‘The chief danger that confronts the coming century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, heaven without hell’ – William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army
SOMEONE once said ‘the Church of England exists for those who don’t go’, or words to that effect. I’ve always understood it, up to a point, but it’s only since I’ve lived in Cornwall that I have really heard, seen and felt it. Read on for the details.
For the sake of argument, let’s do the unforgivable and include Cornwall in England. It’s accepted that Cornwall is either first or second in the ‘most rural county in the country’ stakes. Not just rural, but a place which has only tenuous links with the rest of the country in so many ways. The sense of place here is profound. The whole of Cornwall is Different and, as an incomer, the sooner you understand this, the easier life will be.
No one needs to understand this more than Hugh Nelson. After moving to Cornwall as Suffragan Bishop from the Home Counties three years ago, Bishop Hugh now rules the Church of England in Cornwall as the Acting Bishop of Truro. In that role, he has eagerly taken the lead for On The Way, the project to revolutionise the church in Cornwall begun by the previous Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, as reported in TCW in April. The plan is to have lay people running churches instead of ordained priests, numbers of these overseen by a manager known as an Oversight Minister. In the spring, I wrote to the West Briton and Cornwall Guardian newspapers to warn the people of Cornwall that churches were at risk of closure by the intended drastic reduction of ordained clergy to run them. It would be difficult, I said, to find clergy to take funerals, to conduct marriages, to baptise children. This is already happening. Closed churches will be left to rot and collapse. Most important of all will be the absence of a parish priest to be responsible for the cure of souls in the parish.
The fury of the bishops was quite extraordinary. How dare I write to the newspapers? They had no plans to close churches. It would be up to churches to close themselves (a clever ploy, akin to the torturer making life so unbearable that the victim commits suicide, thus absolving the torturer of responsibility).
What has happened since? On The Way (OTW) has continued to be rolled out in Cornwall, supposedly with the agreement of the parishes, but what is more and more coming to light is the deceitful way in which the scheme has been sold to Parochial Church Councils and congregations, ably set out in a dossier put together by the organisation Save the Parish, who have spoken to clergy and worshippers. The dossier highlights the ways in which parishes have been misled by the Diocese of Truro in a campaign of fear and staggering misinformation. PCCs already in the new huge clusters of churches are finding out the true cost of agreeing to OTW, as they are coming under pressure to give up their independence and amalgamate their Parochial Church Councils into one, even to lose control of their own funds.
It is remarkable how many people have expressed great concern about the loss of parish priests: in one example, one ordained priest to serve more than 20 churches. Bishop Hugh has been reported as saying dismissively: ‘You don’t need a clerical collar to take a funeral.’ Well, Bishop Hugh, this proves you know nothing about the people of the county in which you live, because that’s what church means to a great many Cornish people. Just as ‘church’ means you want a proper vicar to marry you and a proper vicar to baptise your children.
The other thing you want, if you live in a village (which includes a huge proportion of the Cornish population), is a church which is open. Not a church ten miles or more away, not the opportunity to go to a 700-year-old Christian building which has been turned into a community centre with its stained glass windows obscured by screens, not the opportunity to go to Sally Bloggs’s house which holds church services on Sundays, nor a football field which holds services on another day.
In this Christmas season, Bishop Hugh, as member of the Church of England who doesn’t go you want a church Christmas Fete so you can donate money to your parish church. You want a carol service, in your own parish church, led by a person in a clerical collar, with the proper tune for O Little Town of Bethlehem, mulled wine afterwards and a raffle for church funds or St Petroc’s charity for the homeless. You want to take your children to see the crib with Baby Jesus. At Harvest Festival, you want your elderly mother to receive a basket of produce which has been blessed in the church where she was married. And all year round, you want a building which you can slip into during the day, to sit and breathe in the atmosphere of centuries of prayer. You want to go into that sacred space and light a candle for your mum who has cancer or for your granny who has just died. You want to visit the church where your ancestors worshipped, reassured that it’s still there and glad that it still stands guard over their graves. You write in the Visitors’ Book: ‘Thank you for being here.’ You want to see the flowers and think about God’s creation and how amazing it is that the flower arrangers have been doing this for generation after generation to the glory of God. You want to go in there where it’s more peaceful than anywhere else you know and . . . well, you’re not sure why, but you go anyway, just to be on your own to think and you might even pray and hope He hears you. Once I saw a prayer on the prayer tree from a woman whose daughter had been murdered the previous week. She wanted to be sure the Lord was caring for her now, and to sit in that building quietly and cry.
And some of us people who don’t go to church services actually do, once a year, usually to the Christmas midnight service which some of us still call Midnight Mass and we go as a family. We aren’t all old. We want that wafer placed in our hands by the white-collared person who consecrated it a few minutes ago, not last week by a vicar we don’t know. And not by an ordinary person wearing ordinary clothes.
We want to know that even though we don’t go to services, other people do and somehow that means that everyone in the town or village is thought of and cared about and brought before God and prayed for. How do we know the congregation is there in church representing us? Our bell-ringers tell us, faithfully ringing before Sunday services and for special occasions. They know themselves to be part of the Anglican Church in Cornwall and as churches fail, you, our bishop, and your diocesan team soon to be enlarged by more cleric administrators, are preparing to throw them out.
Every single one of us who comes into a church building matters to God, Bishop Hugh, and we should matter to you.
The person wearing that white collar, whom you think of as some sort of expensive waste of space, is God’s representative here on earth, and that matters to a great many more Cornish people than you are even aware of, let alone understand.
The words coming from our bishop and some churches which are happy to see the demise of church-led worship are that they are doing as God tells them, but we should beware of this emphatic assertion. There are always two voices speaking to us. One is God’s, the other is the power of evil which would like us to think otherwise. To assert that we are doing God’s will can be a type of arrogance. The destruction of Cornwall’s churches and parish system is so drastic, its ramifications so serious, that we must ask ourselves whether the unrelenting emphasis on non-church worship led by non-ordained people is really God’s wish, or is it the voice of destruction?
By describing Save the Parish as a ‘minority group’ in a recent Diocese of Truro document, Bishop Hugh and his supporters are denying the distress of church congregations and those who don’t go to services, and their voices are getting louder.
We must no longer refer to On The Way but to On The Way Out, because that is exactly what it is. Are Bishop Hugh and his supporters listening? I fervently pray so.
A petition is making its rounds (see here).
Bishop Hugh, we pray God is telling us what to do too.