A sleepy Worcestershire village has seen 14 vicars leave its parish in 40 years. Edward Chadwick meets the latest minister who claims he is being forced out by threats and intimidation from his parishioners.
When Mark Sharpe quit the police force to become a man of the cloth, he thought he was leaving behind a life of threats and violence.
But little did he know his new career would throw up as much conflict as the frontline of law enforcement.
“I was standing there in my dog collar wondering whether I was going to have to defend myself on my doorstep from someone who fancies himself as a mafia hitman and is standing there with his fists clenched,” he said.
The incident he described was not at an inner city church but outside the Rev Sharpe’s rectory in the hamlet of Hanley Broadheath in rural Worcestershire.
It has been the unlikely setting for a tale of “intimidation” and “sinister” behaviour which the father-of-four says he has been subjected to constantly since arriving five years ago.
The 42-year-old says his phone lines have been cut, his car tyres slashed and his pet dog poisoned during the campaign of harassment.
He has now fled his home and has become the 14th vicar to leave the parish in 40 years. He is now taking the diocese to tribunal claiming he wasn’t supported while he feels he was bullied out of his job.
But locals and even the flock’s former vicar have claimed there is no problem within the congregation.
“The mood was quite sinister as soon as I got here,” said Mr Sharpe, as he helped to pack boxes of his belongings in to a removals lorry.
“I was told that one of the churches was a ‘local church, for local people’ and I would only get along if I kept my nose out of affairs.”
Mr Sharpe claims he had been tasked with sorting out 40 years of mismanagement which ranged from what he claims were simple matters of administration up to more serious matters.
He claimed that his efforts to wrestle powers back the community were at the heart of the abuse he suffered since 2005. The vicar even had CCTV cameras installed outside his home because he was concerned about his children, aged between nine and 19.
He will take the diocese to an employment tribunal in May next year, claiming for constructive dismissal. Union leaders at Unite claim the Bishop of Worcester, the Rt Rev John Inge, and the Suffragan Bishop of Dudley, the Rt Rev David Walker, washed their hands of the affair “like Pontius Pilate”.
Both men have been urged to resign.
“There was some very sinister behaviour from a small group of individuals,” said Mr Sharpe.
“What has particularly shaken my faith in the church has been the way it has been dealt with by the diocese. They seem pathologically unable to deal with any fall-outs and the way they have acted is hypocritical and deeply un-Christian.”
Mr Sharpe is not the only victim of the saga. The rectory where he has been living with his family has been affected by damp and mould, leading to health problems including asthma among his children.
The family is now moving into rented accommodation after they were given notice to leave the property, but the diocese stressed they had not been evicted.
“The house is falling down but the diocese don’t seem to think that they have got a responsibility towards my family. The last five years have been a living hell,” he said.
Mr Sharpe added that he would never rule out a return to the clergy but suspects he has been added to a blacklist of vicars who are out of favour among church leaders.
Before encountering trouble in Worcestershire, he had a run-in with the Royal Navy, which employed him as a chaplain in 2004. He quit after two weeks on board a boat, claiming that young sailors were being allowed to watch ultra-violent pornography.
Later, he was awarded £50,000 in compensation.
Mr Sharpe’s predecessor the Rev Martin Reed left the job after just 18 months but said it was nothing to do with the congregation.
“I read the articles and I wondered if he was talking about a different parish because that wasn’t my experience at all,” said Mr Reed, who now runs his own narrowboat business.
“It is by no means a toxic parish and I enjoyed my time there. I had my own reasons for leaving but the congregation wasn’t one of them.”
Locals also said they were bemused by some of the vicar’s claims but admitted he had failed to fit in.
“I don’t know anything about threats or people attacking his house,” said one man who asked not to be named. “That’s wrong and it is completely wrong for a family man to go through that, if that’s what he is saying. But he didn’t fit in round here and he never made the effort to. There are a few troublemakers like there are at all churches, but mainly they are harmless.
“I think he has taken a few personal remarks to heart and instead of working to overcome them, he had turned his back on us.”
A diocesan spokesman said: “It would be wholly inappropriate to comment upon a case which is yet to be heard by the employment tribunal.
“Mark Sharpe’s allegations including that with regard to a culture of neglect and bullying or otherwise, are wholly denied.”