The Future of Country Parishes & Churches – United We Stand…
In 2004, the Winchester Bishops wrote to members of the ordained ministry and to the lay churchwardens inviting them to consider the future of their parishes in the context of the major challenges that the Church of England now faces. These include a worsening shortage of ordained priests, problems over raising adequate money and declining attendance at church services. Replies were sent by parishes individually. For example, the Amport reply included resolutions to conduct a survey of those who are not regular churchgoers on how the present arrangements could be improved (yet to be done!), to consider how families new to the parish could be more effectively welcomed, and to make the Parish church of St Mary’s more usable.
One important though little known aspect is that a priest costs c£44,000 (split 59% stipend & housing, 22% pension/NI/other, 19% training). In our Benefice, Amport contributes c. £18,000 to the Diocese annually, and needs c.£9,000 for all other costs. This is a lot to be raised almost entirely from a decreasing number of churchgoing people, and the cost rises by 5% or more annually. We know of a nearby parish, and there are several others in the Diocese, which has failed considerably to pay its share, the shortfall being borne by a Diocesan relief fund. In any case, most country parishes are challenged and often dominated by the annual fundraising task. The Diocese gets 86% of its annual income from parishes, and this together with the reducing number of paid priests means that we must look for greater numbers of unpaid lay leadership in rural parishes, which will not only spread costs but also cover gaps. But we must consider how this might be done in our case.
A country community that loses its church also loses much of its history and character. Its church has been sustained by generations of villagers with virtually no outside help. We know that we have support of the great majority of villagers (well beyond the few who attend church regularly, as can be seen at major church festivals and events such as Remembrance Sunday), who understand the need to keep local churches open; and the value that these churches have in the life of their community. Bluntly put, if we do nothing we do stand to lose them in the foreseeable future; time is limited. Surely now is the time to combine resources to keep each of our unique and special churches open for parishioners now and in the future to provide a centre for worship, and where appropriate or necessary for wider social purposes.
For the good of our community, please consider the situation and the need to develop what we do now so that we can sustain the benefits that we enjoy from having a parish church. There is no emergency this year, but the dangers are there and we must start to plan to save our churches for future generations. In Amport we will conduct a survey in January, but please would anyone who reads this pass their thoughts and comments to either the vicar or to myself (by e mail, in writing or orally) as soon as possible, as these can be incorporated into our survey.
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