Man charged as vicar’s murder highlights risks facing clergy

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A man aged 43 was arrested on suspicion of murder yesterday after a clergyman, originally from Yorkshire, was stabbed to death at his vicarage.

The Rev John Suddards, 59, was found with multiple wounds in Thornbury, South Gloucestershire, Avon and Somerset Police said.

As the community mourned, a senior clergyman said the murder should act as a warning – that when clergy open their churches and homes to people, they become “vulnerable”.

Geoffrey Sidaway, archdeacon of Gloucester, said: “Sadly, this event highlights the vulnerable nature of parish ministry in some of our communities today. Many clergy on a daily basis open their homes and their churches to people and clearly that can put them in a vulnerable situation.”

The alarm was raised by workmen who arrived at the building on Tuesday morning to finish a job and realised it was locked.

Detective Chief Inspector Simon Crisp, who is leading the investigation, said: “I am in a position to confirm now that the body found yesterday in the vicarage was Reverend John Suddards.

“He suffered multiple stab wounds, and therefore this is now a murder investigation. A 43-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of murder.”

Appealing for the help of Thornbury villagers, he said police “do not have a good understanding of his friends and family at the moment”.

He said detectives were asking churchgoers to come forward to tell them what they knew about him, who visited him and who he associated with.

“In particular,” Mr Crisp said, “I would be keen to speak to anybody who saw the Reverend after 12.30pm on Monday. Please don’t let it rest on your conscience if you know something and you haven’t told us, however small.”

The incident has sent shockwaves through the clergy and the close-knit community, about 11 miles north of Bristol.

The vicar had only taken up his post last July, moving from the Chelmsford diocese.

Parishioners gathered at a eucharist service at St Paul’s church in Thornbury yesterday morning, and Mr Sidaway said the community was “in shock at the tragic death of their parish priest”.

The tiny church in a country lane on the edge of the town was packed with people, with the service being moved from the larger St Mary’s.

Paying tribute to Mr Suddards, the archdeacon added: “He was a person who cared deeply for people and we were all looking forward to an exciting ministry here in Thornbury.”

The Bishop of Tewkesbury, the Rt Rev John Went, said he was “deeply shocked” to hear of the death “in such tragic circumstances”.

He said he had been due to meet Mr Suddards yesterday morning to review his ministry after the first few months in this diocese.

The vicar’s induction in the parish last July had been noted on the church’s website.

The bishop also spoke at the service and reminded parishioners they were “part of a fallen humanity where tragic events happen”.

He said later: “Our hearts, of course, go out to John’s immediate family and his close friends and we shall want as a church to offer all the support and love that they will need as they come to terms with their personal loss over the coming months.”

A former barrister, Mr Suddards joined the priesthood after an horrific road accident left him paraplegic for nine months.

In an interview when he took up his former parish, he said: “I was thinking after that and felt strongly that God wanted me to become a priest.”