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Exmoor villagers not giving up hope to save their rectory, as diocese plans to sell it

21 January 2022

RUTH SHARVILLE/GEOGRAPH/COMMONS

St Mary’s, Oare

St Mary’s, Oare

VILLAGERS in the parish of Oare and Culbone, Exmoor, have not given up hope of saving their rectory and house-for-duty arrangement, despite the desire of the diocese of Bath & Wells to sell the house, a churchwarden confirmed on Tuesday.

St Mary’s, Oare, dates from the 15th century, and is famously the setting for the marriage of Lorna Doone in the novel by R. D. Blackmore. But the rectory was built in the 1960s on donated land, and paid for through funds raised by the PCC. The parish paid half the priest’s household bills and his expenses, and the diocese contributed the buildings insurance. The arrangement that lasted until the retirement of the last post-holder, the Revd Colin Burke, in March 2020 (News, 20 March 2020).

The diocese wants to incorporate St Mary’s, Oare, and St Bueno’s, Culbone, into the Porlock Benefice. It let the rectory after Mr Burke departed, and the present tenants’ lease is believed to have been renewed until at least January 2023.

The villagers believe that the diocese has no moral right to sell the rectory, which also served as a base for church and community activities and meetings. They argue that the post cost the diocese almost nothing. “The rectory was effectively a gift from the community to the community,” a churchwarden, Jeremy Payne, said on Tuesday.

“Were they to sell it, it would effectively mean that we couldn’t offer a house for duty to a retired rector, who might very well relish spending the last ten years or so of their ministry here. It’s very beautiful. It can be harsh here in winter, but for people who can deal with that, it’s a slice of heaven.”

It is the pastoral care of the old and infirm, not the provision of services, that will suffer, he contends. “Not everyone here is a churchgoer, by any means. But they all have their weddings, christenings, and funerals at the church, and the church is absolutely central to that. The diocese will argue that this can still all happen.

“But we’ve seen what happens when the incumbent retires and is not replaced. The churches just become extraneous to people’s lives, and so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: there’ll be no more parishioners asking for weddings and funerals.

“The thing is, with these little rural communities, you keep snipping away at the threads that bind it all together, like the pub, the shop, the post office. . . Effectively, the church will become a lesser kind of institution than one which is essential to people’s lives.”

Relations with the diocese are cordial in a situation that he describes as “a David-and-Goliath thing”, but he has little sympathy for its stance. He acknowledges that “To some extent, their hands are tied. The Archdeacon has probably been told by the Bishop — and, indeed, by the Archbishop of Canterbury — that it’s church policy: more income needs to be brought in. It’s like selling the family jewels, but just because big decisions have been made, it doesn’t mean they’re right.”

A diocesan spokesperson said that no final decision had been made. A statement said: “The Diocese of Bath & Wells is committed to rural ministry and the life of the church in Oare and Culbone. We are a largely rural diocese and are seeking to align our resources to support all our churches in flourishing. The consultation process with parishes on how the needs of the church in Oare and Culbone will be met is ongoing.”

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