ELEVEN churches form part of the united benefice of South Lafford, in Lincoln diocese. All of them are listed, and all of them are beautiful. Since 18 April 1983, they have combined under a single parochial church council (PCC), in a structure of governance which appears to work remarkably well here.
The churches lie between Sleaford and Bourne, and serve a population of about 2000 people in 15 villages: an area extending over a geographical area of roughly seven miles by five. They are: St Thomas of Canterbury, Aunsby; St Lucia’s, Dembleby; St Andrew’s, Folkingham; St Botolph’s, Newton; St Peter and St Paul, Osbournby; St Andrew’s, Pickworth; St Mary and All Saints, Swarby; St Andrew’s, Scott Willoughby; St Peter ad Vincula, Threekingham; St Denys, Aswarby, and St Nicholas’s, Walcot.
Of the 11, St Andrew’s, at Scott Willoughby, is the smallest church still in use in the county of Lincolnshire. The village has just four inhabitants. Folkingham is the largest of the villages: it has a population of 800, and is the only church that has a lavatory, along with a kitchenette. The number — and, in some cases, the grandeur — of the is a legacy of the wool trade here, and there are parts of the parish where three churches are visible at once, set in the rolling South Lincolnshire landscape.
Each church has its own district church council (DCC), and the single PCC meets every couple of months. On it are two representatives from each, plus the three deanery-synod representatives which the electoral roll of 183 allows. Under the scheme, which united the separate parishes 37 years ago, the two reps are normally the churchwardens, who are technically also churchwardens on the PCC, but, in reality, they do not act that way, says the interim Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Cameron Watt, who is also the Archdeacons’ National Development Officer.
At Scott Willoughby, all four village residents attend the church. Two are churchwardens, one is the deanery-synod rep, and the fourth is the farmer who looks after the church building. “And one of the churchwardens is also the parish safeguarding officer; so they are really punching above their weight here,” Mr Watt says. “They’re some of the younger members of my congregations, too — all working.”
THERE are economies of scale implicit in combining churches in this way, and these, he says, are really helpful. But he acknowledges: “Of course, when you lose your local governance, you lose some of the people’s affiliation to the place. It’s very strong in these communities: people are very aligned to the place. The services move round a lot, and some people tend mostly to come to church when it’s at their place; so you couldn’t honestly say that, even after almost 40 years, it’s seamless.”
As in any parish, he suggests, there will be ebbs and flows, personalities and issues over the years. But, here, it works. One significant aspect of the scheme that created the parish was that, while all the legal responsibility goes to the PCC, it has the ability to devolve things back to the DCC and the church. In the South Lafford Group, this includes finances, fund-raising, and looking after the church buildings.
“There isn’t a common pool of money,” Mr Watt says. “Each has its own monies, but, in terms of paying the share to the diocese, essential running costs, clergy expenses, wages of the administrator, public-liability insurance, the things we can do together are funded together. So, each village church pays an amount by formula towards the parish share and the running costs of the parish. That seems to work. It’s an equitable arrangement that was originally agreed, and everybody seems happy with that; so we know not to touch it.”
He has been in this half-time post, which he loves, for a year now, and looks likely to continue. The bond of rural ministry, he says, is “magical, wonderful. It is God walking on the earth in the local community. But it is really tough. Most of the congregation are over 70, and their numbers are small.” For the parishioners in arrangements such as these, a drawback can be “the feeling that, on a local level, decisions are made by people other than those in your locality. So governance by consensus has to be the way.
“You need strong characters, but you also need an understanding that you are at the PCC as a PCC member, and not as somebody just fighting a corner. There have been ebbs and flows of this over time that I’m aware of, but I’m in a somewhat privileged position now that everything is running well.”
IT IS also difficult, he reflects, to have a common missional purpose when you have so many different churches. There is the dichotomy between “whether you do everything everywhere, or focus on doing something in just a few places; and, if you do that, does it build resentment in other places?” A typical issue, he suggests, would be where the rector lived. Mr Watt lives 30 miles away, and says with a smile: “It’s good that I’m nobody’s.”
The size of Folkingham (the only one with a lavatory, kitchenette, and heating, essential for communal gatherings at certain times of year) means that it is almost inevitably going to be regarded as the place that gets more resources than others, he says. Some do not have heating of any calibre, and three of the churches have no heating at all and can’t really be used in winter. But these Anglicans are characteristic of rural Lincolnshire, and are “committed to the church in their place”.
Rosalind Blythe has lived in Osbournby for more than 50 years, and has been churchwarden at St Peter and St Paul since she retired as a teacher 20 years ago. The DCC here comprises two churchwardens, an accounts manager, and a secretary. “We meet not that often, usually on a needs basis, when we’re planning fund-raising, or anything needs doing,” she says.
“The PCC is notified about everything. In normal times, it’s not a burden at all. We just get on with it. We all take our individual concerns to the meeting and share them. Each of us is different, but we have a very good PCC, and we all work incredibly well together. There are a lot of friendships there, and we support each other’s churches with fund-raising.”
Her own village has the only school in the parish, which takes children from as far afield as Sleaford. With PCC approval, Mr Watt goes into the school once a week, and so does Mrs Blythe. The church is at the centre of village life, which now has no amenities except a visiting Post Office once a week. Anyone can join the South Lafford choir, which sings at some of the Sunday services in whatever church they are held. “It’s a happy community, and I can’t think of any real drawbacks to the system [of governance],” she says.
Coronavirus has come as rural ministry was being re-imagined in Lincoln diocese, as elsewhere. Horrendous as it is, in South Lafford more people are interacting with God weekly within the parish, through the various initiatives that have been taken. People are also rediscovering the local shops, and, in all these things, the churches are involved.
“We’re lighting a candle in each of our windows on a Sunday evening, and exploring what church is. Single governance ties into being church. It’s about re-imagining the possible,” Mr Watt concludes.
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