Bishop challenges `Attila the Nun' over church bill

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The Independent Online
SCOTLAND'S MOST senior female cleric will be questioned by a bishop today after allegations of financial mismanagement of church funds.

The future of the Very Rev Miriam Byrne, who has been dubbed "Attila the Nun" by parishioners for her "Thatcher-like" approach, is in doubt after a troubled start to her tenure as provost of St Paul's Cathedral in Dundee, which started only last September.

Ms Byrne, the first woman in Britain to take charge of an Anglican cathedral, is at the centre of complaints about a pounds 19,000 overspend on improvements at the rectory, including the unauthorised installation of an Aga cooker.

The twice-married ex-nun has been the subject of a slew of complaints since she replaced Dr Michael Bunce, whoresigned after being convicted of embezzling pounds 44,000 from a charity for the unemployed.

The Right Rev Neville Chamberlain, the Bishop of Brechin, said the affair was"undermining Christianity".

Ms Byrne, 52, has a colourful past. She spent seven years as a nun with the Vocation Sisters, though never took her final vows and left to marry a former monk. Divorced after 18 years, she next married a university librarian and gradually returned to religious life, this time not as a Roman Catholic but as an Anglican in the Scottish Episcopal Church.

As soon as he heard of Ms Byrne's appointment, George Greig, the cathedral's honorary chaplain for 13 years, resigned and a dozen members of the congregation departed. Others refused to take communion if Ms Byrne was officiating.

In the unenviable role of arbitrator in the matter is the Right Rev Bruce Cameron, the Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney, who will hear details of the wrangle in a private session.

Although details are not being released, he will almost certainly be told of Ms Byrne's abrasive manner. One parishioner described her as "a woman doing a man's job" who over-compensated by throwing her weight around: "She is dictatorial and does not care what people think," he said, citing changes to services.

Last November, all 12 members of the vestry committee wrote to their bishop pleading for Ms Byrne's resignation on grounds of pastoral breakdown. They claimed that congregations at the cathedral have fallen from more than 100 to as low as 30 - though Ms Byrne's supporters and Bishop Chamberlain dispute this figure.

At the end of last year it emerged that Ms Byrne had spent pounds 28,000 doing up the Georgian rectory, despite being given a budget of only pounds 18,000 by the vestry. Then came another bill, mere days before today's hearing, of pounds 9,000 for "additional renovations".

Richard Southern, a vestry committee member, said the cathedral was in deep financial trouble as a result of Ms Byrne's spending. "The cathedral's deficit was just over pounds 9,500 last month," he said.

"When you have only 40 or 50 people going to church, the average Sunday takings are only pounds 150, which is less than most small parish churches in Dundee. The place will go into bankruptcy."

Ms Byrne claims the whole affair is sub judice and was not replying to telephone calls yesterday. Her supporters were also keeping silent.