Godless and godly: a tale of two cities named Norwich

UNTIL 2011, Norwich in Norfolk proudly held the title of the least religious city in England, and today it boast the 3rd-highest number of LGBT+ people outside London.

But Norwich in Ontario presents a very different picture. And it’s not pretty!

Here municipal matters are deeply influenced by The Netherlands Reformed Congregation (NRC), and it won’t tolerate businesses opening on Sundays.

This I learned after Ontario’s Norwich decided to ban Pride flags on municipal property. The city council also voted against a motion that would proclaim June as a Pride month this summer.

The move came after Norwich saw several cases of vandalism last year involving Pride flags and banners in support of the LGBT+ community.

Winnipeg Free Press this week quoted local resident James Forrest—a professor at the University of Waterloo—as saying:

There’s a big influence here from a certain religious group. I know people that have tried to open businesses and be open on a Sunday and they’ve been visited by the minister saying, ‘if you stay open on Sunday … you’ll be out of business.’

Colleen Bator was one of several residents who said she believed the Netherlands Reformed Congregation’s beliefs may have influenced the council vote.

That particular church is embedded in all facets of decision-making of the town.

The Calvinist NRC was established in Norwich in 1949 and only allows male office bearers.

Councillor John Scholten, who introduced the motion, said he wanted to change the flag policy to “maintain the unity” of the community.

Neither he nor Mayor Jim Palmer, who voted in favour of the motion, responded to requests for comment. The church too, has chosen to remain schtum.

The church website makes clear its opposition to LGBTQ rights, saying on its “beliefs” page that:

Any form of sexual immorality (including but not limited to homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, bestiality, incest, fornication, adultery and use of pornography) is sinful and offensive to God.

Tara King, another Norwich resident, said there is a “big divide” in the town between the church’s members and others.

They will go to businesses in Norwich and tell you to your face, ‘we will not do business with you if you’re open on Sunday,’

Ban challenged

Oxford County Pride, an advocacy group, said it has taken the Pride flag ban to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Said Tami Murray, the group’s President:

Just having that as a motion going into a municipal meeting is a violation of human rights, so we put in an initial complaint because of that. We will be following up with a secondary complaint given that they have followed through with the motion.

Councillor Alisha Stubbs, who voted against the motion, voiced hope that the Pride flag controversy could mobilise residents who support inclusion.

I think we’re going to see the community coming together to advocate for belonging and advocate for things that make sense and things that can really help support marginalised communities.

Norwich’s conservative religious character dates back to the early 19th century, when the township was settled by Peter Lossing—a Quaker from New York state who arrived in 1810, said Matthew Lloyd, a curatorial assistant with the Norwich and District Museum.

The Netherlands Reformed Congregation began strengthening its grip on the town following the Second World War and held services in Dutch for a time, Lloyd added.

Editor’s note: Brighton and Hove in south-east England, which has an LGBT+ population of between 11 and 15 percent, took the title of Britain’s most godless city from Norwich when 2021 census figures showed that those with no religion stood at 55.2 percent, compared to Norwich’s 53.5 percent.

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If you spot any typos in this report please notify me at freethinkered@aol.com

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