stock image)

Fowey is in the Diocese of Truro, and the Ven Kelly Betteridge, the woman Archdeacon of Bodmin, said: ‘The Church of England is fully committed to the ministry of women and men at every level of its ordained leadership.

‘Fowey has always had a male parish priest and wishes to continue that tradition. That doesn’t mean that they don’t welcome female clergy.

‘In recent years they have made the decision to welcome female vicars into the church to lead services, give sermons and take Holy Communion. I have done so myself on occasion. This is something that is very different from those churches who do not recognise women in leadership at all.

‘While the majority of those worshipping in the parish are very supportive of women in ministry, there is a minority of the congregation in Fowey who feel they could not remain within that church on theological grounds, unless the incumbent was a man.

‘Fowey Parochial Church Council passed a resolution under the House of Bishops Declaration which resulted in this decision being taken. They have asked that we respect those views in the interests of church unity.’

It is legally permitted to seek appointment of a male vicar on theological religious grounds. The Church of England has an exemption on theological grounds from the UK employment laws which make discrimination due to gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity unlawful.

MailOnline has contacted Andy Virr for comment. 

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