CHURCHGOERS in two remote parishes in Exmoor have expressed concern that their two small village churches may be closed and the house offered for duty be sold by the diocese.
The parishioners of St Mary’s, Oare, and St Bueno’s, Culbone, in Somerset, built and paid for the house in the 1960s to provide a rent-free home for a retired priest, who, in return would hold one service a week in the two isolated churches.
Although the buildings, which date back to the 15th and 13th centuries respectively, continue to attract regular visitors, the parish has struggled to pay for a full-time priest since the Second World War.
Under the agreement, half of the priest’s household bills and any expenses were paid locally. The diocese of Bath & Wells paid the building insurance only.
The chairman of the Oare Parish Meeting, Jeremy Payne, told The Times last week that this agreement had kept alive the spiritual and social life of the parish, which has no shop, pub, or village centre.
Since the final retirement last year of its long-term priest, the Revd Colin Burke, however, the diocese had prevented the parish’s advertising for a successor, and announced plans to sell the rectory, he said. Parishioners were expected to merge with other parishes. The diocese also took the decision to let the rectory to private tenants.
Mr Payne, who called an emergency parish-council meeting, said: “The diocese has no moral right to sell the rectory and pocket the money for its own ends. We, the parishioners, paid for the rectory ourselves; so the Church should not be able to decide to sell it.
“To the communities on the moor, this would mean the end to a rhythm of worship that stretches back to the 13th century.
“Not only that, it would deprive these scattered farmsteads of the only regular opportunity to catch up with their neighbours. It would also reduce these two focuses of the community to becoming mere tourist attractions — museums to a bygone age rather than vibrant facilities for the community.”
CREATIVE COMMONSSt Bueno’s, Culbone, in Somerset
The Archdeacon of Taunton, the Ven. Simon Hill, said on Tuesday that a final decision on the future of the parish and its rectory had not yet been made.
“The diocese is having to look very carefully at how it aligns its resources, and how ministry and mission are carried out in the 21st century. Unlike many small communities, Oare and Culbone have not so far been linked in a larger group of parishes, as most villages their size are now.
“A number of meetings have taken place with church members, but no final decision has been made on the future of the house. Whatever may happen to the house, the church will continue to serve and minister to people in the scattered communities. We hope and pray that the beautiful churches of Oare and Culbone will continue to offer hospitality to walkers, host services at significant festivals, and, with local support, maintain their rhythm of services.”