It was the harvest thanksgiving service at Lacca this evening. With friends and neighbours and visitors, there were 155 people in the congregation, almost twice the number of people who are members of the church. Farming communities may be quiet and conservative, but in Ireland the church remains a central part of their lives. They will be there in all seasons, week in week out; they might not always agree with the Rector, but will always support him.
There are parts of rural Ireland where levels of attendance are closer to the days of Thomas Hardy than to a 21st Century secular city. Hardy’s story The Distracted Preacher has an opening that would have not been an unfamiliar experience for most clergy in Ireland until recent times, and would still be recognizable in some places:
Something delayed the arrival of the Wesleyan minister, and a young man came temporarily in his stead. It was on the thirteenth of January 183- that Mr. Stockdale, the young man in question, made his humble entry into the village, unknown, and almost unseen. But when those of the inhabitants who styled themselves of his connection became acquainted with him, they were rather pleased with the substitute than otherwise, though he had scarcely as yet acquired ballast of character sufficient to steady the consciences of the hundred-and-forty Methodists of pure blood who, at this time, lived in Nether-Moynton, and to give in addition supplementary support to the mixed race which went to church in the morning and chapel in the evening, or when there was a tea – as many as a hundred-and-ten people more, all told, and including the parish-clerk in the winter- time, when it was too dark for the vicar to observe who passed up the street at seven o’clock – which, to be just to him, he was never anxious to do.
It was owing to this overlapping of creeds that the celebrated population-puzzle arose among the denser gentry of the district around Nether-Moynton: how could it be that a parish containing fifteen score of strong full-grown Episcopalians, and nearly thirteen score of well-matured Dissenters, numbered barely two-and- twenty score adults in all?”
The story evokes memories of a harvest festival Sunday in the early-1990s. A visiting harvest preacher looking at the Preacher’s Book in our little country church as he signed it.
“You’ve had 300 people at the services today.”
“Ian, you’ve only 250 parishioners.”
“Some of them have come twice.”
In fact, at least a hundred of them must have come twice because there were a good fifty of them who never came to church.
The good people of that rural parish in Co Down would have well understood the experiences of young Mr Stockdale 160 years previously. In our little corner of Co Laois, Mr Stockdale’s times still live on.