Magazine article The Spectator

A Churchwarden's Lament

Magazine article The Spectator

A Churchwarden's Lament

Article excerpt

Say a prayer for the volunteers who keep our churches standing

When I take the dogs into the garden last thing at night , a dark shape looms up just beyond the garden wall. It is a 12th-century stone building, with a square tower, leaded and stonetiled roofs, and large plain windows. It looms even larger in my imagination, since I am one of the two churchwardens (Bishop's or People's Warden, I never can remember which), so this building is in my charge. I feel as if I have a second home - with all the anxieties of owning an Umbrian farmhouse or Alpine chalet but none of the amenities - since I involve myself with the minutiae of its upkeep quite as much as I do with my own house. I worry all the time about the church's fabric, graveyard and congregation, and the parish which supports it.

Churchwardenship must be one of the strangest voluntary occupations you could imagine, since it is partly intensely practical and partly quietly spiritual. I inhabit a world of aumbries, risk assessments, blocked drains, corporals, coffee mornings, quinquennial architect's reports, vestments, child protection policies, intercessions rotas, gluten-free wafers, 'open gardens' and altar frontals. In the course of a week I may telephone an undertaker, polish the paten and chalice, write a Statement of Need in preparation for a Faculty application, deal with a query concerning property in the village owned by the diocese (of which I am perforce a trustee), check the communion wine hasn't gone off, and assist the vicar on Sunday to serve the bread and wine, with as much reverence and discretion as I can muster.

I act as a sober usher at funerals, remove plastic flowers from grave sides and lock the church at night. I am partly preoccupied with centuries-old ritual and partly with how to raise £15,000 a year (just to stand still, without spending anything on maintenance, let alone improvements) in a village of 265 souls. And always, at the back of my mind, are pressing anxieties about the future: how we can attract sufficient numbers of the young or youngish, who won't write us off as a weird relict sect but who understandably look for better facilities, visual aids and a more diverse liturgy? I know we must draw them in, both as a good in itself and to ensure that ours is not the last generation to have the care of the finest collection of medieval religious buildings in the world.

It is not all bad here, by any means. I am fortunate in my fellow churchwarden, who has become a good friend - which is just as well, since we have business daily to discuss and must also bear the brunt of the inevitable criticism and dissatisfaction. We are extremely fortunate in our vicar who, though he doesn't live in this small village (as most clergy don't), knows his flock well and has the grace to trust and encourage us. And I never thought to write this but we are fortunate in our new bishop, who looks to promote growth rather than manage decline, and will not close country churches if he can possibly help it. There is a new and invigorating mood abroad, a sense that those above us finally recognise what churchwardens and church councils in villages face. …

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