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Six prepare on the Ribble

06 September 2013

As part of the creation of the new diocese of Bradford, Wakefield, and Ripon & Leeds, six parishes will find themselves in the diocese of Blackburn. Pat Ashworth pays them a visit

Pat Ashworth

St John the Evangelist, Hurst Green

St John the Evangelist, Hurst Green

FROM the vantage point of the Eagle and Child, at Hurst Green, you can glimpse the silver Ribble winding its way through the valley below. I am in Bradford diocese, as I marvel at a ploughman's lunch that includes an entire bunch of grapes and deli-sized slabs of cheese. But on the far bank of the river, rising to the hills, it is all Blackburn diocese, as far as the eye can see.

And that is the geographical argument for the transfer of the six Ribble Valley parishes from Bradford to Blackburn - part of the massive reorganisation that will dissolve the three existing dioceses of Bradford, Wakefield, and Ripon & Leeds. This will create the new "super" diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales (News, 16 August).

The final vote, at the General Synod in July, was the outcome of a three-year process that was generally welcomed, but which was not without controversy, and dissent about the process itself.

So, I have come to get a snapshot of "the Ribble Six", whom the Archdeacon of Blackburn, the Ven. John Hawley, believes will "strengthen and add to the fabric of the diocese in many ways, particularly in relation to rural affairs, and church growth in rural areas".

Finding the first, Hurst Green, is not that simple: it does not appear on any of the black-and-white signs as far as I can see, and it is a Highways Maintenance man, from out of the area, who scratches his head, and suggests following the signs to an antiques fair at Stonyhurst College.

It is more by good luck than good map-reading that I arrive, half an hour late, at the 11 a.m. service at St John the Evangelist. They have kindly left the door open, and I can sneak in quietly, but nobody turns a hair, and I discover later that the congregation works to what the house-for-duty Vicar, the Revd Gillian Mack, calls "Hurst Green time": generally arriving by the second hymn.

But make no mistake, she says, these congregations are not "rural communities that are just plodding from one Sunday to the next". They are vibrant, enthusiastic, and an integral part of the wider community.

There is no lavatory here, but there is a large drawing of one on the wall. The tall pipe going up to the cistern records that, in this award-winning eco-church, half of the £30,000 needed to build an eco-loo - which is St John's 175th-anniversary project - has already been raised. A tenth of the total will go to provide twinned eco-loos in Africa, and, as the faculty runs out at Christmas, they are hoping that grants applied for will cover the shortfall.

The pews are decorated for the marriage,at 2 p.m., of a couple from Bury: Peter Clarkson and Isobel Miller. Many weddings take place at this picturesque country church, and some of the couples continue at St John's, the minority church in Hurst Green, where the population is 65 per cent Roman Catholic.

The strong RC presence in the area is a result of the proximity of Stonyhurst College, the co-educational RC independent school, and the legacy of the Shireburn family, but there is a good rapport between the churches, Mrs Mack confirms. When the Haiti earthquake happened, the village community raised £5000 in one evening.

Hurst Green and Mitton, also in her charge, were the first to respond when asked whether their mission might be furthered by the move to Blackburn, suggested by the Dioceses Commission. They thought they would go while they could make their own choice, and, although they're broadly happy with the decision, Mrs Mack says that: "The exciting side of the changes has now come to the fore, with the creation of the new diocese, and some of us feel we might have quite liked to have known what was envisaged. Perhaps it just evolved, but it would have been good to have had that earlier on."

I AM used to seeing the mighty Pendle Hill from the former Lancashire mill town of Colne, but its presence in this parallel valley is all-pervading. Wherever you look, it is there, famous for its witches, and sorcery, and as the place where George Fox had the religious experience that led to the founding of the Quaker movement.

I am on the road to Great Mitton, kindly being chauffeured by Gerald Mack, a Reader and husband of Gill, who knows these winding, baffling roads like the back of his hand. "Pendle changes its moods," he says. "It's often completely shrouded, and with amazing colours as the sun goes down."

It is five-and-a-half miles to Great Mitton, where the famous medieval church of All Hallows attracts a high number of visitors. The date against the name of Ralph, the first incumbent, is 1103, but there is believed to have been a wooden-built church here before that.

The interior, reordered in 2000, is wondrous. It is impressive, of course, for the ancient beams, tiles, and windows, and for the magnificent effigies in the Shireburn Chapel, but also for the beauty of the contemporary chandeliers and etched-glass screen in the gallery.

Cromwell is known to have passed this way, but the church, much in demand for weddings, and flanking a busy tea shop, escaped. Tolkien came here frequently in the 1940s; his elder son, John, had been evacuated from the Venerable English College in Rome to the Jesuit seminary, at what is now the preparatory school for Stonyhurst.

The area was the inspiration for elements of The Lord of the Rings, and Pendle is suggested as the Lonely Mountain of Middle Earth.

On to the outstandingly pretty village of Waddington, and the church of St Helen, whose Priest-in-Charge is the Revd John Brocklehurst. Three of his five years here have been dominated by the process of reorganisation, of which he remains highly critical.

Waddington, along with Mitton and West Bradford, also in his charge, was actually in Yorkshire before the local government re- structuring of 1974, and, as someone born in Blackburn, Mr Brocklehurst probably understands better than most the deep-rooted differences between Lancashire and Yorkshire. The Wars of the Roses, he says, were not between counties, but between two aristocratic families. It was wool versus cotton, and pride remains in what is done on either side of the border.

St Helen's is no stranger to change, albeit structural. The beautiful stone tower dates from 1510 - a survivor, with the chancel, of demolition, and rebuilding in 1824 and 1898.

Mr Brocklehurst says that attitudes to the church, from people outside it, range from those who see it as utterly irrelevant to those who regard it as a vital part of the community, even if they rarely attend. "It's certainly an essential part of the beautiful centre of the village," he says, "and, at times, the focus for important aspects of village life."

The village has a church school. And, in an area offering splendid reception venues, the church is another venue that is sought after for weddings - many by Bishop's licence, and one, this summer, from as far afield as Hong Kong. A successful exhibition of wedding dresses and photographs last year drew in a wide range of people, and was followed up on the August Bank Holiday weekend with an exhibition of baptism robes and shawls.

In a "Tower Ball Run" on the Monday - thought to be the first of its kind - 1000 numbered balls were released from the top of the spiral staircase in aid of church funds (the first three to bounce out of the tower were the winners).

The transition from Bradford to Blackburn will not be easy, Mr Brocklehurst acknowledges. New relationships will have to be forged in every part of diocesan life. "If a diocese is working well, it is like being in a family," he says. "We're being asked to leave one family, and join another one; to go from the familiar to the unfamiliar. We're trying to take our positivity with us. Sorting out where God is, and what he is doing in all this, is a challenge as well."

He writes in the parish magazine: "The Bishop of Bradford regularly reminds his clergy that the big changes to the structures of the Church do not affect our core activities of worship, evangelism, and service. He is right, and the reminder is helpful."


WE ARE now in the Forest of Bowland. The intimate church of St Catherine's, West Bradford, 27 miles from the city of Bradford and built in 1898, is a gem. The worship is contemporary: a Common Worship sung eucharist takes place on three Sundays of the month; a lively family service on the second Sunday; and weekday eucharists twice a month. Members of the congregation are part of the attempt to rebuild community here, and there is a high proportion of Nonconformists in the congregation, because this is the only church in the village.

Visitors to St Ambrose's, Grindleton, built in 1805, are invited to: "Sit a while, and take in the stillness, and pray for our work here in this beautiful Ribble Valley village." I'm drawn to the decorative beauty of the stencilled organ-pipes, and to the banner depicting the bee-keeping St Ambrose, with his woolly beard. And I am fascinated by a history of the church here, which includes the early 17th-century Grindletonians, regarded as forerunners to the Society of Friends.

St Peter and St Paul, Bolton-by-Bowland, on the Gisburn Road, is last on my tour - time will not allow me to get to the much-visited St Mary's, Gisburn, another ancient and beautiful church, described in tourist literature as a haven of peace, beside the busy A59.

I could spend hours exploring the rich history and stunning architecture of St Peter and St Paul, parts of which date from the 13th century; but what stands out most, and perhaps speaks best of all about how rural churches in this valley have kept up the pace of change, is the Pudsay Chapel.

It is early 16th-century, and the magnificent tomb depicts Sir Ralph Pudsay, who died in 1468, his three wives, and 25 children. But the church has a Sunday school, youth group, baby-changing facilities, and a loop system, and its chapel cheerfully overflows with craft materials, books, and children's toys. This is no museum piece. These are serving churches.

The "appointed day", when the changes technically take place, is Easter 2014. The Revd Roger Wood, who has served as Rural Dean of Bowland for just two months, and so regards himself very much as the "new boy", says: "In some ways, the position of the Lancashire parishes is not all that different to other parishes, who will now be moving into new deaneries and episcopal areas.

"We will have to relate to new people, and new structures, but this could be an opportunity to rethink how things have been done, and how they might be done differently so to further the Church's mission." Amen to that.

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