IF YOU organise your services into a “complex railway timetable”, it helps to have a trainspotter to hand to monitor its effect. The Revd Dr Robert Barlow, when he was Priest-in-Charge of Teme Valley South, was just that, monitoring the congregation over a four-year period in which services in the parish moved from village to village. Congregations were expected to move with them. Dr Barlow’s conclusion is that — with notable exceptions — congregation members are loyal to their village church and are generally reluctant to move. This will not come as a surprise to anyone involved in rural ministry, but few attempts have been made to quantify the effect on churchgoing. To amalgamate church services is to allow wishful thinking to triumph over observation. It is also a misreading of the loyalty that people feel to their own parish church rather than to the wider group or, sadly, the priest. We understand fully the thinking behind such a move, as rural dioceses attempt to cover the ground with an ever-fewer number of clergy. But the effect of amalgamating services is to unchurch a large proportion of the rural population, discouraging regular attendance and introducing the unattractive scent of mothballs in buildings that consequently become underused.
For ease and consistency, Dr Barlow gives his figures in percentages. Although these are not particularly safe when numbers are small, they have the effect of revealing the scale of the problem, generally obscured when dealing in single figures. One congregation dropped to 1/30th of its size whenever the service moved out of the village. If a suburban congregation of, say, 300 dropped to ten, the authorities might conclude more readily that the concept of a mobile congregation was a myth.
“LOVE your enemies. Do good to them which hate you.” The President of the United States appears not to appreciate that treaties are not needed between friendly powers: it is one’s potential enemies who require most negotiation. President Trump presents himself as the arch-dealmaker, and promises to curb Iranian nuclear ambitions by playing tough and offering Iran less. But threats and fulmination, derived from what appears to be a desire to undo everything that President Obama achieved, show a poor grasp of statesmanship. Moderate voices in Iran will be discouraged, and anti-American sentiment will be reinvigorated. For the time being, the other signatories, the UK among them, are attempting to shore up the agreement without the US. But the political leadership in Iran is as capable of grand gestures as President Trump is, and President Rouhani has already spoken of restarting their nuclear programme. As the events of 9/11 showed, if the world becomes a more dangerous place, the US is not immune.