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Posts Tagged ‘what is a benefice’

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!

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