The Good Friday round of family graves took us to the familiar names, Luxton in Aller, Crossman and Martin in Huish Episcopi, and Hill in Pitney. Visiting Aunt Ella and Uncle Clem today seemed appropriate for it was a family tradition to go to them for tea on Good Friday.
Inside the tiny parish church, the list of rectors of the parish of Pitney Lortie goes back eight centuries. The life span of anyone lying beneath the neat green grass was only a small fraction of the times through which the church has stood on the raised ground above the village. A plain, compact medieval building, the church has not seen a priest of its own for decades. The final rector of the parish was appointed in 1961, in 1976, Pitney Lortie was subsumed into a “team” ministry based around Langport.
Pitney is a hidden place. It lies three miles distant from High Ham. It is a scattered, tiny village that is tucked into the fold of the undulating Somerset countryside.
Pitney has suffered the fate of many similar villages throughout England. Its school is long closed. The village’s public house, a place of fine beer and fine food, lies out of the village, on the main road between Langport and Somerton; equidistant between the two towns, it is appropriately called Halfway House.
Yet there is a new found vibrancy in the community. A farm shop reflects the growing desire of shoppers to buy produce directly from producers. Signs declare that Pitfest, the village’s own music festival will take place on the first weekend in July, having been cancelled for the past two years.
Pitney epitomises much of rural England in being a place deep-rooted in the past that has adjusted to the Twenty-First Century.
Not everything has managed to adjust. In the church porch, a notice signed by someone calling themselves the “bishop of Taunton” declared that the benefice had been suspended.
Some years ago, the Langport team was broken up. Pitney, together with two other villages, had been included in something called “the Levels Arc benefice”. It was a name that smacked of the cult of managerialism that possesses the Church of England. It sounded like the outcome of the sort of strategic plan that has caused the church to fall headlong.
If the Church authorities listened they would know that identity and community are important to rural people. Create a sense of identity and community, and even non-believers will be present. The Church of England has signally failed to understand simple lessons.
The prospect of there ever again being an incumbent of the Levels Arc seems remote, eventually the diocese of Bath and Wells will move to make the church redundant – as it did in Langport, Long Load and Low Ham. If the building is to survive the stewardship of the Church of England, it needs to be transferred to the trusteeship of local people, vested in people whose understanding of community far exceeds bishops who live in a palace surrounded by a moat.