A church is the heart of every village
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
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