The fading bells of St Enodoc
In a guest post, Alison Milbank argues that these are increasingly dark times for the parish.
So grows the tinny tenor faint or loud
All all things draw toward St. Enodoc.
Come on! Come on! and it is five to three.
In John Betjeman’s evocative poem, ‘Sunday Afternoon Service at St Enodoc’, the bells call people to slither across the sand to attend evensong at the ancient Cornish church of St Enodoc, half buried in the dunes. Such worship may soon be a thing of the past, however, as the pastoral reorganization plans of Truro Diocese merge or amalgamate parishes – Kerrier Deanery will make a single parish out of twenty three – and withdraw clergy into the managerial role of ‘oversight ministers’. So many of us know Cornwall from holidays and delight in the plethora of Celtic saints and holy wells in its peaceful churches so integrated into the landscape.
But this is a county in which second homes and holiday cottages hollow out some communities and there is deprivation in the most picturesque of spots, not just the ex-mining towns. Traditionally high church, the diocese sought to impose a pattern of ministry that will make it well-nigh impossible for most churches to be liturgical, eucharistic communities and have any true cure of souls.
Cornwall has a tradition of resistance from the 1497 tin miners’ revolt to the Prayer Book and Monmouth rebellions, and they have not taken this dismantling of their parochial system lying down. Every time a Deanery Team put out a statement such as East Wivelshire’s Deanery Steering Group’s ‘we are not seeking opinions on God’s given Vision’, resistance grows stronger. Zennor parish, with its famous legend of a churchgoing mermaid, is particularly incensed, with one respondent to their survey suggesting the people of Cornwall 'must NOT let this or any other West Cornwall Village Church close, even if we need a second wave of twenty thousand Cornishmen walking to London in the footsteps of Trelawny to demand The Reason Why.’ Deanery Synods, however, up and down the diocese, have been told there is no alternative, and clergy are often frightened to speak out. Save the Parish Cornwall have a 60 page dossier of the sorry story of hurt and harm. Trust has been lost. For although the hierarchy claim they do not want to close churches, East Wivelshire proposed closing two thirds of the existing churches in their deanery, and the ‘On the Way’ documents are awash with statements about how the church is not a building. Once a dedicated priest and regular service provision disappear, churches will decline, as the Church of England’s own research has shown.
Yet if you are poor, or elderly, and rural, the church building and all that it provides is crucial to your life. There is little public transport to take you anywhere, let alone the thirty or so miles necessary in some areas if the plans go through, and much of the money from the LICF (Lowest Income Community Fund) intended to give ministry to deprived parishes is not to be used for parish priests but is aimed at lay pioneer ministers in urban areas, who by definition cannot offer sacramental in worship, unless they fly in a priest, who will be as rare as the local buses. Where there may be a service provided, the policy is to meet sacramental needs by allowing Communion by Extension. But this turns a community celebrating Holy Communion together into pure recipients: it is better than nothing but will not build liturgical community.
Cornwall is an object lesson in a key problem in today’s Church of England, which is a failure to listen to lay people, or to value them. In my forthcoming book from SCM Press, The Once and Future Parish I trace the genealogy of this problem back to the 1960s, and the negative attitude to congregations evident in some liberal theology of the time, as well as to the loss of any sense of Anglican ecclesiology among many evangelicals. ‘Inherited Church’ as it is now called and the people who worship according to Anglican liturgy and practices are all seen as the problem rather than the solution.
This is as true in urban dioceses as rural ones. Liverpool Diocese decided to reorder and amalgamate parishes in Wigan, and so great was the outcry among the faithful that the Church Commissioners were called in to adjudicate. The many letters, some hand-written by people unaccustomed to writing, were heart-rending. People spoke of their love for the work they already did arranging baptisms and funerals, which was now to be taken away from them as the post of administrator was created. The taxi-rank system of allotting occasional offices would mean people could be buried by a stranger. The sense of betrayal and loss was powerful, as people described a whole life given shape and meaning by their local church. In an estate parish in Southampton, where the church building had been mainly financed by local people, it was not only closed, but their preferred option of a sale to the Romanian Orthodox Church, which would have kept the building open for anyone to pray in, was rejected for a £15,000 higher offer from a commercial nursery (owned by a property development company). To add insult to injury, the protesters were told the nursery was contributing to building the kingdom!
Secularisation is not the result of inherited church and our faithful congregations. Pubs, libraries, clubs and political parties all struggle nowadays in this era of individualism and a loss of the common good in all aspects of our lives. Those who remain faithful to Christ in these tough times deserve our respect, care and love, for they are our best hope, whatever their age and capacity, of showing another way. Society cannot go on like this, for the human cost of this atomism and isolation in mental ill-health is mounting beyond all measure. We need these symbols of the transcendent, places to gather, or to be still and serious; we need to hear bells like St Enodoc’s ringing to ‘renew the town, discover it, and give it back itself again’ as poet Elizabeth Jennings puts it. Truro diocese has the resources for a priest in every three churches, to minister to locals and holidaymakers alike. But we learnt from their suffragan bishop on BBC Southwest that the reorganisation is not the result of lack of money but how they want the church to be.
In dark times, the last thing we need are grandiose plans, which in Truro diocese even involve each deanery setting up its own Community Interest Company to employ its own staff. Rather we need to act more simply and humbly as local churches, aware of our vulnerability and willing to work together with people of good will wherever they are found. But renewal comes always from within: from a new intensity in our common life of prayer, and a faithfulness to our core traditions that will enable us to bring out treasures old and new for an impoverished and needy world.
The Revd Canon Professor Alison Milbank is Professor of Theology and Literature at the University of Nottingham where she teaches on the relation of religion and culture both historically and in the contemporary world and a trustee of Art+Christianity. She is Canon Theologian and Priest Vicar at Southwell Minster, where she leads on adult education but also engages in all aspects of ministry in a parish church cathedral. She is a co-founder of 'Save the Parish' and active in engaging audiences as diverse as English Heritage and the Ecclesiastical Law Society in its defence.