Sitting in a pub trying to explain that a parish might have no more than a couple of dozen people, so that one Rector might have half a dozen parishes so as to have enough work (and parishioners sufficient to pay the stipend), brought a look of incomprehension.
“If I were ye”, he said, “I would take a bulldozer and knock down all the churches except one in each of the places and then everyone could go to the one place and ye wouldn’t have to be looking after all these buildings”.
His sentiments probably reflect those of one or more of the bishops who are unimpressed by parish protests that there are financial problems, when those parishes are keeping open church buildings that might have a service once a month, and it only lasting an hour.
The sweet voice of reason loses its sugary taste when it comes to taking decisions to close churches.
Last week, my wife visited the parish of her childhood days, in Mersey Street in East Belfast; the parish where her father had been the first incumbent. The stories from that parish were for years a prominent feature of family gatherings, the Belfast wit prompting wheeze-inducing laughter.
Holidaying in Kerry one year, her father had found the font from a closed church lying in a field. Thinking it would be a fine addition to his own church, he had arranged for its transport to Belfast. In times when duties were still charge on imports, the font caused the customs officials to scratch their heads. They could find no duty specified for second hand stone fonts and having completed the paperwork filled in a docket declaring the duty payable was zero.
The parish had been half a square mile of streets running down to the shipyard. There was neither grass nor trees amongst the rows of red brick houses, but there had been a fierce pride in the place and a strong commitment to their church.
Her father had moved on, dying prematurely whilst parson of a country parish, but the love of the home parish had persisted, accompanied by a pride that another child of the parish had unseated the Member of Parliament for East Belfast in last year’s General Election.
The church her father had worked so hard to build up is soon to be closed. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Church of Ireland seem to lose touch with the working class communities where once it had been so strong. Some years back, the church had been put back into the parish from which it had been born; now it is to go completely.
A colleague once asked a question of those enthusiastic to close swathes of churches. “If this had been the church in which you had been baptized; if this had been the church where you were confirmed; if this had been the church where you had been married; if this had been the church where you had followed your parents’ coffins; if this had been the church where generations of your family had been laid to rest in the graveyard; if this had been your church, how would you feel?”
We talk of churches being consecrated, of them being hallowed ground, and people take these words seriously. They dip their hands deep into their pockets to care for those buildings, they give many, many hours of their time; they are stirred with emotions both of pride and of love. Whatever, the sweet voice of reason might say, these buildings have become sacred to those who remain.
The Church of Ireland believes that the bishop can say a prayer and at a stroke, the building is no more than a building. We simply do not understand our people.