Church of England vicar, 52, faces the sack for breaking Covid rules after hugging a mourner, singing a hymn with no mask on and putting out Bibles
A Church of England vicar faces the sack for hugging a mourner at a funeral and singing an Easter hymn without wearing a facemask, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
The Reverend Charlie Boyle, his wife and four children could be thrown out of the vicarage where they have lived for eight years after Church officials accused him of breaching Covid guidelines.
In an explosive interview with this newspaper, Mr Boyle, 52, accused Church authorities of 'bullying' and 'intimidating' him, and pursuing a string of petty complaints to force him out of his job at All Saints Church in Poole, Dorset.
The revelation, believed to be the first example of a vicar facing the sack for allegedly breaching Covid guidelines, will send shockwaves through the Church of England. It comes three months after police were lambasted for shutting down a Good Friday service at a Catholic church in London on the grounds it broke lockdown rules.
The Reverend Charlie Boyle, pictured with his wife Sarah, has accused Church authorities of pursuing a string of petty complaints to force him out of his job at All Saints Church in Poole
The MoS can reveal that the Archdeacon of Dorset, the Venerable Antony MacRow-Wood, has launched an investigation into claims against Mr Boyle. They are understood to include:
- Singing the popular hymn Thine Be The Glory during a service on Easter Sunday while not wearing a mask;
- Hugging a grieving mourner at a funeral service;
- Placing Bibles, which had been stored in quarantine for a year, on church pews;
- Recording an online sermon at a nearby beach hut during lockdown;
- Failing to 'take overall responsibility' for preparing Covid-risk assessments at the church.
If the allegations are upheld, Mr Boyle could be disciplined or even sacked, which would see him and his family forced to leave their picturesque vicarage. The vicar says that he has already rejected a proposal from the Archdeacon in which he would agree to quietly resign in order to avoid a 'messy' confrontation with the Church of England.
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Breaking down in tears, Mr Boyle said he was shocked and saddened at the investigation and branded the C of E a 'cold institution' in need of reform. 'The toll is big and I am on antidepressants,' he told the MoS. 'It's very depressing and acutely stressful and it's only my faith that is keeping me going and my belief that God has a good and perfect plan – a better plan.'
Formerly a lawyer, Mr Boyle joined the clergy after attending Holy Trinity Brompton in London and was appointed vicar at All Saints in 2013. The church, built in 1877, is in a wealthy suburb of Poole and boasts a growing congregation of about 200.
Mr Boyle, who has four sons aged between five and 17, says he was 'blessed' to get the job and that he and his wife Sarah have ambitiously expanded the church's activities and attracted new families.
He accepts, however, that a small number of mainly older worshippers are disgruntled by his leadership and, since 2018, have been filing complaints with the Diocese of Salisbury, which oversees the church.
The current controversy erupted in April following a Holy Communion held by Mr Boyle at 6pm on Easter Sunday. A video of the service shows Mr Boyle, who is not wearing a mask, giving the final blessing before picking up a wooden cross. As four members of the band at the front of the church start playing Thine Be The Glory – a much-loved Easter hymn – Mr Boyle is seen carrying the cross down the central aisle and singing along.
The Archdeacon of Dorset, the Venerable Antony MacRow-Wood, has launched an investigation into claims against Mr Boyle
It was the third service Mr Boyle had held that day and was, compared with previous services, sparsely attended, with about 15 worshippers.
'There was a sense of elation and, 'Oh gosh I have finished now,' ' he said. 'Thine Be The Glory is a great, triumphant hymn on which to end the evening on Easter Sunday.'
Mr Boyle is asthmatic and exempt from wearing a mask. He does not believe he broke the Government's Covid guidance and says his singing is amplified in the video because he is wearing a microphone. At the time, Government guidance said a small group of singers were allowed to perform but communal singing indoors was banned. About a month later, Archdeacon MacRow-Wood visited the parish and, during a walk with Mr Boyle to a nearby beach, it is claimed that he accused the vicar of breaking Covid regulations.
Mr Boyle claims the Archdeacon then made him an astonishing offer to 'go quietly' – in return for his resignation, the Diocese would offer him nine months' pay and the use of another vicarage until July 2022. 'I was dumbstruck,' Mr Boyle said. 'I was shocked. My heart was racing. And I just thought, 'What have I done wrong?' '
During an increasingly strained conversation, Mr Boyle said he asked the Archdeacon 'What would Jesus do?', and claims the Archdeacon replied: 'Jesus would see the reality of the situation.'
Mr Boyle works at All Saints Church in Poole, Dorset, and lives in the vicarage with his family
In a subsequent email, seen by the MoS, the Archdeacon urged him to take the deal, saying: 'The Diocese… is trying to provide a means for you to step out of something that could become very messy.'
After Mr Boyle refused to step down, the Archdeacon revealed he was considering bringing a so-called Clergy Discipline Measure against him for failing 'to take appropriate account of Covid-19 regulations, Government guidance and Church of England guidance'. In a letter last month, Archdeacon MacRow-Wood said he was investigating claims that Mr Boyle 'inconsistently' wore a face covering, 'claiming you have a medical exemption at some times but nonetheless wearing a face covering at other times'.
He was also probing allegations that Mr Boyle had sung with the church's band 'on more than one occasion' and had been 'moving around the aisles, in close proximity to other people, without wearing a mask'. 'When I read the accusation I just thought this is a joke,' Mr Boyle said. 'What, on Easter Sunday, I can't pick up the cross and say, 'Thine be the Glory, Risen Conquering Son'? It was just an instinctive reaction to sing that song.' He added: 'There was hardly anyone in the church anyway. I feel shocked and saddened that they could be so petty.'
Mr Boyle has shown the MoS evidence of Covid risk assessments carried out at the church, along with signs reminding worshippers to wear masks and to stay at home if they are unwell.
'The fact that someone would report me to the authorities over this is quite upsetting because I have been personally very responsible. We had our own track and trace, we had QR codes, we put sanitiser in the church hall.'
The Archdeacon is also probing a claim that Mr Boyle was seen 'hugging a person who was not in your household or support bubble'.
Mr Boyle has been given no further detail about the allegation but he believes it could relate to hugging a parishioner at a funeral, something he would occasionally do. Indeed, he believes he hugged a mourner at a rehearsal for a funeral on the day before he received the letter from the Archdeacon.
'Do you know what? I'd do it again,' he said. 'It's an involuntary reaction of comfort. I feel sad that the whole world has got to this stage where people will complain behind your back about giving a hug to somebody. The motivation to hug someone is out of kindness and love.'
Like most vicars, Mr Boyle recorded videos of himself reading sermons for his congregation at the height of lockdown. But concerned that families were switching off, he decided to make a reading from the Book Of Exodus more interesting by recording it inside a nearby beach hut, which he rents.
The recording in May 2020 is also now being probed by the Archdeacon. 'I think officially you were not allowed to use beach huts during that time,' Mr Boyle said. 'I'm trying to do this to make it more engaging. No one is going to get Covid or die as a result of my actions.'
The Archdeacon's letter also accused Mr Boyle of 'returning items to the church which had been removed in order to prevent them being touched'. Mr Boyle believes this complaint refers to a decision he made about three months ago to return Bibles to his church. 'I don't think you can catch coronavirus from a Bible, personally,' he said. 'They have been sitting there for over 12 months so they can't be contaminated.'
Last month, Mr Boyle and his wife met the then Bishop of Salisbury, Nicolas Holtam, to discuss the controversy. But following the meeting, the Bishop, who retired earlier this month, sent Mr Boyle a letter in which he said that if the complaint is upheld, 'it would lead to a penalty being imposed which would be a serious blemish on your record'.
It comes three months after police were lambasted for shutting down a Good Friday service at a Catholic church in London on the grounds it broke lockdown rules
Bishop Holtam also advised the vicar to seek legal advice and said the Diocese would pay up to £1,000 for any legal fees.
After dedicating eight years of his life to the parish, Mr Boyle said he is devastated at what he believes is a campaign to force him out. He said he has been brought to tears 'several times' by the Archdeacon.
He accused Archdeacon MacRow-Wood and Bishop Holtam of being 'intimidating, bullying and not supportive'.
He is, however, determined to fight the allegations. 'What do I have to lose fighting? Nothing. What do I have to gain? Well, that something changes either for the next person who will be bullied by Antony, or for the Church structures to wake up and look after their people.'
Meanwhile, Sarah, 47, spoke of her fear at the huge disruption that her young family would face if they have to leave their home.
'It's petrifying to think that we could have to move out – and where do we move to?' she said. 'One child is halfway through A-levels, another is halfway through GCSEs – they have got another year to go until those courses are finished.'
The investigation into Mr Boyle has also outraged many members of his congregation, at least 20 of whom have written letters of support to the Bishop. One, who asked not to be named, told the MoS: 'I don't think you have any idea how small-minded some people are down here.'
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, which is supporting Mr Boyle, said: 'The allegations and threats against Charlie Boyle and his family are intimidating and need to be dropped. It cannot be right for a passionate Christian leader who has inspired his community and brought young people into the church, to be bullied out of his job on the basis of what appear to be farcical allegations.'
A spokesman for the Diocese of Salisbury said: 'The Diocese cannot comment on individual cases.
'High standards of integrity and service are expected from our clergy. Occasionally clergy fall short of what is expected and complaints are brought against them. These matters need to be dealt with in a formal and confidential way.
'The Clergy Disciplinary Measure can be used by anyone who has a formal complaint. Such complaints need to be thoroughly investigated with pastoral support always being offered at the same time.'
The Diocese added that the Archdeacon and former Bishop would not comment directly on the allegations of bullying and intimidation.
Last Tuesday, the Archdeacon attended a committee meeting of parishioners who help manage All Saints Church and informed them of the investigation into Mr Boyle's conduct. The vicar agreed to leave the meeting while the probe was discussed. 'We were up in arms about the Archdeacon coming along at short notice, telling Charlie to buzz off,' said one of those who attended the meeting. 'We didn't like that at all.'