Church 'mice' aim to oust their new progressive priest

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The Independent Online

On matters of religion, like much else, the plain-talking people of Wetherby in West Yorkshire are not too fond of fancy packaging. It is a local characteristic that the Rev Philip Evans, an evangelising new vicar in the town, mighthave taken rather more account of.

On matters of religion, like much else, the plain-talking people of Wetherby in West Yorkshire are not too fond of fancy packaging. It is a local characteristic that the Rev Philip Evans, an evangelising new vicar in the town, mighthave taken rather more account of.

In eight months at the altar, his attempts to guide his congregations into progressive forms of worship have so far seen off the organist, a church warden and most of the choir, and caused a pulpit protest that needed police intervention.

Many parishioners accuse Mr Evans, 44, of dismantling tradition at the 157-year-old St James' church and, by his evangelising, halving the Sunday congregation to 100.

Tomorrow, those arriving for morning worship will discover that Mr Evans has provoked such ire that more than 50 members of his flock are attempting to oust the entire parochial church council in the hope of manoeuvring him out of his job.

A note at the church door will declare that a motion of no-confidence in the council has been signed by 54 people, more than the 10 per cent of the church electoral roll needed to force the Archdeacon of Richmond to call an extraordinary general meeting of the council and have it debated.

The improbable source of so much distaste for Mr Evans is cheese - or, to be exact, his decision to use it as a metaphor in one of his sermons.

Traditionalists were, in the words of one churchgoer, "not best pleased" with the sermon, which depicted them as "mice sniffing around mouldy cheese" because they pursued old forms of worship. "Rev Evans said we have to renew and eat his nice fresh cheese instead," said the churchgoer.

Tellingly, the source of the metaphor was the management guru Spencer Johnson and his book Who Moved My Cheese?, dedicated to solving the exact problem Mr Evans appears to face: how to make traditionalists comfortable with change. "Some people left wholly enthused by the sermon. Christian life is all about change," insisted Mr Evans.

But quite how progressive he really is remains unclear. He was clearly not prepared to overlook one factor to which his predecessors had turned a blind eye - that the 62-year-old church organist and choirmaster, Stephen Hartley, was not married to his partner of five years.

In April, Mr Evans demanded Mr Hartley get married or quit the £3,000-a-year post at the church, which he had held on and off since 1967. Mr Hartley, a divorcee, left and is currently pursuing legal action against Mr Evans.

This was the catalyst for something of a coup. The church's deputy head warden, head server, and a lay reader had all resigned in protest.Then, last month, police were called to the church after a woman stormed the pulpit.

As well as the affair with the organist, the loss of the traditional hymn book, Hymns: Ancient and Modern, infuriates Geoffrey Yates, a retired police officer who has masterminded the no-confidence motion.

Now their hymns come "typed up and reproduced on paper on Sunday mornings," he said. "A lot of people stand there with their mouths open because they don't know the words." And on Mr Hartley, he added: "We always have the Wetherby Silver Band with the choir on Remembrance Sunday - a marvellous day. But if you've not got a choir and a proper organist and it's all happy-clappy music, how can you stage something like that?"

The campaigners, who have formed a St James' Support Group, say the church has already accommodated non-traditionalists by replacing Evensong with a modern service once a month. "If the church was in the middle of Leeds it would be different," said another parishioner. "It was built by public subscription from the residents of Wetherby. It's traditional in its status."

The furore - described by the Bishop of Knaresborough as a "campaign of denigration" - has already forced Mr Evans into an 11-week period of sick leave on grounds of exhaustion, from which he returned last Monday. But he does not appear ready to resign if the motion is carried. "I would first want to hear what people say. There will be a range of views, won't there?" he said this week.

The Archdeacon of Richmond, Ken Good, who will chair the no-confidence debate on 30 August, said it would enable feelings to be expressed "in an open, democratic way".

The clash of religious cultures was "painful," he conceded. "This is a traditional community. Exactly how traditional remains to be seen."

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