'There is a poison running through the parish'

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The Independent Online
KIt began as a simple personality clash, a mismatch of ecclesiastical minds. By yesterday the parish of King's Norton in Birmingham was the scene of open rancour, amid mutterings of racism and sexism, and a decidedly unChristian spirit of ill will.

The ill will is levelled at the Rev Eve Pitts, a black woman priest who refused to resign after complaining about a male colleague. The Rev Martin Leigh, the colleague concerned, had retired to his sick-bed suffering from stress. Sides have been taken; several lifelong friends are no longer on speaking terms.

Mrs Pitts, 46, who was ordained Britain's first black female vicar, claimed during a church service that Mr Leigh, the senior cleric, was using her "as a doormat'' and treating her more like a curate than a vicar.

As a result Mrs Pitts, who together with Mr Leigh is part of a team of five Anglican priests in the parish of 30,000 people, was asked to resign by the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Rev Mark Santer.

She refused point blank and Mr Leigh, overcome with the stress of the situation, took to his sick-bed, where he has remained for the past two months.

The acting Rector at St Nicholas's Church, the Rev Roger Bristow, said his colleague had been off work since January.

"The rector is suffering from a nervous breakdown as a result of the stress this has caused. He has been suffering from illness for some time,'' he said.

Yesterday the diocesan Archdeacon, the Venerable John Duncan, weighed into the row, saying the situation in the parish had become intolerable.

"There is a poison running through the parish and there are divisions in the parish,'' he said solemnly.

"Some are on one side and and some are on the other and it is not an exaggeration to say that lifelong friends have broken up over this.''

And he added that he "absolutely rejected'' reports of a racial motive behind the row.

But the Rev Theo Samuel, of the Association of Black Clergy who has taken up Mrs Pitts's case, said she was clearly the victim of both racism and sexism.

"It is blatantly clear that she has been victimised by the hierarchy,'' he thundered from his church in West Drayton, west London.

"They say that relationships within the parish have broken down and then come to the conclusion that the reason is Eve Pitts. The assumption is that a black person, and a woman at that, doesn't fit in so she must be to blame.

"We are nearly in the 21st century, not the 19th where obedience meant total submission. We will not think of obedience as acting like slaves, we are thinking people.

"Our association works its guts out to get black people to join the Church of England and our job is going to be that much more difficult with this kind of attitude.''

Mr Samuel said Mrs Pitts had been summoned to the bishop's residence on 23 December last year where she was presented with a typed letter of resignation ready for her to sign.

"She went along thinking she would be offered pastoral support but instead she find a pre-typed letter of resignation, purporting to be from her and she had force put upon her to sign it.''

He said that Mrs Pitts had only spoken out about the attitude against her when it all became too much.

Mr Samuel revealed that feelings on the dispute were now running so high that even he had been on the receiving end of threats.

"A telephone call threatened me that if I continued on this particular line I had better be careful when I come to retire in three years or my pension will be gone,'' he said.

Most indicative of this "attitude", according to Mrs Pitts's supporters, was a letter to worshippers on Sunday in which the bishop said that her public outbursts had "made it impossible for her to continue to function effectively" in her present role. He also barred her from preaching at her present church, St Nicholas.

"Her continuing presence is good neither for the parish itself, nor for herself and her family,'' the letter continued.

Mrs Pitts was asked to resign on the understanding that she would continue to receive her full stipend and housing until she found another post or until the expiry of her present contract in April 1999.

The bishop said that Mrs Pitts had talked about moving several times over the last two years and he had asked her to consider at least three other posts. She had declined all suggestions and refused to resign despite pleas from senior church officials.

But the woman at the centre of row yesterday remained serene amid the flapping of cassocks. "I have nothing to say myself about the situation, I'm about to go out to work,'' she said before closing the door.