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Thoughts triggered by reactions to flowers being left for Henry Vincent at the site of his death.

The churchwardens have been sent a new copy of the Diocesan Churchyard Regulations. The regulations are important on different levels, including the laying down of the law on what may be placed on a grave. This causes the Church of England all sorts of problems with grieving families who do not share the same ‘good taste’ as … well, who? Middle England? The Bishop? God?

The rural churchyard for which I’m responsible was formally ‘closed’ in the 1980s, with no new burials since then, so the current vogue for turning graves into shrines doesn’t really affect me as a churchwarden (thank goodness), but the news coverage of reactions to flowers being left on the south London street where alleged burglar Henry Vincent died after being stabbed by the pensioner he tried to rob, has given me pause for thought beyond the issue of the rights and wrongs of plastic flowers on graves.

Why do people put more focus on the site of a death than on the place where the person’s remains are laid to rest? And why do people mark that location with not only with flowers, but balloons, or football shirts, toys and other memorabilia?

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Almost two years ago, one of our flock, a teacher called Penny, was driving home from school on a summer afternoon. Suddenly, someone on a motorbike came through her windscreen. He died instantly.

Penny was exonerated in the enquiry: the motorbike rider apparently pulled out of the traffic coming towards her, overtaking several cars. Because those cars were slowing down to enter a 30mph zone they bunched up, and the gap on his side of the road that the motorbike rider expected to pull into disappeared, and he had nowhere to go. Penny’s instinctive swerve was evidenced by the tyre marks on the road, but the motorbike kept coming.

Flowers in cellophane appeared at the side of the road the next day, laid by the man’s family who live in the town 10 miles away. And then candle lanterns, and a resin statue bearing comforting words, a couple of good luck charms, a bunch of plastic/glittery flowers, and some schnapps (?) in a bottle. And a wooden cross with an engraved plaque. Then a two-foot tall conifer was planted.

Two years after his death, this roadside shrine is still on the main road outside our village, as you can see from the photo, taken this morning. Fresh flowers in cellophane are placed on a regular basis. Candles are re-lit. The conifer is growing. The Council mows around it when they cut the verges.

And yet I assume that, depending on the faith tradition of the motorbike rider, the family held some kind of funeral ceremony, with a cremation or burial. There is a place where his mortal remains lie, which his family can memorialise to their hearts’ content and to hell with Churchyard Regulations!

So why does the family create, and tend this shrine?

Penny’s physical injuries healed within a few weeks; her mental injury has not. During term time she drives past the shrine twice a day, five days a week. She lives with the knowledge that she was driving the car which killed a 30-something husband and father. Every time she passes the spot, she sends up a prayer for the man who died, and thanks God that she is alive.

She does not need the shrine to remind her that a man died there. And nor should his family.

The right place to remember a loved one is a churchyard or garden of remembrance. 13 years ago my brother and I saw our parents buried in the quiet country churchyard of our childhood.  They have simple headstones, carved with good words that do them honour. Snowdrops and cowslips from our family home have been planted in the turf.  One or other of us makes a (long) journey once or twice a year to lay a sprig of holly at Christmas, or a rose in summer. Simple. Dignified. Minimal environmental impact.

And what of the site where Henry Vincent died? The people who tied those brightly-wrapped bunches of flowers to the fence, along with balloons and messages were/are extremely insensitive towards the Osborn-Brooks family who, like my friend Penny, will never recover from the tragic encounter. People should not need to build a shrine where Henry Vincent died: they will have a grave.

 

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I’m still here. Still a Churchwarden, but alas, without my beloved Terrier, who is now in doggy Heaven*. A couple of new readers stumbled across this blog recently and asked if it was defunct, because it was so long since I posted. I blame the Rev Adrian, who has years of experience in delegating and is bloody good at it. I think that is because he used to be a Dean, and had Canons under him, and Vergers and a share of a Personal Assistant. Now the Rev Adrian has only his Churchwardens… but boy, is he keeping us busy!

After making us think about a Strategy for each parish, and for the Benefice as a whole, we ended up with Objectives: short, medium and long term. Getting to that point was painful for the various PCCs (Parochial Church Councils), but it was just the start: now we have to come up with the goods.

The Objectives look innocent enough: having refreshments after every service; visiting every new householder with a gift and invitation to church; creating a series of one-off ‘exciting’ services to attract new people; ferrying the house-bound to church; replacing the old noticeboard with a shiny sign saying ‘all welcome’; running a Stewardship campaign every Lent; starting a Benefice choir; staging a Benefice cricket match; re-ordering our Grade 1 Listed church to add a lavatory… to name a few.

Don’t get me wrong. These are great ideas. I am sure many churches are already doing these things and if we want to grow our church, we should be too.

But there’s a snag. I don’t think we have enough people to deliver these objectives.  The majority of our congregation is 75+ years old and understandably feel they’ve done their bit. Younger churchgoers (all things are relative!) are on the church’s management committee – the PCC. They’re typically 65+ years old and providing free childcare to grandchildren… or 50-something and out of the village between 8am and 7pm five days a week earning a living.

Which means there’s Cyril, my fellow churchwarden, without whom I’d go mad, and with whom I am frequently mad. And there’s me. We both agree with the Objectives (we helped set them), but thanks to the Rev Adrian’s stream of ‘good ideas’, we’re exhausted. We never take off our Churchwardens’ hats.  If it’s not getting quotes for treating woodworm, it’s mediating between the flower arrangers and cleaning volunteers, or writing church news for the parish magazine, or asking people to read the Lesson on Sunday, or leafletting the village with Easter invitations, or carrying out a risk assessement (as insisted upon by Ecclesiastical Insurance)… and now there’s a host of new tasks.

There’s also being the Vicar’s eyes and ears and defender. Because the Vicar doesn’t live in our village, it’s down to us to identify the lonely, sick or bereaved who might need a pastoral visit from the Vicar. The same with new babies (yes, we tout for christenings). We do a bit of visiting too, but that doesn’t count: parishioners only feel ‘visited’ if the visitor wears a dog collar.

We also get it in the neck every time the Vicar preaches about something unpopular, especially the subject of money.  As churchwardens we dread Lent because it means sermons about Stewardship, leaflets detailing running costs, begging people to set up monthly payments and fill in gift aid declarations.  Of course, the moaning is in inverse proportion to the moaner’s income: those who moan most, earn most and give least. The widows shiftily palm us envelopes containing their blessed mites: “I’m sorry it can’t be more, but my savings aren’t earning the interest they used to.”

But I digress. I will write about Stewardship campaigns and fundraising another time.

The title of this blog post is ‘Setting God’s People Free’ which is the Church of England’s strategy for spreading the good news via lay people. The idea appears to be a move from the old ‘top down’ direction by those who are ordained, to empowering lay people to do God’s work, seven days a week.

“We’re all in this together” is the new cry. It sounds fine in principle. Indeed, I’m the first person to point out that it is ‘our’ church, not the Vicar’s. But in our corner of middle England, I fear we don’t have enough lay people to do God’s work. There’s me, and there’s Cyril and we’re shattered. And if the Rev Adrian comes up with one more good idea, I’ll kill him!

*My beloved Terrier was put to sleep a few weeks ago: she was 14, which I keep telling myself was a good age, but doesn’t stop me from crying when I talk about her. Her village fan club misses her too, and recognises how important she was to me. They sent flowers, cards, wine and hugs. They tell me I must get another Churchwarden’s Terrier, and I know I will, because life would be too lonely without a small dog to love. But not yet.

 

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.