“Towards the conversion of England” was the title of a ground-breaking booklet, issued from Archbishop William Temple’s office in 1944.
Temple had received reports from Service chaplains of the worrying ignorance of newly recruited recruits to the Services of basic Christian beliefs and practice.
When suggested that it was the wrong title for the book, which was a plan to to see the country as a “Mission field”, Temple replied that from all the evidence there was only residual loyalty to the Faith in this country and we needed a complete review of what was happening in our parishes.
Probably those interviewed had attended some form of Christian teaching through Sunday Schools with the majority of Primary Schools being run by the Church (such schools as I attended provided a Bible for every pupil).
That teaching consisted mainly of Bible stories, with no indication of their relevance to daily life, and rarely did it affect young people’s behaviour.
Those wartime youngsters had inherited a rag-bag of ideas that involved no commitment to Christian living as portrayed, in the Bible.
There was a concentration on the “God of the Old Testament”, to some youngsters in the image of the nasty revengeful bearded old man sat on a cloud, judging us for every misdemeanour.
"Sin” was the monster to be feared, for sinners whom the fires of hell beckoned were the obvious human failings, of which “sex” seemed to be the most wicked.
Yet, running through those early books, especially Deuteronomy, there appears a more human image of God.
In Exodus, as the Israelites advanced into their Promised land, every non-Jew was to be killed, regardless of age or sex to create a community which was essentially racist.
But reading Deuteronomy, we find God requiring the Jews to welcome “strangers” (immigrants) offering them food and shelter, caring for the poor and widows.
Why such a U-turn? Simply because those parts of the Old Testament were written and approved some 500 years later when awareness of the nature of God had softened.
As a result, the Social Gospel of Jesus rang true with many of His hearers, of which the summary in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, chapter 5) is a sample.
Generosity towards strangers and a pull-back from the stricter teaching of the Old Testament, forgiveness rather than condemnation preceded Jesus, but He taught it in a way that was far-reaching, challenging with ideas that at the time were thought to be blasphemy.
Jesus’ teaching was revolutionary as He regarded everyone as equals, regardless of race or colour.
This was not a lone voice, for it is supported in the New Testament; the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of Paul, Peter, James and overwhelmingly, John.
Paul’s conversion to Christianity showed that non-Jews (gentiles) were welcomed into the Fellowship and that there can be no artificial barriers.
That is why it is saddening to find kind, some practising Christians joining in anti-immigration protests and begrudging attempts to help those who are fleeing from the most terrible conditions.
We are all ONE IN CHRIST, for Jesus died for all of us, and we are the Father’s children and therefore brothers and sisters, regardless of race or colour.
Love is the basic word in Christianity; and that is at the heart of the “Good News” which is for all.
Many years ago in the 1930s, people would have been singing or whistling in the street, and the favourite song continued with the above words which ended “The happier we shall be”.
It certainly was true when the “Six Pilgrims” began to think and act as a family, looking beyond their parish boundaries and behaving just as I had hoped they would. A subsequent meeting with the Churchwardens showed this transformation in various ways, and here are some of them.
Nothing like a well-attended service, and after the June “breakthrough, things began to happen.
Instead of a sparse gathering of worshippers (which could be very dispiriting), with 25 (of all ages) at 9 a.m. and 30 or more at the 10.30, in small medieval churches it was uplifting.
Remember this from a total population of 675 was a high proportion. Translated into large parishes it was more than 12% of the people. Translate that into a town parish; if their numbers were equivalent in a population of 3,000, the congregation would be a handsome number (many more than they would actually have in most such parishes).
When I left 10 years later, we would see up to 375 people through the church doors during Christmas-tide, many of whom were due to uniting families, but 19 years later, a similar number were counted there during the Christmas of 2019.
On Good Friday they can be sure of 60-70 folk of all ages attending a “Cross" walk and service in the most remote of the churches.
Looking out to the world: I had been introduced by a fellow priest to a small charity that sponsored South Indian boys to be educated in a boarding school, costing £98 per boy per annum.
Hesitantly, finding they didn’t contribute to outside causes such as this, I suggested that the 6 might pay for one boy; there was an objection lodged, not that the sum was too much, but too small and they felt that each of the Six could manage that, so six boys it was (later to include girls).
Looking out to the parishes: Jesus’ last command as recorded in the final verses of St. Matlhew, was to give The Church (people) the task of proclaiming the Good News to all the world. Therefore “Outreach” was the word we needed to remember.
The parishes had a well-produced magazine, sold around the parishes. And to my surprise (and joy) it was proposed and agreed that we gave it free to every house in the parishes, trusting that donations and advertising would meet the cost. And so it was!
Rural it was: It was decided that we would observe ancient Farming Festivals; so we blessed the parish plough in early January (Plough Sunday), blessed the cider orchards “Wassailling” followed by a happy cider and pasty meal, Rogation Sunday (when we went out and blessed the growing crops).
Lammas (loaf) Sunday around August 1st when the first harvesting was celebrated, followed by Harvest Festival in the Autumn (cider and pasties again}.
We were a sociable lot, so that everything possible was done with the other parishes in mind, so the annual Coffee Morning in neighbouring Castle Cary, where each parish mounted a stall (sharing items between them). The proceeds were shared equally among the six, so the smaller parishes benefitted.
Yes, we found that we were indeed, happier together, and what a lot of fun we had en-route!
Following on from last week, I had undertaken to lead and support a group of six tiny rural parishes as the Bishop and staff had decided that, refusing to be “re-organised” to Diocesan plans, they had been virtually abandoned.
It was for me to decide if and how they could be revitalized; as I was receiving a full clergy pension, I thought it wrong to accept payment, only my expenses (this was so for the 10 years I was caring for them, 1992-2002).
In their representations to the Bishop, the parishioners had said that they would “worship and work together”; it was for me in partnership with the people, to enable this to happen.
12 Churchwardens and 6 PCCs had to be persuaded to fulfil that promise, and how.
My first encounter with the parish leaders was encouraging and positive; they knew they had to back their promises with action, although to date, when “United” benefice services were held monthly, few parishioners transferred their allegiance to worship in any church but their own, and were conspicuous by their absence.
Unity of worship was one problem, for each church had different expressions of type of worship, clerical robes and for 6 churches there were 4 different styles.
If we were expecting folk to move around, they needed to have the same service everywhere making it easier for them to fit in.
After a positive discussion, it was agreed that we would maintain traditional language and make services as inclusive as possible.
Half of the churches had Communion Vestments that had been stuffed into vestry drawers by the previous priest, who didn’t approve of such “dressing-up” and had abandoned the hymn books for (guitar accompanied) choruses.
“Moving around” was at the heart of the Scheme and we needed to scale the worship down to, possibly, 2 Communion Services, perfectly manageable for one priest, at 9 and 10.30 a.m.
Being rural, the parishioners were used to travelling to other venues, so there were no practical problems involved and a tentative trial during the Christmas period brought an enthusiastic response.
The Rota meant that every parish had a service every 3 weeks, and either at 9 or 10.30 a neighbouring parish would be conveniently near.
It did mean that every church was active and being used, with no fear of closure, and total congregations increased; but not finally implemented until June 1993, when the “penny dropped” so that eventually the average congregation worshipping on a Sunday numbered 12.5% of the total population.
“It was the wine that changed everything”! Among the decisions made was that we would join for worship together on the patronal Festival of each of the Six, and the first such was to celebrate St. Peter on June 29th, a Sung Communion followed by suitable refreshments.
The problem, there were no facilities for catering and as I was (at that time) an amateur wine-maker, I could produce a drinkable beverage (“rather like Chardonnay” said a knowledgeable parishioner) which with some attractive snacks made a very happy combination and few wanted to hurry home!
In a moment there was a sense that we were “gelling” and I felt we could adopt the motto of a neighbouring group, “Six churches, but one Church” reminding us that the Church are the people wherever Christians meet.
From that moment there was a new sense of “family” and so began a tradition of parish “sharing” where each parish sought to assist their smaller and fragile and we established worship that was joyful and inclusive.
Despite priestly staffing problems, the parishes are still flourishing and enabling the people to completely participate in the running of their Church.
Of my seventy years of Ministry, nothing was like the “Pilgrim experience” which were the happiest of them.
That was the motto on the wall of Unity Hall, in Star Street, Ryde where youngsters (like 10yr. old me) met for meetings of the Band of Hope, also the home of the Labour and Trade Union Parties.
Clearly, it was the only way working people could improve their pay and working conditions, for Unity was strength, but this was also strength needed for small parishes being forced to join with other town parishes. There had to be mutual respect and understanding.
Unknown to most people, small rural parishes suffered a negative effect, such as “The Six Pilgrims” near Castle Cary (Somerset) and this would have made life difficult.
Two ex-navy officers (a Rear-Admiral and an ex-Destroyer Commander) who had studied the move with care, found that if parishes didn’t wish to lose their identity in this way, the Church Commissioners would not allow it to happen. So, they stuck their toes in and stood firm, resulting in the Six being abandoned by the Diocese and left to struggle, their Rector having moved away.
Of course, when you consider that the TOTAL population of the Six (at that time) was only 675 souls, you can understand the Diocesan position, but there was no attempt to meet and talk with the parishioners and find a compromise.
As a retired priest, I had been helping the parishes out with services, and the rural folk suggested a retired priest could serve those parishes, even if he/she didn’t live there.
To support them, I wrote to the Bishop (2 sides of A4) supporting the parishioners’ case but received no reply, meaning the need to send a copy of my original letter, suggesting that perhaps the reason was that it had been “lost in the post”.
The result was a ‘phone call from the Palace Secretary asking me to “Wait upon the Bishop” (yes, people talked like that in the 1950s) giving no reason why. I thought I had gone too far in my letter and expected a reprimand.
I need not to have feared, for the first question was “What are we to do with the “Six Pilgrims?” to which I pointed out what had been suggested by my letter.
“Would you do it, say, for 6 months?”
To which I replied that we (the parishes and I) would need at least a year to establish a way of working.
“Right”, said the Bishop, “When could you start?”
Actually, I had been taking services there since October 1992 as I was free from other Sunday duties but I had a slot at the Cathedral to conduct a weekday 8 a.m. Communion, so this wouldn’t be affected.
I was 66 yrs. old at the time, and the Bishop suggested that I was too near the official retirement age of 70 to be formally licensed; “would I be able to serve in a situation where I couldn’t impose my will on the parishioners and could I run a benefice where I would have to take the people with me on what seemed a risky partnership?”
6 parish churches, the biggest parish had 250 people and three of the others numbered only 70-80. With 12 Churchwardens plus 6 PCCs, we were faced with coping with the unpredictable. “Best of luck” said the Bishop before he gave me his blessing.
I lived at Glastonbury, 10 miles from the parishes, taking 20 mins (few traffic problems), so this presented no problems.
Returning home, Hazel, my wife asked, “What have you taken on?”
I couldn’t answer that, for the simple reason that the future would be a time of learning together and being aware that “God moves in mysterious ways” and so to expect the unexpected of which most were helpful.
Covid has changed much and we may need to cope with the “unexpected” when it comes along’
“Trust and obey”
I realise this is very much a personal view-point; it worked for us (and is still doing so, 30 years later) thank God.
“You’re ill, man, so you must go!” said the Archdeacon.
Word had reached him that I had been diagnosed with severe depression and it was clear that rather than try to assure me that help was available, although below retirement age, I was to resign.
I refused to go immediately, but decided to spend a year tying up all the loose ends, so that my successor would inherit no problems of my making.
What was my problem?
Simply that I was undertaking many tasks that didn’t need a priest.
Inheriting a parish (Wootton) with various demands, I had already spent time and energy in my two previous incumbencies and managed to work in those parishes as my Bishops had asked me to do; not without opposition.
The final straw was my desire to provide employment at a time of recession (1980s) by converting a large hall in the village into an arcade of units enabling people to try and start their own businesses. (It’s still there, “Bumble’s Lane” named after our Old English sheepdog!)
My thinking was, that whilst clergy were praying for the unemployed, I was trying to give people practical help, and much of the physical work of conversion was done in company with a couple of faithful parishioners.
This had triggered my downward spiral, for like many clergy of my generation we thought that the priest should be wholly occupied in the parish life.
I, and many of my contemporaries were driven (and depressed) by a remark made by a senior priest from the Cathedral, who reminded a meeting of clergy that “You clergy are expensive items, and you must ensure that The Church gets its “moneys-worth”.
Was I giving my moneys-worth? From that meeting this question worried me.
I retired on Christmas Day, 1988 and Hazel (my wife) and I felt that a burden had lifted and we were free as we (and the dog) disappeared over the horizon to Glastonbury to a more peaceful existence.
Now, whose fault was my depression, something that I shared with many other priests?
There was that sense, that as the parish leader, I needed to be involved, often doing things that any competent layperson could have done.
That is not the way the Early Church functioned, and with the increasing burden of multi-parish benefices, to ask someone to be responsible for Wootton, Binstead and Havenstreet seems little short of lunacy.
Why have I bored you with my personal story? Because it’s a prelude to what I want to say next time, which is relevant to our present situation.
Our present crisis is the result of much talking about future staffing of parishes, but despite 3 successive high pressured reports over the post-war years, little has changed.
My depression had a positive influence, for when I retired to Somerset, after recovering a great deal, I found myself in charge of a group of 6 tiny rural parishes and was determined to not follow my mistakes of the past.
In agreement with the parishioners I would only be involved where a priest was needed; conducting services, pastoral visiting, spiritual guidance and giving the group leadership.
As a result, they feel they “own” their benefice and can shape its present and its future and are flourishing.
We need to have a coherent policy where the burden of Ministry is shared with the whole congregation; we need as Paul says “To be Workers together with Christ”.