Do you take this woman, this woman and this woman?

Angela Lambert meets the Norfolk vicar and the woman he intends to make his third wife, incurring the wrath of his bishop
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Here is a story straight out of Trollope - Anthony, rather than Joanna. While the church wrestles with new disclosures about the gays in its midst, this is a tale that bristles with the very same private feuds and ecclesiastical rivalries as 19th-century Barchester, except that today's story is set in rural Norfolk, west of Norwich. The landscape is characterised by long flat fields, beautiful hidden houses, sprawling modern estates, but above all, ancient parish churches whose tiny congregations - services rarely muster more than a dozen - resent any outside interference. It is the perfect breeding ground for jealousy, intrigue and stubborness.

The main figures in this drama are the Rev Kit Chalcraft, the popular vicar-in-charge of the 10 Hillborough parishes, and his stalwart churchwardens - "the roast beef of old England", as one rubicund character described himself. Argument rages over Mr Chalcraft's intention to marry a charming widow and former TV presenter, Susanne Hall, who lives in rather a grand house in the small market town of Swaffham, just beyond the parish boundaries. It will be Mr Chalcraft's third marriage. Some churchwardens and parishioners wish him every happiness; others support their bishop in feeling that, given the lifelong nature of Christian wedlock, Mr Chalcraft cannot take a third wife and continue to be a priest administering the sacraments.

Matters reached such a pitch last December that Mr Chalcraft had his licence revoked by the Bishop of Norwich, the Right Rev Peter Nott. In February, he was given notice to leave his rectory. At the induction of the new temporary priest in charge of the Hillborough parishes, the ceremony was interrupted by a walk-out of parishioners representing five rebel parishes: they support Mr Chalcraft and want to go it alone, defying their bishop. Mr Chalcraft is now unemployed and living in Mrs Hall's house, where they both talked to me.

She was alone when I arrived. In the cosy, Aga-warmed kitchen she brewed a cup of coffee and expressed her dismay at finding herself the focus of so much media attention. In her late fifties, like the vicar, she is mellifluous and extremely well-preserved. Her children are grown- up and she does the usual graceful country things, cultivating her immaculate garden, arranging flowers and stitching tapestry cushions. For the past few years she has put her journalistic skills to good use editing the parish magazine, Ten Times. As their supporters say, they make a lovely couple. In different circumstances she would be an ideal vicar's wife.

Before settling down to talk, Mrs Hall sat me in front of her television to watch nearly 40 minutes of video containing all the news reports covering the affair, carefully spliced together. "Listen to the next bit!" she would say gleefully, or: "This bit's wonderful!" Among the clips was the farewell party given forMr Chalcraft by the five supportive parishes, at which a signed card was presented to the vicar, along with a cheque for £2,000 from the loyal parishioners - a remarkable sum for a total congregation of hardly two or three hundred souls. "They simply adore him!" said Mrs Hall. "There's a marvellous camaraderie in these villages."

Mrs Hall and Mr Chalcraft met more than 20 years ago when he was vicar of another Norfolk parish and she was married to a local boat builder. Their children (her three, his four) went to school together but their parents were hardly more than acquaintances. His wife left him for someone else and, at about the same time, Mrs Hall's husband was killed in a tragic accident. Mr Chalcraft, as befitted her parish priest, offered support, counsel and prayers but, at that stage, nothing more.

Their lives diverged. After his divorce Mr Chalcraft resigned from his then parish. In due course he got his licence back and became vicar-in- charge, eight years ago, of the Hillborough group of parishes, covering 50 square miles west of Norwich. Both his parishioners and the bishop preferred a married incumbent, which may explain why his second marriage was accepted, or at least tolerated, by the Bishop of Norwich.

"He's hopeless on his own," said Mrs Hall indulgently. "He needed a woman to look after him but, sadly, the second marriage failed from the outset. They agreed after only a few months that they'd made a terrible mistake, and two years later it ended in an amicable divorce."

Not long before this, Mrs Hall had sold her house in Rockland St Mary and come to live in Swaffham, to be closer to her married daughter. Great was her surprise on finding, just down the road, none other than Kit Chalcraft, now living in the rectory at Gooderstone. The friendship resumed and soon became much warmer than friendship. In the summer of 1990, after a bout of glandular fever, Mr Chalcraft spent some weeks under Mrs Hall's roof being nursed back to health. After this, their affair was an open secret.

The vicar wrote to the Bishop of Norwich informing him that he had entered upon a relationship with Mrs Hall and planned eventually to marry her. The bishop says he made it clear from the outset that this was unacceptable. If Mr Chalcraft were to marry he would have to resign as vicar-in-charge.

The two had a meeting at which an agreement was drawn up. According to the first draft, Mr Chalcraft would undertake to live in celibacy, alone at the rectory. Kit Chalcraft rejected this, saying it was a promise he could not keep. In 1993 a second meeting was held in the presence of lawyers, at which he agreed instead to "reside alone at the rectory" and not to spend nights with Mrs Hall. He assumed it was understood that he might spend time with Mrs Hall provided that he did not actually live in her big, comfortable old house; nor could she share what she calls his "uncomfortable square box" of a rectory. The bishop, however, seems to have read the agreement as a pledge by Mr Chalcraft to put an end to the relationship, at least its sexual element.

Given these different interpretations, the undertaking was bound to lead to trouble. That trouble erupted when Judy and Carol Knights, parishioners and members of a fundamentalist sect in Wisbech, fired off a now-famous letter to the bishop, protesting about the lifestyle of their vicar. The bishop demanded clarification from Mr Chalcraft, who said he had been perfectly frank all along about his intention to marry Mrs Hall. The bishop replied - in effect - that he had had plenty of warnings; now he must choose between her and his licence to be a working priest.

Mr Chalcraft stood by his plan to marry and informed the bishop last October that the wedding would take place in September 1995, adding, "I request that I might eventually be allowed to continue running the parishes as a non-stipendiary priest. As there is another thrice-married priest in the diocese I would not be setting a precedent, and would be easing the financial straits of a church short of funds."

The bishop maintained that the other priest's situation was quite different and, despite anguished petitions from many parishioners, Kit Chalcraft's licence was revoked. He was given three months' notice to quit, lost seven pensionable years and, when the notice period expired last month, 14 days' notice to leave the rectory.

As we were speaking, Mr Chalcraft returned home. Hearing his car in the drive, Mrs Hall jumped up eagerly to greet him before introducing him to me. A tall, diffident, slightly stooping figure, relaxed and Professor Higginsish in a brightly coloured lamb's-wool sweater and saggy corduroy trousers, it is no surprise that he felt more at home in this comfortable drawing-room than on his own in a draughty modern rectory.

The two central players in this saga protest bitterly against its unfairness. Mrs Hall said: "There's no scandal attached, it's no squalid love affair. I'm a widow, dammit, and he's divorced. We're not hurting anybody else." Kit Chalcraft said much the same: "We're both free people. We love each other. Why can't we just be allowed to be happy?" This is surely disingenuous. Certainly they can get on with being happy, as long as he does not also want to perform the sacrament of marriage or any other service.

Mr Chalcraft's greatest anger is directed at the bishop who has set the parishioners against one another and against their vicar. He said: "These people are good people, as he'd see if he'd only paid them some attention. None of this need have happened. As it is, we're taking on the whole Church of England." By this he means that the rebel parishes are challenging the need for central administration of their affairs. They would rather not pay for the bishop, his big car and his costly bureaucracy, but instead run their own affairs at parish level, raising the money to support their own buildings and services. In this they are being nave. The church pays far more towards the running of rural parishes than they contribute. But the "rebellion" is hotting up. Last Sunday another renegade priest, Robert van der Weyer, conducted a breakaway service in Mr Chalcraft's former parish of Gooderstone, one of the five that have, as he puts it, "declared UDI".

Since Mr Chalcraft ceased to be vicar-in-charge, his temporary replacement, the Archdeacon of Lynn, the Venerable Tony Foottit, was installed with what some called indecent haste two weeks ago. Mr Foottit is one of the more pitiable figures in this tale; a decent man who shuns the limelight and is well aware that half the parishioners whose ministry he now oversees regard him as an interloper. He argues: "These things are not decided by majority vote and a substantial number of people do not accept Mr Chalcraft. Our bishop has had hundreds of letters of support. We fully acknowledge that Mr Chalcraft is a very gifted man; an amusing and likeable person who has exercised a splendid ministry in many ways. He has been treated with great leniency; but he should not confuse forgiveness with condoning his behaviour. He always accepted that if he married for a third time, he would resign."

The story has one final sub-plot, the least obvious but perhaps most important of all. This is the separation and, in all probability, the imminent divorce of the Prince and Princess of Wales. The archdeacon agrees: "The whole subject of divorce is a peculiarly difficult one for the church at the present time, and one with which it is wrestling."

This may explain the Bishop of Norwich's puzzling ambivalence towards the cohabitation and third marriage of his turbulent priest. For five years he did little or nothing and now he is caught between the future head of the Church of England and a group of rebel or, in the other camp, conservative parishioners. Whatever he does looks ill-advised. Meanwhile, in front of a roaring fire, amid photographs of gym-khanas and graduations, weddings and christenings, Susanne Hall and Kit Chalcraft look at one another besottedly and wonder what all the fuss is about.

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