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01 November 2013


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 common).

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 the inside.

"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 Berkshire.

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 yesterday."

Over the laughter, a voice from the pews called out: "This is for the fourth time of asking."

Surprise visit

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 early.

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.

Off-screen romance

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 BBC.

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