'Ungodly behaviour' and fisticuffs in the quiet parish of Woodley

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The Independent Online

The fracas could have been a scene out of Father Ted, with an incensed Father Jack lashing out at his arch-enemy, Bishop Len Brennan.

Except the bust-up took place in the church hall of St John the Evangelist, in Woodley, Berkshire, and involved a heated member of the congregation punching a vicar at an afternoon tea party.

The Rev Jon Honour, 38, was allegedly punched repeatedly in the chest before having a soft drink poured over him as he arrived at the party, to bid farewell to the outgoing vicar, the Rev Ann Douglas, who was taking early retirement after four years of service.

Mr Honour, who is vicar of Emmanuel Church, also in Woodley, had come to wish her well on behalf of the clerical team, as he had been appointed as the acting vicar for St John's until a permanent replacement was found.

The incident on Sunday afternoon appeared to be the culmination of a long feud involving Ms Douglas, 56, the parish congregation and fellow members of the clergy.

Three months ago, Ms Douglas resigned, after her moves to "modernise" the church were met by heavy resistance from members of the congregation, whose numbers had dwindled, as well as some vicars in neighbouring churches.

In her final sermon, she had dramatically stated that she had been undermined in an "ungodly way". At the farewell party, a "disgruntled" worshipper appeared to be expressing his anger at Ms Douglas's treatment, which he claimed had forced her to quit her church.

Mr Honour, who suffered bruising, said he had received a letter from the man who had attacked him with an "unreserved" apology. "I was deeply saddened by this unprovoked attack. I have since received a letter of unreserved apology from the person who attacked me," he said.

A statement by the Diocese of Oxford called it an "unfortunate incident" while the Bishop of Reading, the Right Rev Stephen Cottrell, said: "I am extremely sad that the farewell tea for the Rev Ann Douglas was disrupted in such an unfortunate manner." He added: "The Rev Jon Honour is now acting priest in charge of the church in Woodley. He has my complete support, and I have every confidence that he, and the other clergy and lay leaders with whom he works, will help the church move on from this."

Ms Douglas, who said she had been "at the other end of the room" and "did not see anything", is set to retire and moved to Swanage, in Dorset, citing the official reason as ill health for her early departure.

Many church-goers had apparently stopped attending services after Ms Douglas banned the choir and stopped the church organ. Some criticised her for modernising too quickly.

In her pulpit speech last month, the Ms Douglas had said: "It has been a difficult time, but over the last four years there have been those who have sought to undermine the work of the church in the most ungodly way, and I have experienced everything from gossip, to rumour-mongering to bullying, intimidation and harassment from some people, which has been for me, the final straw."