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OK, so it’s Advent. And that means ‘no flowers in church’. Which I sort of understand, because it is the Church of England’s ‘other Lent’ period. A time of preparation, a time of waiting. So lovely Suzy who runs the flower rota ‘gets’ this, and the pedestal of red chrysanths (with a Union Jack draped around the stand) that she created for Remembrance Sunday has been taken down.

Instead, we have a modest Advent wreath on a small table at the Chancel steps. It is of holly and ivy only, and around it are three purple and one pink candle, while in the centre is one white one.

BUT. This Sunday, the Second Sunday in Advent, we have an infant baptism as part of the usual service. A happy family christening involving 20 local, and not-so-local ‘un-churched’ people. And they don’t understand why the Rev Adrian has ruled ‘no flowers’. Why can’t doting granny arrange pink roses round the bottom of the font?

And next Thursday, we have the funeral of a much-loved elderly villager. A great supporter of church even when she was bed-bound. “I can hear you singing the hymns from my room” Aggie always told me. “I sing along too.”

Her grieving husband has already asked Suzy to buy some white lilies for a pedestal. Suzy rang me in consternation. “What shall I do?” she asked. “I know the Rev won’t want any flowers except what might be on the coffin, but I didn’t have the heart to tell Ted. To be honest, I don’t think I could have explained it convincingly!”

Indeed. And I’m not sure I could either. So I dodged this particular bullet and emailed the Rev Adrian, who had yet to sit down with Ted and plan the service. The floral ball is in the Rev’s court.

What do you do in your church? Would you ‘bend the rules’ for the christening and the funeral? How would you explain it?

Our new Vicar, the Rev Adrian, has been in post about four months. I like him a lot. He’s in his late 60s, and approaching this as a halfway point between being a senior cleric in a big city, and retirement to the countryside. He’s intelligent, experienced, energetic, witty and willing to learn about us and our lives.

He’s been having one-to-ones with lots of people, starting with Churchwardens and those who are on the church electoral rolls, but also Joe Public in the pub. It’s great to see his enthusiasm, but a few eyebrows were raised when he first used the S-word.  The S-word? STRATEGY of course! I don’t think any of our parishes has thought of developing a strategy before, so some churchwardens were taken aback.

The first part of Adrian’s strategy is to look at how the parishes can work together as a Benefice. Hhhhmmm. Another lovely Church of England term that is mystifying to lay people (we’re good at those). Here’s one definition: http://www.churchofenglandglossary.co.uk/dictionary/definition/benefice

But as far as my experience is concerned, Benefice is just the word that describes a group of parishes under the responsibility of one Priest. Here in middle England, the days of a village having a Rectory where its own Rector lives are long gone. In rural Britain, villages share a Priest who has responsibility for four, five, six or more parishes. One Benefice in our Diocese has 10 churches in it, all to be looked after (and driven around) by one Priest.

So here we are in our Benefice: half a dozen rural parishes and 2000 souls spread across 25 square miles of England’s green and pleasant land. The Rev Adrian thinks we should work as a team, as a Benefice, and that is a good idea, because he can’t get round us all every Sunday, and we need to look at having a critical mass for things like prayer groups, or sick visiting or youth work.

But the reality is that each of our villages is very different. The largest parish has a population of more than 600. There are mellow stone farmhouses, Georgian mansions, converted blacksmiths and former wheelwright and carpenters workshops, plus a lot of properties that were once farm labourers cottages, now worth £400K! Most notably, there are some new Affordable Homes on the edge of the village. The village is therefore big enough to sustain not only St Peter’s church, but a pub, a GP’s surgery, a shop with cafe and post office, a village hall and umpteen clubs and groups. There is no school now, but plenty of children. St Peter’s has a reorganisation project on the go, that will allow them to have underfloor heating, an integrated kitchen and take out almost all the pews so that a flexible space is created for wider village use. There is a bell ringing team, and a music group. The congregation is mixed in terms of age, education and outlook and has diverse views.

Our smallest parish has a population of just 80, most of whom have retired into redundant barns ‘done up’, while a handful live in ‘tied’ cottages on the farm and work on the land. St Luke’s church sits all alone by the river, reached via a rough track running through the farmyard and out across the fields. It has no electricity, which makes candle-lit Carol services enchanting (and standing room only). There is an organ, which the brave volunteer has to ‘pedal’ while playing. The congregation is tiny but faithful. They like to sit in their ‘own’ pews. They cling to the Book of Common Prayer and King James bible for all their services. Poetic, but not necessarily understood. But as their Churchwarden always says “we’re all older than God and we like it this way”….

So you can see that we’re a diverse group, and Rev Adrian has got a challenge on his hands. His first question is why don’t we go to each other’s services? Tiny St Luke’s out in the fields has one service a month, as does one of the other villages. My own church (we are the middle child in this family) has two services a month, and the larger churches manage (with the help of a Lay Reader) to have a service every week. So each Sunday there is a service to go to if you’re prepared to get in the car and drive two, four, or five miles…

But I confess we’re really bad about this. It is rare for me to attend another parish’s church, and I am a Churchwarden. Sadly, our religion does not travel well. I am not proud of this. I make an effort on those Sundays – the so-called Fifth Sundays – when our four-week service rota means that there is just ONE service in the Benefice. I go to that to support the Rev Adrian. But I have to say I cannot remember the last time anyone from St Luke’s ventured ‘abroad’ to another church!

All this sounds a bit depressing, but Rev Adrian is determined to challenge us as a Benefice. One of the first steps is his desire to have a website for the Benefice, carrying details of all our churches. Whether St Luke’s embraces this – a village without broadband or mobile phone signal, whose parishioners are never seen in any other church – remains to be seen!

Did I mention that we are in another interregnum? Not sure I did. It is my second in 3 years. After our lovely Rev Fred departed to become a hospital chaplain (a role he finds really challenging, but fulfilling), we survived a thankfully brief six months unscathed.

The Rev Keith when he arrived was a very different sort of Vicar. To start with, he was evangelical. Shock! Horror! Or do I actually mean… How refreshing?! Most of us loved his full-frontal attack. My favourite atheist was outraged at the idea of a country parson actually talking about Jesus Christ.

Anyway, very sadly, a bolt out of the blue came down and took him away. His lovely wife was hit by a serious illness and he had to stop being a part-time, badly-paid vicar, and become first a full-time carer, and then a full-time better paid bread-winner out in the wider world.

So, since last autumn, we’ve been in interregnum again. We are very lucky to have had the regular support of a retired vicar from the nearest market town to come and take our twice-a-month services. That continuity has been very helpful: no scrabbling around from week to week to find someone to plug a gap. He has had time to get to know us, and our congregation has got to know his little foibles too (we all have them). And do you know what? We’ve been fine. Not lost a single service, nor a single member of the congregation.

I was panic-stricken when the Rev Fred departed, and didn’t know how we’d cope. When Keith dropped his bombshell I was sad for him, but not devastated. I had already learned that it is the people who ‘own’ the church, not the vicar.

That may not be quite how it happens in a single parish set-up, but I can tell you that in the countryside, where a vicar has the ‘cure of souls’ of four, five, six, or even more parishes, it is the congregation, the PCC and in particular the Churchwardens who hold it all together. Vicars come and go (as I now know) but Churchwardens remain.  Again, this is particularly true when your vicar lives in the one remaining vicarage that the Benefice clings on to, and it is in the next-door-but-one village.

Because as far as the non-church-going villagers are concerned, I AM ‘the Church’ in the village.  It is me (and the Churchwarden’s Terrier of course) who they see trotting off to church clutching the big key each morning. It is me they see putting the bin by the gate once a week. It is me they see leaning my not-inconsiderable weight on headstones to see if they’re still safe (!) and me they see stuffing leaflets about our next fundraiser through their letterboxes.

So for the last few months we have been back in interregnum.  But again, a thankfully short one. (I fully appreciate that year-long – or longer – interregnums can be really challenging.)

We already have a new vicar on the horizon, who will join us in the summer. I am pleased, but also fairly sanguine about how long this one might last. He’s stepping down from a high-powered role in another Diocese and he is sort-of-semi-retiring to our Benefice. It may be that we have him for just a year or two. But if that is how it is, then we’ll be fine. I’ve learned that. Because it is always ‘our’ church. The people’s church. Not the vicar’s.

 

Apparently last summer (2015) a worthy group headed up by the Bishop of Worcester prepared a report for General Synod on the future of Church Buildings, with grave concerns about the burdens placed on Vicar and villages by caring for ancient, often Listed buildings.

The Church Buildings Review Report was presented to Synod in October and the Consultation period is about to end (29 January 2016). I wonder how many Churchwardens have seen the report? It doesn’t look to me as if many (any?) were involved in preparing the report, or were asked their views. Apparently Bishops and Archdeacons and Diocesan Offices were sent a short questionnaire at the beginning, but that doesn’t exactly seem to me to be a way to consult with those of us who actually ‘walk the talk’ about rural parishes.

I wonder how many Churchwardens have even be sufficiently aware of the Report to have been able to ‘consult’ on it by 29 January?

At least this report notes that, as a proportion of population, rural churches have higher attendance than urban ones, even if – per church building – urban numbers at each service are higher. But yes, let me say that again: as a proportion of the village’s population, more people go to church in villages than they do in towns. Hoorah!

Of course, like the BBC and newspaper editors, there’s an obsession with ‘youth’.  The CofE continues to wring its hands over the age of rural congregations. But that is in part a reflection of the house-owning profile (eg in villages which are beyond the price range of young families), and it reflects another truth that, like Radio 3 and gardening, religion is something you come to later in life.

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I am also glad the report acknowledges the arguments for the importance of PLACE in the God/People relationship. Two years ago, when our PCC moved Jan/Feb services into our cosy village hall (with wcs and a kitchen) it did not go down well: the congregation asked to return to our freezing church because they insisted that it plays a key part in their worship experience. Non-churchgoers also recognise the spirituality inherent in a building soaked with 900 years of prayer.

There are some apparently sensible, rational suggestions that, if a village finds itself unable to rustle up a full PCC, that it should ‘simplify’ things, lift the burden and instigate a Benefice PCC instead, made up of 1 or 2 representatives from each of the villages. Short of removing pastoral support and labelling a building as a ‘Festival Church’ this would be the surest way of driving a gap between the community and the CofE. The village church belongs to the people, not to the incumbent, no matter what the archaic laws may suggest.

In many villages, the church is the last remaining community building, having lost the village school, the post office, the shop and the pub. Now is the time to get villagers to rally round the church at local level, not remove its admin/responsibility to a neighbouring village: that would be the kiss of death for support from the community.

Frankly, and I say this after working through two Interregnums, a village can manage without a parish priest if the PCC is active and there is access to people with Permission to Officiate, but it cannot keep God’s toe-hold in a village without a sacred space.

Finding the money ‘for the vicar’ ie paying parish share is one thing, and it is an increasingly hard task, because nominal Anglicans don’t understand why parish share is so high.  Truly, it is the cost of Ministry which is the biggest problem for PCCs, because that is paid mostly by thefaithful in the pews, whether through our committed giving or in the collection plate.

Finding the money ‘for the building’ is another thing altogether, and it is a much easier task. Many villagers may be nominal Anglicans or once-a-year attenders, but they recognise the importance of the church building to the community: when asked, they donate directly, and they spend generously at our fund-raisers. Their families nominate the church to receive the funeral collection; we even sometimes receive a bequest. The motivation in all these instances is to preserve the fabric of the building.

So the suggestion that struggling PCCs should be able to sign-over their legal responsibility to some secular village Trust is a terrible idea. It would separate the Vicar and the PCC from the fabric of the building, and I am afraid that what would happen is that the enthusiasm and the money would stay with the building! We should NOT want to divest ourselves of the responsibility for the church building, we should want to bring others in to care for it with us!

And who do you think would take it on? In any village, it is the same core of community-minded people who do everything. Here is how it works in my village: I am on the Parish Council as well as the PCC; the PCC Secretary is also on the Village Hall committee; her husband is the Chair of the Parish Council; the PCC Treasurer is also the Clerk to the Parish Council; the other Churchwarden’s wife is on the Village Hall committee.

The next level of involvement is all the people who do not serve on committees, but who volunteer to run the community events and fund-raisers that we need. The final level of engagement is the silent majority who go to the fundraisers and buy the raffle tickets, dipping into their pockets to keep village life going. Who is there left to form a secular Management Trust for a church building?! Nobody.

The church belongs to the people and it is right that the PCC retains that responsibility and maintains the link between the building and God.

What beleagured Churchwardens and PCCs need to keep their church building open and in fair condition is better information about what resources and grants are available. We need pro-active support in the Diocesan Office; we need help chasing grants.

We need help to re-order our churches so that they can stay open and better serve the community. How helpful are the CofE’s own bodies in this task? Rumour has it the CBC acts like a conservation guardian rather than an enabler. And in our own Diocese I am aware of a case where everyone – and I mean the PCC, the vicar, the wider village, the Archdeacon, the Bishop and English Heritage – is in favour of re-ordering to create a much-needed multi-functioning building, but the Diocesan Chancellor has flatly refused to allow the pews to be taken out (and they’re nothing special, believe me). Short of taking their own Diocesan Chancellor to the High Court, the village is stuffed and unable to put in the loos and the kitchen they so badly need so that they can offer Mums and Toddlers, Messy Church and other initiatives the village is crying out for.

I am not sure how I feel about the so-called Festival Churches, which would hold a service only 3 times or so a year. I am not at all clear whether these churches are still part of a Benefice, with a Vicar still responsible for the ‘cure of souls’? Or whether they’re removed from the pastoral care and parish share burden?  What about funerals of long-lived villagers? Weddings? Baptisms?

One thing that worries me about the creation of a category of Festival Churches is that they may siphon away grant money from a ‘just-about-managing’ PCC whose ancient building is still open for regular worship. Which leads me to comment on the Churches Conservation Trust. It seems to me to be a terrible irony that a struggling church has to close before it can access the CCT funds to repair it.  So I was intrigued to see the report make reference to the CCT beginning to work with some open churches of architectural merit.

I will finish by re-iterating my concern that such a potentially significant report, which makes major recommendations, has been compiled by a small number of people and with little apparent effort to talk to rural parishes at grass-roots level. Far more open dialogue with Churchwardens and PCCs should be undertaken before any of these recommendations are taken up.

 

I am in despair about the Paris shootings. With each attack on an individual, an organisation or a government by Islamic ‘terrorists’ I become more fearful for the very future of world peace.

That sounds dramatic, but each attack is a wedge driven more deeply between Muslims and Christians, between the Western world and – I know I generalise here – The Middle East and Africa.

I put the word terrorists in quote marks because I’m feeling less inclined to use that word to describe the religious maniacs who think it is a good thing to kill people who do not believe or think like they do. To me, a terrorist has a more political or nationalistic meaning.

Some of my atheist friends point out that Christianity has a lot to answer for: Crusaders fought Muslims in Spain & North Africa; in the 16th & 17th centuries variations of Christian doctrine were an excuse for umpteen European wars; the enmity between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland was the subject of many a news bulletin while I was growing up; differences of faith were behind the break-up of what we once called Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Fundamentalism is a curse, in any religion. I know there are ‘Christians’ in Africa who think gay people should be imprisoned or killed. But they are wrong and true Christians tell them so.

So what are Muslim communities and the Governments of Muslim countries doing to stop Islamic fundamentalists from killing people in the name of Allah? Are Muslim leaders out on the streets preaching tolerance of other faiths and of other views? Condemnation of the Paris murders is welcomed, but where is the active leadership, the organised youth programmes, the re-education and – yes – even punishment of the fundamentalists in their own society?

If they don’t step up to the plate I fear it will not be long before Muslim communities in Britain feel the backlash from the behaviour of their ‘brothers’ and our tolerance of other races and faiths is replaced by suspicion, fear and hatred towards all Muslims. And that’s why I despair.

Last time I posted I said the Rev Fred had resigned to become a hospital chaplain; something he now admits was influenced by the frustration of trying to look after 6 parishes on a half-time stipend, but with full-time red tape. (Apparently dealing with death and grief as a hospital chaplain is less stressful, and pays better. Who knew?)

So the Rev Keith joined us a few months ago and has already delivered some arresting sermons: he speaks fluently, with barely a note, a huge improvement on some of the interregnum vicars who read a prepared statement from the pulpit… The congregation has warmed to Rev Keith’s natural, heartfelt preaching style, and to his informal approach. But a few feathers were ruffled this morning.

This morning he spoke about the Gaza/Israel conflict “with a heavy heart” but no apology. He mixed religion and politics, nailing his colours to the mast as a Christian supporting Arab people in their desire to live in the land that we used to call Palestine, in the face of Jewish people who believe all the land is theirs by divine right.

Keith even gave us each a hand-out showing maps of that land as it was in 1946 before the establishment of Israel, as it was under the United Nations plan in 1947, again in 1967 and in 2010. The graphics were… well, graphic, and thought-provoking, showing the ever-growing amount of land settled by Israel and the dwindling amount of land that Palestinians are allowed to live on.

The Rev Keith’s empathy for the people he has met in Gaza, on the West Bank and the ‘Holy Land’ (oh, the irony!) obviously influenced his talk this morning. I could not agree with all his points. And I am braced for mutterings from parishioners who disagree with him, or who think that regardless of his view, he should not mix religion and politics.

But why not? When politics results in destruction and death, should Christians not speak out?

I came home and spent hours googling around the conflict, reading some online newspaper articles, the controversy about Jon Snow’s report that wasn’t shown on C4 etc. I also scrolled down to read some of the hundreds of comments posted by readers, and by non-readers who are the sort of people who post comments regardless…

And the diametrically opposed ‘facts’, the completely contradictory historical ‘truths’ and the century upon century of hatred is there for all to see. It’s incredibly confusing and depressing. Who is right? Who is telling the truth? Who did what to whom a thousand years ago?

I am not a historian. Or a theologian. I do not know who did what to whom 20 years ago, let alone 1,000 years ago. And I do not know how far allied guilt over what happened to Europe’s Jews in WW2 has affected relations with the nation of Israel for the last 60 years.

I do not know if the people of Gaza support Hamas. I do not know if Hamas fires rockets from close to UN schools. But even if Hamas is doing that, it does not matter. Because NOTHING, nothing at all justifies Israel’s daily bombardment of tens of thousands of people who are penned into Gaza. And nothing justifies the killing of octogenarians, of mothers and of children.

So I’m going to mix religion and politics and ask my MP and David Cameron to condemn what Israel is doing. And more importantly – and probably with more effect – I’m going to pray.

The Rev Fred is leaving. As soon as he rang my mobile and asked to see me on my lunch break I knew what he was going to say.

He is headed for pastures new, but I feel rather better about it because he’s not forsaking his multi-parish Benefice for another nicer, richer, more interesting one (which would make me feel bad). Instead, he’s becoming a hospital chaplain at our nearest big city hospital. Apparently the more he visited the villages’ sick and dying in hospitals around the region, the more he felt drawn to this sort of work. And I know he’ll be really good at it.

Of course we shall miss Rev Fred and for sure I’m concerned about the Interregnum. But it’s also started me off on the question: why do vicars stop being vicars? I mean hands-on-vicars in parishes like ours?

On the wall of the south aisle is a list of our Rectors dating back five or six centuries. Each incumbent’s stay spans decades until the list reaches the 1960s. But the list of names for the last 40 years is almost half as long as for the last 400 years, with stays of two, four, five or seven years interspersed with lengthy interregna, one of almost two years.

Before everyone jumps up and down, of course I know that the original system of life-time posts in the gift of the landed gentry (or rich Oxbridge College) regularly resulted in a complacent Rector boring the pants off his congregation for 30 years, and no-one could do a damn thing about it. But I’m also sure it equally regularly resulted in a good Rector faithfully serving his community for 30 years in a mutually supportive and happy relationship.

I don’t know of any local Rector/Vicar being in post for more than six or seven years. Is this official Church of England policy, does anyone know?

Or is it that no Rector can cope with the stresses and strains for more than a few years before burning out, as if they were a City trader?

Or is it that care of a country parish is seen as a stepping stone onto greater (better paid?) things within the Diocese, or at the Cathedral? My impression is that there are as many administrators wearing dog collars in our Cathedral city as there are Vicars serving the parishes around it.

Or is it that the stipend is so low that few Rectors can live and raise a family on it? So that they leave for better-paid jobs with more regular hours – such as hospital chaplaincy like the Rev Fred? He tells me his new four-days-a-week contract – plus one weekend a month on call – will pay him the same as a full-time stipend.

Answers on a postcard please?