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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.

 

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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.

 

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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?

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I am very conflicted by the vote on gay marriage with a capital M. And I am dismayed that anyone not in favour of it is being pilloried, called homophobic or a religious nutcase. Ask me if I believe in equality, diversity and fairness and I’ll put my hand up straight away. Marry divorcees in church? Why not. Gay vicars? Not a problem. Women bishops – please God! My beloved brother is gay, I have gay friends and I know couples in civil partnerships who have adopted children.

However, I’m struggling with this one. It has (I think) very little to do with my faith and much more to do with a thousand years of cultural understanding. And biology. There is no getting away from the fact that a man and a woman are designed to fit together physically, with the biological imperative of conceiving children. Whichever way you look at it, whether you’re of the Adam and Eve persuasion or fan of Darwin, men and women fit. That’s the biblical and the biological idea of perfection.

However much you Google it, and however deeply you research it, the world’s understanding of marriage is based around the union of a man and a woman. I know Wikipedia is far from perfect, but I note that it currently says “the institution of marriage pre-dates recorded history” and details several examples of cultural approaches to marriage, all of which relate to the union of a man and a woman. More recently (?!), the etymology of the word can be traced through the 13th century English word ‘mariage’ back to the Old French verb ‘marier’ and ultimately to the Latin word ‘maritare’.

So, for 1,000 years the world has used the word marriage to describe the union of a man and woman. And for thousands of years before that, as far as anthropologists can tell, society has recognised the union of a man and a woman in relation to having children. That’s why I think it is wrong for a relatively small group of people to hurriedly re-define marriage through this vote. Such a fundamental change, seeking to stretch to a new understanding, after a nano-second of debate, thousands of years of cultural programming is … arrogant. Sadly, few members of the House of Commons are deep thinkers and the potential ramifications – particularly for any individual or organisation that holds an opposing view – have not been adequately considered. I am sure that conservative religions uncomfortable with gay marriage will be lightning conductors for litigation, because it will not be long before someone, or something (probably the National Secular Society), will seek to test the Church of England’s supposed immunity.

And what, anyway, is the legal difference between a civil partnership and a marriage? There does not appear to be any. According to the BBC news website “it offers the same legal treatment as marriage across a range of matters, such as inheritance, pensions provision, life assurance, child maintenance, next of kin and immigration rights.”

I can understand why gay couples want to be able to call themselves married. Clearly, they want their relationship to be seen to be as valid as a relationship between a man and a woman. And in more than legal terms (otherwise a civil partnership, which delivers on that, would be sufficient). And it isn’t about being married in church, because most gay people seem to accept religion’s right to opt out. There is something intangible, unquantifiable, mystical, special, about the word itself. And gay people want those attributes too.

But is it right that a marriage between two men (or two women) should be seen as the same thing as a marriage between a man and a woman? I don’t think it is. It is inherently different, and the differences are both physical and cultural.

I am a single woman. I am sorry that I did not find a man to love (who loved me back) and that I therefore did not have babies, because I am sure that the closest thing to Heaven on this earth is a loving marriage blessed by children. I rather think that is God’s ideal for us too. And so I accept that I fall short of that ideal.

I cannot put myself into the intellectual and emotional shoes of a gay man or gay woman, but it seems to me that a gay ‘marriage’ – no matter how loving, how legally respected and how valid – is different from the marriage between a man and a woman who have the potential to create children. Equal, yes: I am absolutely on your side there. But different. And that’s why I’m sorry that the word, which has been understood, respected, celebrated and instituted for thousands of years, has, overnight, been re-defined by a couple of hundred well-meaning, but often wrong-headed, individuals in Parliament.

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The churchwarden's terrier

The churchwarden’s terrier

Cannot believe that it is so long since I posted on The Churchwarden. I’ve tweeted a bit, but in all truth, I’ve been doing a lot of writing in the last six months, on other topics… and (when it stopped raining for about four days last year) quite a bit of gardening.

In that time the Church of England has managed to make some very odd decisions without my help (and apparently without the help of anyone who actually lives in the real world). First, a small number of Lay ( ie un-ordained) people succeeded in blocking Women Bishops which makes the Church of England look misogynistic, discriminatory and driven, not by Christian principles but by legalistic wranglings. And then the Church of England decided that a gay clergyman (not a gay clergy-woman obviously) may become a Bishop but only if they are ‘sexually abstinent’ even if they are in a civil partnership. Which makes the Church of England look.. well, hypocritical? Perfidious? It’s OK to be gay as long as you don’t practice. Better a gay bishop than a woman bishop. Hhhm.

It was also suggested on Twitter that a number of those Lay people who voted against the Women Bishops measure put themselves forward to General Synod at the last elections with this vote in mind. I notice in my own Diocese that two out of our three Lay representatives voted against it (one of whom is a woman), and one out of two of our clergy, the votes effectively cancelling each other out.

But perhaps we get the General Synod that we deserve? If I am too lazy to stand, then who am I to rail at the end result? Our Rural Dean says that it’s almost impossible to get anyone from Deanery Synod to stand for any of the committees at which Diocesan plans are discussed. At the Annual Parochial Church Meeting, people avoid the Rector’s eye when it comes to volunteering as Deanery Synod representative. And who can blame them? I’ve attended a few meetings with the Rector and truly wonder what is the point of them. If ever I saw an organisation that excels in top-down communication, it is the Church of England. And as Synod representatives at every level operate on an individual basis, expressing their personal views and under no obligation to communicate the views of the people they represent, then no wonder General Synod has become a dysfunctional body. It no more represents my views than the current Government does.

Meantime, in the village, life has carried on much as usual, with baptisms, funerals and weddings; with coffee mornings and summer fetes. So far, thanks to God and the watchfulness of church neighbours, we still have all the lead on the church roof. The only blot on the horizon at present is the ghastly chore of exploring the Chancel Repair Liability issue. Of which, more soon. When my blood pressure can stand it.

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I was surprised to hear this on the news tonight. And my immediate instinct was ‘good’, but in fairness, I could be wrong. Obviously Rowan Williams is an immense brain, a deep thinking theologian and an extraordinary man. But here at the cliff face, in the parish, his difficulty with sound bites has raised eyebrows (sorry, that’s not a deliberate reference to those wayward owly tufts).

Of course it would be so much better if the world did not expect leaders and figureheads to spout forth easy answers at a moment’s notice to meet the news deadlines. But sadly that’s how it works and sometimes the considered, deeply thought and very balanced views of Rowan Williams have been too late, too nuanced, and too hard to paraphrase.

I don’t know who can succeed him. It must be the worst job in the world, far harder than being a Prime Minister or President. I do thank Rowan Williams for giving it his best shot, and I wait with interest to learn more about how his successor will be chosen and who that might be.

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Two views of today’s High Court ruling about the atheist and the council prayers.

First the Daily Mail (yes, I know… I can’t believe I’m citing it either).

But also, thankfully, the Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley, who have a much more reasoned summary.

So, while the National Secular Society will claim a victory, and the Daily Mail will rant and rave, apparently it’s all just a technical – ie legal – issue. There’s nothing to stop the Council holiding informal voluntary prayers before meetings. They just can’t make it a formal part of the Agenda.

The aggression of the NSS is amazing, to the extent that I suspect the tide of public opinion is turning against their continual sniping!

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