Threat by Bishop Campbell of Lancaster came during row over church closures

An English bishop has threatened legal action against a parishioner who suggested his secretary filtered his emails and dealt with them without the bishop reading them first.

Bishop Michael Campbell of Lancaster’s threat to “seek legal recourse” came during a row over the closure of two churches in his diocese, St Ignatius and St Augustine’s.

The parishioner, Philip Bannister, wrote an open letter protesting against the closures in which he wrote: “I have serious doubts whether you [Bishop Campbell] will read this letter personally due to a dioceses-wide acknowledgement that your secretary filters mail from you and takes the initiative to provide his own response.

“For this reason I felt obliged to make this an open letter which I have passed to others who will have an interest in the issues and may widen the media focus on the challenge and opportunities we all face together.”

In his reply Bishop Campbell accused Mr Bannister of making a “most serious – and defamatory – allegation” directed against his secretary, Fr Robert Billing. He said the comment had “no basis in truth whatsoever” and added that he would “seek legal recourse”.

Mr Bannister, a parishioner at the now closed St Augustine’s, had a heart attack five weeks ago and is awaiting bypass surgery. He had sent the open letter to various media outlets and the papal nuncio to Britain, Archbishop Antonio Mennini.

He told the Telegraph that he had “decided to just apologise and withdraw the remark”.

He added: “I never meant to hurt anyone. Looking at it, I was probably a bit harsh. It was probably an error of judgment on my part and I’ve been given a slap-down.

“I have made a public apology and I don’t think I can comment any further.”

Bishop Campbell said he was happy to accept Mr Bannister’s retraction.

A spokesman for the bishop said: “What the bishop was objecting to was that Mr Bannister was defaming the reputation of the secretary [Fr Billing].

“When people put things in print and then distribute it to a third party the bishop feels it was quite proportionate to at least state that it is an option to take legal action,” the spokesman said.

Parishioners at the two churches expressed their dismay at the closures last month. One parishioner, Moira Cardwell, told the Lancaster Evening Post that she would chain herself to the gate of St Ignatius in protest. “We are all stunned by the news,” she said. “Many of us won’t be going to [nearby] English Martyrs. If this church has to close then that will be it.

“Some of the congregation are in their 90s and were baptised here, went to school next door and have worshipped here all their lives. They have been in tears.”

St Ignatius, a Grade II* listed building, has an interior designed by Augustus Pugin.

In a blog post at the time Bishop Campbell defended the closures.

He wrote: “Where the process is rolled-out to its completion there is, of course, an initial sense of grief and ‘dying’ for the people and the priests directly concerned – and I share in these emotions, too, as bishop.”

“Hopefully, however, with the right leadership on the ground a sense of ‘new life’ or resurrection can be created as well; a new identity in a newer, larger, active and stronger parish community.

“Some of our people will certainly be [and are] sad, upset, and often angry when their church or Mass centre is closed and their parish is merged with a neighbouring parish. This is most understandable. Loyal Catholic people love their parishes, and consider them their spiritual home containing many cherished memories. To see them changed or merged, even with neighbouring parishes, is a very difficult experience indeed.”

But he said that, with 92 parishes, there were simply too many churches in the dioceses and it did not have as many practising Catholics as it once did.