Easter provides opportunity to seek out and join a congregation
Once upon a time everyone could speak of ‘my vicar’. The Church of England maintaining one vicar living next to one church, leading worship and marking important moments in the lives of each community.
My car registration M16 CAR, found for me after surviving a major car crash in 1994, can read MY VICAR by mentally converting 6 to Roman numerals VI.
My vicar was a very important part of my childhood, life revolved around our parish church.
Apart from worship, Sunday school, baptisms, marriages and funerals, it hosted social parties and youth and drama groups staging pantomimes and JB Priestley dramas.
Vicar Tony Addison Smith also produced Christmas Nativity and Easter Passion plays, powerful teaching aids for both actors and audience.
Participating in these Passion plays, I began to see Jesus as the bravest person I had ever heard of, my hero. Already an altar server for Sunday services, Vicar Smith suggested I consider the full-time Ordained Ministry but I chose to become a soldier instead, only beginning theological studies some years later.
On becoming Vicar of Berwick in 1994 I received a letter from Vicar Smith, ‘you may not know that I came to be your Vicar at Saint Chad’s Middlesbrough in 1952 directly from being Curate at Berwick Parish Church.”
Although sole Vicar of Berwick for 20 years, with NHS, Military and Police duties, I came from leading four Yorkshire parishes spread over 100sq miles, each once served by their own priest. This gradual process of linking parishes means that, when a vicar retires, they can leave multiple buildings needing temporary cover.
Since retiring six years ago, I have had the privilege of helping other retired clergy cover 22 vacant rural churches on rota, including Holy Island, Bamburgh, Beadnell, North Sunderland, Ellingham, Lucker, Belford, Kirknewton, Wooler, Doddington, Illderton, Embleton, Eglingham, Carham, Branxton, Norham, Cornhill, Ford, Lowick, Etal, Ancroft and Tweedmouth.
Not only for Sunday and mid-week services but also baptisms, funerals and marriages, 12 marriages over the past six months alone.
I am often asked why parishes are linked in groups, why can’t each church still have its own priest, why do parishes remain vacant for so long?
The reality is that most of our rural and city churches were built by wealthy land owners or industrial philanthropists, to meet the spiritual needs of their workforce, whether on the land or in factories.
Except in rare circumstances, the heirs and successors of those who built our fine churches no longer bear the considerable financial burden of maintaining them today.
Insurance, heat and light, repairs and the cost of paying and housing clergy now falls to the present day worshippers, without state aid.
Although called the Church of England, as with other denominations or religious groups, we are not funded by local or national taxes, not supported by communitycharge, simply the generosity of regular worshippers and supporters.
It has been an enormous privilege to share in the lives and ministries of so many wonderful congregations recently.
To witness the selfless love and care given by churchwardens and people, working tirelessly and generously to ensure that their churches are open and available to all.
People are discovering new ministries for a new age and situation.
Rather than being depressed by the loss of a priest, new gifts are being released by the Holy Spirit as congregations reflect on what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be human in this age.
Archbishop Wulfstan of York wrote a thousand years ago that ‘The Christian faith ought to teach us who we are, where we come from and what our end will be.’
Easter is a wonderful time for local congregations and communities to celebrate who they are.
Please use the opportunities this Easter provides to seek out a congregation and join them, starting this coming Palm Sunday, you may discover a new ministry to share, a spiritual home.
At the very least, if lost for something to do, go and visit some church buildings, they are part of our shared history, works of art, art galleries with their carved stonework, stained glass windows and memorials.
I hope something of what they witness may rub off.
Canon Alan Hughes MBE TD