Grey Elegy

Andy Hawes on rural ministry now

Two weeks ago I stood in Swinstead Churchyard at Tom Pell’s grave. Thirteen years before I had taken the Blessed Sacrament to his sister before she died, subsequently I had officiated at June’s funeral. I knew Tom very well; he had been a steadfast friend, helping in our garden every Tuesday for twelve years. It was a sharp, dry morning and the assembled collection of villagers, family and friends lingered in the Churchyard in quiet conversation. I must have known all but half a dozen of the people present. It was a bittersweet experience; it was a slippage in time to a kind of community gathered in a parish church that was once familiar throughout rural England. I cherished the moment for they are rare and precious now.

The way we lived then

It is the changing nature of community that is changing the experience of’ priesthood, and nowhere is this more evident than in the countryside. Bishop Frank West in his 1960s book The Country Parish Today suggested that the optimum population for one priest was six hundred people. It was not so very long ago that this was quite often the case. There are still a quite significant number of rural cures where the population hovers under the thousand mark. This kind of ratio of priest to parishioner cannot be sustained given the present finances of the Church nationally and locally. Since the first ‘Group of Parishes’ at South Ormsby in Lincolnshire in the early 1960s the growth of multi-benefice cures has spread across the ecclesiastical map; it is not unusual to have groups of ten or even larger numbers of parishes and small communities in one pastoral unit.

Despite this huge change in the organization of the rural Church the traditional ministry of the country parson as idealized by George Herbert and made reasonable by Frank West, in some areas survived intact until quite recently. It was not the number of communities that undermined the traditional priestly ministry. In 1983 I was preparing to move to a deeply rural pair of parishes as priest in charge; I asked the Rural Dean for his definition of a good parish priest. He replied: ‘a good priest knows who lives behind every door and knows what’s going on behind them.’ My predecessor had, in fact, bequeathed me a hand-drawn sketch map with every house outlined on it and the names of all the nine hundred adults (and sometimes children) written inside the squares representing each house. I can say, without much fear of contradiction, that after five years I did know (more or less) what was happening behind each door!

Priest, Parson and person

The same Rural Dean also remarked, ‘we haven’t any time for clergymen around here, what we need is priests.’ I often reflected on that gem of wisdom. At that time, and in those places, there was no escaping the people. We couldn’t get away from each other. There was no place to hide and no comfortable clerical role to play. Week in, week out, the community would gather at occasional offices; in these communities funerals were community events. It was not possible to get away with a carefully crafted, yet oft repeated, crematorium sermonette; the congregation expected the priest to speak with authority about the deceased. Within a few weeks the same family and friends would assemble for a baptism or a wedding. There was a constant encounter with individuals and families that inevitably built up relationships of substantial breadth and depth.

Who the priest was and who the man was became inseparable; he was the parson – the person of God in that community. It was a way of life that made intercessory prayer a life-giving necessity. It was a way of life that demanded great personal integrity. It was a call to holiness; thus I came to see how right the Rural Dean was – this was not a place for a clergyman. Now I fear that is what I might become – a middle manager in a voluntary organization that supplies certain rural services! The disciplines remain, the pastoral responsibility carried into prayer remains, but some how the intensity, the depth of ministry is diluted. Despite my best efforts I find myself increasingly at the edge of the communities I serve. I would be interested to know if other country clergy discern this shift. It is worth noting, at this point, that I have served in my present post for thirteen years.

Closed doors

It is the breakdown of community that has unleashed the forces of secularism in the countryside. The movement of population now make it impossible to know the story behind every door. The separation of workplace from home has also rendered priest and parishioner anonymous to each other. Even in rural schools parental choice and greater mobility has separated the connection between school community and parish community. The times when priest and community gather for worship and prayer are now few and far between. Ten years ago, these parishes would produce an average of four weddings a year, now it may be one or two. Baptisms happen with a similar frequency but the congregations are usually a group gathered from all over the country. Nothing is described as a ‘village wedding’ or a ‘village baptism’ any more. The cumulative effect of the encounter of community, priest and liturgy is not a feature in rural ministry. We are more like ships that drift past in the nave!

It struck me very forcibly at Tom Pell’s funeral that the village had become like a family that only met at funerals. There is now a painful lack of wholeness in the community’s relationship with the church. I have often noticed the powerful image of confetti that had drifted onto a new grave. I can’t remember the last time I saw that. Most villagers used to be buried in the churchyard which was, in itself, an extension of the community. Now many villagers do not belong in the same way, or realize that there will be no one left to care for the grave. Hence cremation twenty miles away is the preferred option. It seems to me that our rural churches have become an extension to the crematorium chapel. I fear that too many in the parishes I serve the parish church has become a temple of death. They do not gather anymore for weddings and seldom for a baptism. If it is the function of a priest to help people encounter God in the key moments of individual and family life, I am sadly shorn of many opportunities.

Different fruit

Like many others I struggle to discern my role in a rapidly changing society. There is a strong temptation to play the clergy role. Anonymity has its benefits. It confers a sense of freedom and independence that the country parson ‘old style’ could not have. It is tempting to swallow the line that the priest can relate to the whole community by working through institutions (namely, committees). Managing the institution figures large in multi-parish cures and it does provide a sense of usefulness. It can be disheartening to pour a huge effort into communities that have shifting population where nothing seems to ‘stick’. Of course there is the newly defined role of the vicar as ‘theological resource person’ and ‘lay-facilitator’. I can best describe my present parochial ministry as a chaplain to individuals and families that are connected through several kinds of community. And it is work that does bear fruit. But nothing can compare with the experience of priest and people belonging to one another, whether they like it or not, because they are part of the same community and it is there that they live out the best and worst parts of their lives.

Andy Hawes is parish priest of Edenham, Witham-on-the-Hill and Swinstead and Rural Dean in the Diocese of Lincoln.

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