Archive for the ‘Churchwarden’s Rants’ Category

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.



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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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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.

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The Diocese has kindly sent its Churchwardens a link to something called Shrinking the Footprint, and exhorted us all to take part in a national energy audit with a view to reducing the Church’s impact on energy use. The carrot is that we might shrink our electricity/gas bills too.

I hasten to say that this is all good stuff, in principle. But I do want to share a paragraph that made me smile.

“In a new CofE videocast published today (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MdDk2icT7tQ ) the Revd Ruth Lampard, Associate Vicar at St Mary the Boltons in London Diocese shows how regular meter reading can lead to energy saving initiatives with significant long-term benefits. The church, which has made energy and financial savings, even has a thermometer in the pulpit to make sure the congregation is warm enough but not overheated.

… NOT OVERHEATED ?!?!? I did not need a thermometer to gauge the temperature at this morning’s service. I simply looked at the breath rising as white steam from ten mouths as we sang. Despite the overnight rain that has washed away most of the snow, and the accompanying leap in temperature to double figures, inside our Norman church it is still about 3 degrees. The Rev Fred DREAMS of the congregation getting overheated. But it’s never going to happen.

We are currently taking lots of meter readings to monitor our electric wall-mounted radiant heaters (installed circa 1980). But not so we can reduce our carbon footprint. No, it’s because funeral directors are insisting that we justify the PCC’s charges for everything, including heating. And given that I had to put the heaters on five hours prior to the funeral last week, just to take the chill off, I really don’t think we’re going to have any trouble justifying the cost. Indeed, we may well find we’ve been under-charging!

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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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This definitely comes under the heading of churchwarden’s rants. Today is Mothering Sunday, and our special family-friendly service has opportunities for kids and their mums to take part, with readings and prayers in a short-attention-span service of no more than 40 minutes. The service was flagged up in the monthly village magazine, and 10 days ago I produced a happy little leaflet exhorting children to bring their mums, aunties, grannies and godmothers to church – with the ‘carrot’ of free flowers for mum. And my 15 leaflets went through the letter-boxes of the 15 houses with kids under 16…

Yesterday I put together bunches of spring flowers – bright daffodils, fragrant jonquils, purple lenten roses and sprigs of perfumed mahonia flowers – into little bunches tied with pretty ribbon. And this morning at 7.30, optimistically fretting that I wouldn’t have enough, I went out and cut more daffs for ’emergencies’.

But by 11am it was clear that all the village children had better things to do than come to church. Though that is not really fair on the kids. What I should say is that their parents had devised ‘better’ things to do today. I am sure some drove off to see distant grannies to take them out to Sunday lunch, but in other cases, the kids were ferried to the swimming pool, to pony club and to ‘a picnic’ (have you seen the weather?).

So the upshot was that we had the grand total of two little girls, from the same family, who gamely helped the Rev Fred with his daffodil-bulb-themed sermon, and with their mum led the prayers and who helped me dish out the posies. We had a sprinkling (about 15) of grown-up mums, grannies and aunties, and in the spirit of inclusivity, posies were distributed to every female member of the congregation. Even then, there were two left over and so these are now in a blue jug on the kitchen table, to cheer me up on what has been a disappointing day.

The Rev Fred said “Now you know how I feel when I’m preaching to two widows and a dog”. True enough: he sees far more ‘no shows’ than I do. But it’s not much fun.

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The Rev Fred is bravely tackling the difficult topic of Death, Funerals and Bereavement for our Lent meetings. Like many rural parishes, we have a largely 50+ population and for every wedding or baptism in church we’ll have six or seven funerals. It’s a privilege, and feels right, to say goodbye to an octogenarian in the village church, and hold the wake in the pub or the village hall. It means that all their elderly friends in the village can easily attend (on foot) as well as the family, who are more often than not far-flung.

We lost two elderly widows just after Christmas, within a week of each other. But sadly, for reasons best known to themselves, the families both opted for a service of Cremation in the city 15 miles away, and the village church was not required, though the Rev Fred was asked to officiate at each one. The two ladies’ elderly friends were very upset but various of us rallied round and provided chauffeur services so they could get to the Crematorium safely.

I asked the Rev Fred how these decisions are usually made. Does he contact bereaved families and offer his/our services? Or is he not supposed to ‘lobby’ for the church? His answer was a bit worrying: it’s the undertaker who most families turn to immediately, and who steer the decisions.

Actually, of course, we don’t call them undertakers any more do we? They’re funeral directors, and that is what the do: they direct funerals. And I think that’s how the church has got nudged sideways in all of this. The Rev Fred says that funeral directors ‘like’ cremations more than funerals (though I’m not sure why). Perhaps it is easier to arrange? Cheaper for a family if it’s just ‘the Crem’ rather than ‘crem’ AND church for a memorial celebration?

I am disturbed. The two local funeral directors seem nice enough, and we give them great support at the church, always ensuring that there’s a helpful ‘sexton’ on hand (often me, or one of the PCC). We make life easy for them (and the family) from blocking off parking for the hearse to putting reserved notices on the family pews and beautiful wooden bowls out for retiring collections. Yet I feel that they’re pushing bereaved families towards what is for them the ‘easy’ option of the Crem.

How can the Rev Fred and I get people to understand that the village Church is there for everyone, whether or not they’ve recently been a member of the congregation? And that a funeral is for everyone who is left behind, not simply for the person who has died.

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