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 stone-tiled 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.
Our weekly attendance at services is more than 10 per cent of the village population, which is markedly higher than the average. It is gradually on the rise, thanks, I feel sure, to the charisma, light-hearted charm and spirituality of our vicar and a concerted campaign by the church council and congregation to make potential worshippers feel welcome and valued. We hold a Sunday club for children and have an excellent relationship with the village Church of England school, so our family services are well-attended and lively.
Our money-raising activities are supported by many villagers, whether churchgoers or not. We manage by a whisker to pay our annual Parish Share, which funds clergy stipends and pensions. There are just about enough public-spirited people prepared to sit on the Parochial Church Council, and one or two, thank goodness, understand book-keeping and building contracts. We churchwardens orchestrate the church’s pastoral care, but we avoid even light-touch evangelism, constrained as we are by our neighbours’ correct belief that we are no better than they are. All in all, we are luckier than many small villages, which lack churchwardens — and congregations.
But if I wake in the night at a strange noise, I instantly imagine that someone is stealing the lead from the church roof. The maximum payout from the insurance company would be £5,000, which is a drop in a builder’s bucket, frankly. Even if that disaster doesn’t happen, I dread the belfry bats getting out of hand and fouling the medieval wall paintings. We cannot remove the protected bats, so we would have to hang plastic sheeting on the walls. Nice.
We find it especially hard, and usually unrewarding, to grapple with applications for charitable money to make improvements to the church’s facilities or simply keep the roof on; hard as well to find our way through the tangle of legal requirements imposed on us by Parliament, the Church of England and the myriad public bodies that have a say in how listed buildings are treated. We are bossed and lectured, but rarely offered help in finding the enormous sums of money we need if we are properly to do all those things about which we are bossed and lectured. We are proud and glad of our independence, but the burdens sometimes threaten to crush us. We are ordinary people, charged with looking after an extraordinary, irreplaceable building that is still a crucial centre of rural community life, especially now the pub and shop have gone.
However, all is not lost, if only because there have never been so many well-off, educated, energetic people living either part- or full-time in villages. We need to reassure these people that a belief in every syllable of the Creed is not the price of admission to their church: there are plenty of honest doubters in the pews already. But they must understand that, if our country churches are not to be dark, locked, empty shells in a generation’s time, then all village-dwellers with brains and means must see them as their particular responsibility. The bell tolls for thee.