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Free Church of England Bishop Primus, The Rt Revd John Fenwick has been accused of attempted blackmail and racism in a growing public dispute within the denomination. The FCE left the Church of England in 1844 and linked with the Reformed Episcopal Church in the US after it left the Protestant Episcopal Church USA (now, The Episcopal Church) in December 1873.

The matter came into the public sphere after Bishop Primus Fenwick closed and then sold the property of the FCE congregation in Middlesborough. He also fired the rector, The Revd Jonatas Bragatto. It is alleged that Fenwick did not follow either canonical or employment law procedures in either circumstance.

In response, The Revd Arthur Kay, who has served nearly 40 years within the FCE, filed ecclesiastical charges against Bishop Fenwick. Kay says this caused Bishop Fenwick to remove his licence for the parish in Tottingham. It also came at the time Kay was turning 70 years of age.

Kay told a reporter from the Telegraph:

“For me it was a matter of conscience. It’s cost me a lot of sleepless nights. The congregation has pleaded with the bishop to restore my licence and he has refused.

“I have never spoken to the press about anything like this, and I only do so now agonisingly and with the utmost reluctance. I have been torn in two. Only the advice and urging of people I respect has swayed me. Sadly, the bishop will not listen to anything else.

“In such circumstances anyone else would have stepped down to allow an independent investigation. Over and over he has been spoken to by different people in the FCE but he simply ignores every adverse comment and never says he’s sorry about anything he has done.

“This is not the kind of thing that any Christian wants to do. I didn’t do this out of malice or because it’s something I wanted to do. It has cost me hugely to do it.”

In his statement to the Telegraph, The Revd Kay asserted that Bishop Fenwick said he had “burnt his bridges” after he had filed charges against him, and gave him three options: “retire gracefully”, have his licence withdrawn, or accept a Permission to Officiate (PTO) but only within his own congregation “conditional on my saying that I happily accept it and will drop the charges filed against him.”

In addition to Fenwick, the FCE has two other bishops, Bishop Paul Hunt and Bishop Josep Rossello. Rossello and his diocese have since broken fellowship with bishops Fenwick and Hunt.

It was The Revd Kay who registered accusations of racism by Bishop Fenwick with Bishop Hunt. The Telegraph reported that, “In March, the Rev Kay wrote to the FCE’s second in command, Bishop Hunt, alleging that Bishop Fenwick had made comments of a racist nature about Bishop Rossello, including that he was “the best paid minister and he was not even English”.

Fenwick and Hunt deny the charges but FCE clergy say the comments were part of a recorded conversation and that they have physical proof to back up their claims.

Fenwick claims that he removed Kay’s licence for other reasons rather than turning 70 years of age. He said he held a consultation within the wider diocese and denomination before making his decision to not renew Kay’s licence. He told the Telegraph: “The result of the consultation was that, while the congregation wished Mr Kay to continue to minister to them, the assessment of his wider contribution to the Diocese and denomination was substantially negative. My offer to grant Mr Kay PTO at Tottington, was intended as a pastoral way of resolving the polarised outcome of the consultation.”

Bishop Primus Fenwick, is older than The Revd Kay. He attempted to get the Synod of the FCE to adopt a mandatory 70 years of age retirement standard for parish clergy and 75 for bishops, but the effort failed in the committee stage. Following that rebuff, he decided to implement the policy in his own diocese without canonical change but not before breaking his own rule by ordaining General Sir Laurence New CB, CBE to the presbyterate.

The newest presbyter in the FCE was ordained on 5 October 2020 whilst on a facility (said to be a boat) so as to not break Covid restrictions. He is 89 years of age. Prior to ordination, The Revd New was a senior officer in the British Army, serving last as the Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff. He retired from active duty in 1986.

Outside of his own jurisdiction, Fenwick, as Bishop Primus, is a member of the GAFCON Council of Advice. The EC asked the GAFCON Secretariat’s Office if Fenwick would take a break from the Council of Advice until the police and charity commissioner’s investigations were concluded but had not received a response before press time.