Faith in the country
IT WAS not until I checked my diary that I realised that on the
past 14 Sundays I have ministered in ten different churches. That,
I suppose, is what I should have expected as an "active" retired
priest in a rural area.
The compensation for all those Sunday-morning drives in search
of churches often located half a mile away from the present centre
of their village is the discovery that rural church life in so many
places is alive and well. Led by hard-pressed team rectors,
sustained by self-supporting ministers, licensed lay ministers,
dedicated churchwardens, and, of course, people like me, they often
faithfully represent the presence of the gospel and a Kingdom
community at the heart of rural life.
Of course, numbers do not equal those in town-centre churches,
but as a percentage of the population they can be stunningly
impressive. A village of 200 people with a regular congregation of
20 has a church attendance of ten per cent. Translate that to a
typical urban parish of 15,000, and you would not be able to get
them into the building.
Contrary to received wisdom, not all members of these village
congregations are there to swot up for finals, either. There is
usually a young family or two, and perhaps a little Sunday school.
Some even do Messy Church (although messy vestries are more
Room for one more
OF COURSE, some rural churches do suffer from morbid
introspection, the feeling that the end is near and nothing can be
done about it. I went to one village church where I could not get
the door open. I hammered on it and eventually a man opened it from
"How do people get in?" I asked.
"It's all right," he replied. "We're all here."
And so they were - all nine of them.
It is equally true that the Church of England cannot put off for
ever tackling the drain on its resources of large churches in tiny
hamlets which will never be financially or pastorally viable.
Mostly, however, village churches offer a positive and welcoming
environment. Young couples who are making an "escape to the
country", as the TV programme puts it, bring fresh hope to those
who have struggled to keep the ship afloat for years. On recent
visits to rural Cornwall and Leicestershire, I experienced just the
kind of positive church life that I encounter week by week in rural
It would not surprise me if, in the end, the renewal of the
Church of England were to begin in those lovely, chilly, friendly
village churches. But please - hurry up with the lavatories.
Too late to complain
THE Rector of our (town-centre) church, Mark Bennet, usually
starts the parish communion with words of welcome and then the
banns of marriage. A couple of weeks ago, he surprised us.
"I publish the banns of marriage between Hector John Smith of
this parish and Leanne Rosie. . . Oh, no, I married them
Over the laughter, a voice from the pews called out: "This is
for the fourth time of asking."
TWO Sundays ago, I made my way northwards to the wedding of my
favourite great-niece (actually, my only great-niece). The date was
in my diary, I had mapped out the route to the Midlands, and I had
booked a night at a hotel.
I arrived in good time for the service in a village improbably
named Sheepy Magna, but was a bit surprised to find that morning
prayer was still taking place. I peered through the doors, and,
when the service ended, went inside.
Standing there, bewildered, I was suddenly embraced by the
bride, who said: "David, what on earth are you doing here today?" A
good question, because I had got the date wrong, and I was six days
I could blame the layout of my diary, or ordinary
common-or-garden stupidity, but I preferred to put it down to a
geriatric inability to tell the difference between 13 and 19.
THE result was that I had a whole afternoon with the
bride-to-be, catching up on news; and an evening drink with her
father, my nephew. I heard how the couple - he an anaesthetist, she
a newly qualified doctor - had first met during a traumatic night
in A&E, fighting unsuccessfully to save a woman's life.
They had never met before, but, in the early hours of the
morning, exhausted and emotionally drained, they shared a coffee,
and are now about to share a life. It sounded like a typical
plot-line from the TV programme Casualty.
The wrong wedding day also reminded me, going back to my first
paragraph, of what it can mean when a country congregation
genuinely takes two young medics to its heart. They had made
hundreds of paper birds, symbols of love on the wing, to greet the
couple as they entered the church.
I could not go back the next weekend, but I left with the order
of service and a sight of the wedding dress. All in all, I thought,
as I drove home, that getting the date wrong was what the medievals
called a "happy fault".
United in essentials
IN THE shopping centre of Truro on a Saturday afternoon
recently, we heard a woman's voice rise clearly above the hubbub:
"Tell mum I'm in Marks and Spencer's underwear."
And a thousand of the listening hordes inwardly echoed the
correct liturgical response: "And so are we."
Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of
Oxford, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the