Our churches are like dropped anchors holding us on history’s tide when storms rage: REV COLIN HEBER-PERCY offers a new message of hope this Easter

This sunny Easter weekend is the first for two years that Britons can celebrate unhindered by lockdown restrictions. 

The shadow of Covid remains with us, but confidence is returning as we resume our old lives. 

Here, a country vicar recalls the travails of the pandemic, its impact on the churches forced to shut and the congregations who couldn’t gather in worship — and why he believes the faith of millions has been strengthened by adversity…

One spring morning in 2020, in the hills behind the cottage where I live, I sat at the edge of a recently sown field of barley — a breath of green over the land’s rising and falling — and I wept.

I’m a vicar. And when our churches were closed for worship on March 17, 2020 — and then shut completely five days later — I wondered how I was supposed to carry on doing the job I love.

And when our churches were closed for worship on March 17, 2020 — and then shut completely five days later — I wondered how I was supposed to carry on doing the job I love

Round here, the ancient past pokes through the Wiltshire parish patchwork of modern farmland, villages and market towns.

My wife grew up here, and our children have never known another home.

Every tree, every bend in the lane, each dew pond, the gate in the top field that whistles when the wind blows in from the East: I belong here.

This sense of stability and belonging is partly captured in the word ‘parish’.

Once innocuous and familiar, the word ‘parish’ has acquired a newly political resonance. 

It’s become a slogan, even a cause, because although it has been the system that has sustained the Anglican church for the last thousand years, the parish is now under threat.

There is a move afoot to ‘modernise’ the Church of England, encouraging people to worship in new places — a pizzeria, perhaps, or a cinema — rather than asking congregations to continue footing the bill for the upkeep of our ancient buildings.

How ironic that the parish church should now need protecting, not from the threat of decline but from the wilful dismantling by those (hell)bent on breaking up the Church of England in its current, and historic form.

The Church needs protecting from itself.

The modernisers maintain — not without justification — that the parish system as it’s presently administered and organised is financially unsustainable and failing in its mission to God’s people.

So they argue for a more lay-led, pioneering Church, freer of expensive limiting factors such as priests and parishes, bishops and buildings.

On the other side of the debate is Save The Parish, an organisation devoted to protecting the parish system in this country,

As I write, parish clergy posts are being cut across the whole Church of England in cost-saving exercises. 

At the same time, parishes are being squeezed by their dioceses for more and more money and are being asked — effectively — to give more for less.

I recognise validities and flaws on both sides of the argument surrounding the future of the parish. What really surprises me though is that this debate is raging now.

Because from where I’m writing, down at the grass roots, the parish system has actually been living through its finest hour.

On Friday, March 20, 2020, I looked up to see two butterflies fluttering against the East window of All Saints’, one of the churches in my parish.

The stained glass, its boiled-sweet yellows, reds and blues, must have looked like freedom to the butterflies, and my closing hands a trap. But with the butterflies caged in my cupped palms, I walked down the aisle to the West door, and outside in the churchyard I opened my hands to the spring sunshine.

The butterflies twisted and flickered up into the blue. They were like a prayer, although I hadn’t said a word.

This is the last time I’ll set foot in church for months, I thought. And when I do return, everything will have changed: the world, these parishes, me.

Sitting on the churchyard wall the following Monday, I watched Joy, the churchwarden and organist, locking the door.

Masked and self-conscious, we had a brief, socially distanced chat, unsure, both of us, whether we were even allowed to be here at all. And then she left me to sit alone in the sun with my thoughts.

No matter that the church doors were locked, I realised. It was time for action.

I made phone calls to vulnerable and anxious parishioners; I volunteered (and volunteered my teenage children) to help with the local emergency food bank; I familiarised myself with offering worship online.

But a vital part of any priestly ministry must be the day-to-day spiritual sustenance of souls in our care. 

Particularly when those souls are in distress, frightened, alone. So a daily email of reflection and prayer struck me as a good idea.

Struggling through my own situation — a wife with Covid, frightened children, family members needing crisis support — the posts became more personal, prayerful, and began to fill up with people, places, pieces of music and passages from books I found myself relying on. Virtual vicaring, you might call it.

Within weeks, the posts I was firing off on a wing and a prayer were being shared far beyond my rural parish.

Under the circumstances, it doesn’t seem quite appropriate to say they ‘went viral’, but that’s effectively what happened. Soon they were being opened and read thousands of times, all over the world.

In my prayers one spring day that year, I remembered Iris, as I often do, a parishioner and friend I’ve known for many years. Her husband is buried in St Michael’s churchyard. He’s been there for 34 years.

Iris has planted primroses and anemones around his headstone. I went to visit her during lockdown.

Two metres apart, we sat in her garden, shaded by an old English rose as she vividly recalled planning the garden with her husband when they first moved here from London.

Digging the borders, planting trees, opening up views across the downs… At the end of our conversation, we fell naturally into prayer.

And although she struggles to find the right words in our chats, Iris still has the Lord’s Prayer perfectly by heart.

On the way home, I stopped off at The Swan. Not because it was lunchtime and hot and I fancied a pint. (All true.) But because I’d been given a list of things to buy by my teenage daughter Aggie. Top of Aggie’s list was flour.

The bar was propped up by sacks of potatoes, and covered with punnets of carrots, onions and parsnips. And flour: self-raising, plain and strong. When shelves in the home-baking sections of our supermarkets stood empty, Bill, The Swan’s landlord, spotted a demand.

At times of crisis we yearn for warm, pebble-smooth familiarity. And even when we can’t go inside them, our ancient or not so ancient churches sit like magnetic north in the middle of our villages, towns and cities

Like many others during lockdown, Aggie, who hadn’t been in school for weeks and weeks, took to baking. Every afternoon she’d be in the kitchen, apron on, dancing and cooking to her Classic 80s playlist.

Despite my lingering headache, I could just about forgive the music in order to watch her making lemon drizzle sponges, marble cakes, banana loaves, cardamom-scented ‘boller’ buns, macaroons.

At times of crisis we yearn for warm, pebble-smooth familiarity.

And even when we can’t go inside them, our ancient or not so ancient churches sit like magnetic north in the middle of our villages, towns and cities.

Built in the 12th century from flint and stone, St Michael’s sits almost hidden within a fold of the downs, above a stream where a mill once turned.

In all likelihood, the present church replaced an older building on the same spot. It would be reasonable to assume Christmases have been celebrated here for a millennium and a half.

And I’d hazard none of them have been quite like Christmas 2020. For a start, at Holy Communion on Christmas morning we were not in St Michael’s at all, but gathered outside in the churchyard around the lychgate. S

un not yet risen above the downs, the frost was keen and deep; we stamped our feet, breath coming out of us like we were kettles boiling.

It was on account of our breath that we were outside in the first place: our breath was a biohazard. There were too many of us to go inside the church where infection could be spread.

So, out in the cold, standing well apart, we sang See Amid The Winter’s Snow and In The Bleak Midwinter and Hark, The Herald. Thus, we remained within the rules.

As I raised the round communion wafer at our makeshift altar and said, ‘We are one body because we all share in the one bread’, the sun crested the line of hills behind the congregation and shone directly into my eyes.

I could claim it was the brightness of the sun and the sharpness of the East wind that made my eyes water.

But that wouldn’t quite be true.

Later, my parents stood warming themselves around a fire in our garden. We struggled to hold champagne glasses while wearing gloves, and exchanged presents like they were ticking bombs.

We didn’t go inside together or eat a meal together or hug one another, or kiss. The temptation to break the rules instead of our hearts was enormous.

Almost a year after I stood outside All Saints’, watching Joy, our churchwarden and organist, lock the door, an article appeared in The Spectator (Holy Relic: What will be left of the Church of England after the pandemic? February 6, 2021). It described what followed the closing of our churches in Lent 2020: ‘When Covid struck, and people turned to their churches for spiritual consolation, what did they find? Closed doors.’

Well, yes, the buildings were closed, by order of the Government. But the Church went to work as never before. And the parish system came into its own.

I didn’t have a day off in six months. And I was far from alone.

In parishes all over this country, churches organised and ran local food banks, delivered food parcels, staffed emergency helplines, arranged prescription collections and hospital taxi services. They offered imaginative ways of sharing worship and prayer online.

Above all, the church revealed itself to be a vital capillary network of embedded personal and caring connections stretching deep into communities. Down into the soil of this nation.

In his 2020 book, English Pastoral, James Rebanks tells of how farmers are beginning to rediscover the vital importance of the soil, of working with nature rather than around it.

He writes about how farmers are learning to modify or abandon some of the intensive and ruinous methods adopted more or less wholesale by a previous generation.

He describes the gradual reintroduction of an ancient and more sustainable approach to agriculture and land management.

Like the farmers in this country, the Church of England faces a deep, inherited crisis. And like the farmers, perhaps it might find a solution where it tends to look last: right under its nose.

It’s telling, I think, that the various Church factions and the Church’s detractors all fall into the same trap: obsessing over the Church. Just as farmers focused on yields, so some churches have become preoccupied with growth, promoting a particular agenda.

How would the situation look if we focused less on what the Church of England is, and more on what it’s for? I suggest the pandemic has shown us that the parish may be the best answer we have to that question.

At a wedding the other day, the father of the bride approached me with tears in his eyes. He told me his parents and grandparents and great-grandparents are all buried in the churchyard.

He pointed out the place at the back of the church where he’d been one of the Wise Men in a nativity play, where he’d sat to sing in the choir, where he’d been standing when his daughter was baptised. He was talking about his roots, about belonging.

And it is revealing that during the recent crisis many of us — including myself — turned instinctively to what made us feel safe and secure.

In this part of the country, many of our village churches are built from flint ploughed out of the hills. I love them, these repositories of prayer, these stone boxes in the bends and doubles of the downland, like tufting buttons pinning us to an ancient landscape.

With their Saxon fonts, recumbent crusaders, Victorian stained glass, they are dropped anchors, holding us on history’s tide.

When a storm blows in, as it has this past two years, we need that anchor.

Happy Easter to you all!

  • Adapted from Tales Of A Country Parish, From The Vicar Of Savernake Forest by Colin Heber-Percy, published by Short Books at £14.99. © Colin Heber-Percy 2022. To order a copy for £13.49 (offer valid to 30/04/22; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.

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