Several residents and church members have spoken out in support of their rector, who has resigned after a sexual misconduct investigation.
Reverend Simon Sayers, from the Warblington and Emsworth parish, announced his resignation yesterday, following the investigation by the Church of England.
It comes after he admitted two sexual incidents with a 16-year-old schoolgirl in 1995, while he was a vicar in London.
Despite police concluding that there was ‘no case to answer’, Mr Sayers accepted the penalty from the Bishop of London to be prohibited from ministry for five years.
Parishioners walked out of services yesterday at St Thomas a Becket Church in Warblington and St James’ Church in Emsworth, following the Bishop of Portsmouth’s announcement of Mr Sayers’ resignation.
Several members of the congregation have since accused church authorities of forcing the resignation of their rector.
Canon John Harwood, a member of Emsworth and Warblington’s clergy, said: ‘There seems a huge credibility gap between God’s heart of mercy and kindness, and the way that Simon has been treated by the church.’
Leslie Grist, a member of the choir at St James’ Church and Emsworth resident, said that Mr Sayers was ‘kept in limbo’ for almost two years.
She said: ‘Simon has served this parish and town wonderfully over the last 12 years. Now he and his family have lost his income and been told to get out of their home within two weeks.
‘It just seems so harsh and unkind. There is real outrage about this here.’
Long-time Emsworth parishioners Richard and Ineke Belfrage have accused church authorities of keeping the church and community ‘almost completely in the dark’.
They said: ‘It’s one thing for the church to expect high standards of its ministers and to exercise discipline when things go wrong.
‘But this punishment is wholly disproportionate and the process has been very badly handled.’
Barry and Eileen Mapley, also from Emsworth, added: ‘It seems that Simon has been silenced and given no real opportunity to explain his side of the story to the local community and church. It seems very unfair.’
Norman and Wendy Peers have claimed that ‘the hierarchy has turned its back’ on Mr Sayers.
They said: ‘The church has standards but the church also preaches a message of grace, forgiveness and pastoral care.
‘These things seem to be sorely lacking in the heavy-handed response by church authorities.’
Another member of the Emsworth church, Michelle Murphy, said that she was ‘heartbroken at the outcome of this protracted process’.
She added: ‘Simon had admitted fault and the penalty seems so harsh on him and his family after the police found no case to answer.
‘I know the congregations at Warblington and Emsworth will want to do everything they can to support Simon and his family now and in the future.’
Brendan Gibb-Gray, who served the Emsworth ward as a councillor between 2004 and 2016, spoke out about Simon’s ‘tremendous love and interest’ in everything relating to his parish and the community.
He said: ‘Simon is a great ambassador for his church and put the wonderful words of Christ into action in this small market town. His ministry will be sadly missed by all.’
Mr Sayers said: ‘My family and I are very grateful for the depth of support that we have received from residents and parishioners of Emsworth and Warblington.’
In his resignation statement, Mr Sayers said that he was ‘deeply sorry for the sadness the incident and its investigation has caused’.
He added: ‘As a family we have been extremely moved by the depth of love and support which has been shown to us by the wonderful community in which we live.
‘It has been my greatest privilege to serve this community and especially the churches of Warblington and Emsworth, and I continue to pray for the flourishing of this town, its churches and community life.
‘Amidst the strain of these last 22 months, we have been upheld by God’s unfailing love and we will continue to seek opportunities to serve him and entrust our future into his care.’
The Diocese of Portsmouth said in a statement: ‘The bishop’s penalty reflects both the seriousness of the Rev Simon Sayers’ behaviour on those occasions and of breaching the trust of a young person who had been in his pastoral care for some years.’