Village Churches

The May 1984 issue of the Diocese of Leicester News & Views contained the following article by the Bishop

Village Churches

Village church towers, weathered and peaceful, drenched in the summer sunshine, will give pleasure to thousands of holidaymakers this season. Leicestershire has a rich heritage of country churches - and they are in good order.

In other parts of England country churches have been sold or closed, and some can be seen failing into ruin. Some villagers in Leicestershire ask me, while I am visiting country parishes, how long it will be before we begin to suffer too. I often reflect on the question.

The churches of England were never so plentiful, nor in such good condition, as they have been during the past century. During the 'ages of faith', the Middle Ages, the churches were smaller and often in bad repair. After the Reformation most of them mouldered quietly till the Victorians, heavy-handed though their restorations could be, made them warm and weathertight, added organs and vestries, refurnished them, and gave us what we now treasure as our ancient churches. This could only have happened in the prosperity of the railway age.

That age has passed. Its confidence has given way to our present insecurity, which affects the future of the village church fabric.

I do not expect any of our churches to be closed, unless the villagers they serve have disappeared; but the public and the Church ought to consider how and why the old churches of little villages should be preserved. Here are the two important questions:

  1. The village church stands for peace. Does that mean peace with God and peace among men, or just a soothing feeling of rustic quiet?
  2. The village church is a centre point to the identity of the village. Is that just a comment on the scenery, or an indication of community faith in Christ's saving power?

This was the letter George sent to the Bishop, who was aware that he was not comfortable with what he had written.

My dear Bishop

Thankyou for your kind letter of May 8th. I only ventured to add that postscript, because I always look forward to your monthly letters as having something fresh and hopeful to say, and, for once, I was disappointed.

There is so much to say about village churches, and their future is such a puzzle to those nearest to them, that I did feel let down when you dodged (as I thought) the question of closures, and stated what I feel to be dubious premises for your two "important questions". I know that 'hard cases make bad law'; but I would cite the case of Shawell (one of the three little churches linked with Swinford). The villagers of Shawell have not disappeared; but, except on the occasion of a funeral. there has been only one family (and, until last Sunday, only one member of that family) present in church on the many recent occasions when I have taken Services there'. This is after the dedicated ministry of Len Haynes.

"The village church stands for peace". It may be in a peaceful spot; but it just stands - an ancient 'house of God'.

"The village church is a centre point of the identity of the village." I find that physically (e.g. Earl Shilton, Barwell, North Kilworth), they lie on the edge of their villages, and I think that, spiritually, except for rare national occasions and some funerals, most villagers find them marginal or irrelevant. Many can, however, be generous when the spire or some other visible part, is in danger. I find that "faith in Christ's saving power" is not even universal among churchgoers; though there is a more general vague belief in God's existance.

What positive suggestions can I make?

  1. Even the smallest churches should be constantly open for private prayer, as in France, and regularly used for that purpose. It is this regular use that needs to be encouraged, and is the way to reduce the impact of the occasional misuse that, sadly, does occur. Portable treasures ought to be removed to museums; churches themselves ought not to be museums.
  2. Small parishes ought to be linked together as such, and not be regarded as mere satellites of larger parishes. I like the idea of peripatetic congregations and even Sunday Schools. One service a month in your own church, supported by neighbouring congregations, is much better than tiny services weekly. Transport needs organising but is not impossible. So many country people go by car to their own churches.
  3. Each group of parishes needs a combined P.C.C., with occasional sub-committees (not necessarily with the incumbent) for individual churches.
  4. Though more might be done in giving retired clergy pastoral care of single parishes (our dear old friend John Rosborough had many years in that capacity in Cumbria) country parishes ought not to be treated as depositories for tired or inadequate clergy. Some able and active men ought to be posted for a limited period to rural groups to see what can be done in such places.

  5. I could say much more (but have already said too much). I would sum up by saying that I think that small churches ought to continue to be available for private prayer, funerals and weddings, but ought not to be cluttered up with so many poorly attended services. Less attention should be paid to the preferences of the minority who do attend church, and more to the needs of those who, so far, don't.

Thankyou for reading this. Please don't spend time on an answer.