By Mark Michael

The Rt. Rev. Joanna Penberthy, Bishop of St. David’s, will go on sick leave for the next month, amid ongoing contention over a March Twitter message in which she warned “never trust a Tory.” The announcement by the diocese’s archdeacons that the 61-year-old Welsh bishop is unwell and under a doctor’s care came two days after the Archbishop of Canterbury said in a letter to the Secretary of State for Wales that he was “deeply embarrassed by the use of such language by a church leader.” A similar apology was issued on the same day by the Church in Wales’ senior prelate, Andrew John, Bishop of Bangor.

The controversy began when Penberthy responded on March 25 to a post that claimed that the Conservative Party were planning to do away with the Senedd Cymru, the Welsh parliament, tweeting “Never, never, never trust a Tory.” Her post was largely ignored until Calvin Robinson, an Anglican ordinand and Conservative political advisor, retweeted it on June 2.

Penberthy apologized for her statement the same day, noting that “it is not the policy of the Conservative Party to abolish the Senedd and I should have checked all the facts before tweeting. ‘I, of course, trust and have trusted many Conservatives and know there are many honourable people in that party.

‘I further apologise for other tweets I have posted which have caused upset and offence. While I hold strong political views, I have expressed them on Twitter in a way which was both irresponsible and disrespectful and I deeply regret this.”

She also noted that she was taking down her personal Twitter account.

Penberthy has been outspoken on political issues for years, and was a Labour candidate for a local council post in 2015, when she was serving as a priest in England. Her Twitter hashtag was GTTO (Get the Tories Out).

Madeline Davies reported in The Church Times that before her Twitter profile was taken down, it contained numerous posts criticizing Conservative Party politicians and voters, including a 2020 post in response to opinion polls showing rising support for the party, saying: “A very sad indictment of British electorate that so many still want to vote Tory. Absolutely appalling. I am ashamed of each and every one of them.”

In its own June 3 response to Bishop Penberthy’s apology, the Church in Wales said that it “expects all its clergy to engage robustly in public life. However, they need to do so in a way which is respectful, responsible and fair, acknowledging the breadth and diversity of political opinion within the Church. We do not support intemperate claims or poorly informed commentary, and we urge all clergy to recognise that, as public office holders, there should be no expectation that personal views will be regarded as private.

“The Bishop of St Davids’ strong political views are well known. We recognise that she has apologised for causing offence and are pleased she has acknowledged the hurt and damage she has caused and deactivated her personal Twitter account.”

Two of the four parliamentary precincts that compose nearly all of largely rural Diocese of Saint David’s voted Tory in the last election (the other two voted for Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party), and Penberthy’s own MP, Stephen Crabb, is a Tory and an evangelical Christian, one of Britain’s most socially conservative parliamentarians. The Conservative Party increased its share of the vote significantly in Wales in Britain’s most recent popular election in 2019, gaining six more seats.

Support for the established church was a traditional principle of Britain’s Conservative Party, and recent analysis has shown that Anglican support for the Tories has grown significantly since 1979, and was about 20% higher than support for the party among the general public in 2019. British political analysts have suggested that this “Anglican boost” played a significant role in the 2016 Brexit vote.

The 45,000 members of the Church in Wales are a small fraction of British Anglicans (the Church of England has about 1.3 million members), but Welsh Anglicans have traditionally been associated with the nation’s social elite, which tend to vote Tory.

Anglican clergy, though, are much less likely to support the Tories than their parishioners. A 2020 survey of 290 church leaders by the polling group Savanta Com Res found that 40% of Anglican clergy followed Bishop Penberthy in her support for Labour in the 2019 election, while only 6% admitted to voting Conservative. Not a single Church in Wales cleric admitted to backing the Tories.