A church is the heart of ev­ery vil­lage

Country Life Every Week - - Letters To The Editor -

WHEN ev­ery vil­lage had its own vicar, there was, at the heart of the ru­ral com­mu­nity, an ed­u­cated man and a fam­ily that took se­ri­ous things se­ri­ously. There were, of course, ex­cep­tions—play­boys, in­com­pe­tents and even repro­bates who dis­graced their cloth—but when stern Vic­to­rian piety had driven out lat­i­tu­di­nar­ian plu­ral­ity, where there was a church, there was a par­son. It was the com­mon in­sis­tence of re­form­ers that the cler­gy­man should live in his parish and the 19th cen­tury saw a flood of new and im­proved rec­to­ries and vicarages in par­al­lel with the al­most univer­sal church restora­tions.

Although so­cially dis­tinct, the par­son was avail­able to all. In many a tiny, poorly en­dowed vil­lage, he ex­isted on a small stipend, kept school, pre­pared board­ers for univer­sity en­trance, wrote learnedly in the­ol­ogy and the clas­sics and of­ten set an ux­o­ri­ous ex­am­ple to the parish. Trol­lope’s Mr Quiv­er­ful had hun­dreds of real-life equiv­a­lents around the coun­try. With all its faults and its snob­beries, the in­sti­tu­tion of the par­son was uniquely English and pre­cious.

There was a vi­tal le­gal rea­son for its spe­cial na­ture: the par­son’s free­hold. It was his benefice and he couldn’t be turned out, save for grave im­moral­ity. Once in­sti­tuted, the bishop was pow­er­less to re­move him. Even the pa­tron of the liv­ing was stuck with the man he’d ap­pointed. How dif­fer­ent to­day, with the Angli­can cler­gy­man serv­ing seven or eight ru­ral parishes and hold­ing the cour­tesy ti­tle of vicar, but only at the be­hest of the bishop. No longer his own man, of­ten liv­ing in a pokey modern house and al­ways forced to re­tire at 70, how­ever ac­tive and wanted.

Of course, we can’t re­cap­ture the past. Sheer eco­nomics was de­stroy­ing the in­sti­tu­tion in the post Sec­ond World War world. Then, syn­od­i­cal gov­ern­ment, over­ween­ing bu­reau­cracy and pro­gres­sive le­gal stratagems com­pleted the de­struc­tion of this most English of in­sti­tu­tions ( Books, page 86). The coun­try par­son as we knew him is no more and we are the poorer for it.

The real ques­tion now is the fu­ture of the coun­try parish it­self. The ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal bu­reau­cracy is like any other civil ser­vice. It seeks tidi­ness, lauds ef­fi­ciency and uses waste to im­pose its will. The po­lit­i­cally cor­rect mod­ernisers who dom­i­nate the Church of Eng­land (Cofe) and the sub­ur­ban Evan­gel­i­cal con­gre­ga­tions who in­creas­ingly pay for it have lit­tle in­ter­est in build­ings. The ‘happy-clappy’ don’t go in for tra­di­tion. The vil­lage church sup­ported by half a dozen faith­ful, but mean­ing so much to the wider com­mu­nity, is nowhere on their list of pri­or­i­ties. Why, they ar­gue, should the Cofe keep up all these me­dieval relics? Why can’t peo­ple drive to the near­est town to go to church as they go to the shops, the leisure cen­tre or the doc­tor? We can serve them there with bet­ter church ‘plant’, more fa­cil­i­ties and a vi­able con­gre­ga­tion.

So runs the pre­dictable mantra of the mod­ernisers. Their in­sis­tence that these vil­lage churches be made re­dun­dant is in­creas­ingly stri­dent. Those who sold off the vicarages now have their eyes on the churches. One by one, they will fall to sec­u­lar use and the very na­ture of our vil­lage life will es­sen­tially be di­min­ished. That’s why we must face up to the on­slaught now. Ru­ral mem­bers of the Cofe need to or­gan­ise now for dioce­san and Gen­eral Synod elec­tions in 2020. They need a clean sweep for ‘friends of vil­lage churches’. Even more vi­tal is that ev­ery vil­lage res­i­dent, church­goer or not, Catholic or Free Church­man, must now take on the com­mu­nity re­spon­si­bil­ity of up­keep and restora­tion. Not just when there’s a spe­cial ap­peal, but now and al­ways. We must not al­low the bar­bar­ians to steal our churches.

The po­lit­i­cally cor­rect mod­ernisers who dom­i­nate the Cofe have lit­tle in­ter­est

Fol­low @agromenes on Twit­ter

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