It is said of the Reverend Gustavus Frederick Hopton-Scott that he used to watch from the study window of his rectory as his parishioners arrived for church in his north Nottinghamshire parish, and once they had all arrived, he would follow them in, and lock the door, putting the key in his cassock pocket. They were not going home until he was through! “Captive audience,” for him, was no mere expression. He was the last person to be buried inside that church, and, as if to stop him going anywhere, it was decided that his coffin be encased in concrete!
The end of June marks the thirtieth anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood. On Saint Peter’s day I shall have been a priest for thirty years. Priestly orders are conferred for life, so even when I retire from employment I shall still be a priest. Over the years I have served in two suburban parishes, and three groups of rural parishes, as well as being the Bishop’s Adviser on Rural Affairs. I served in Hopton-Scott’s parish, many years after him. I followed a priest who had been Vicar there for thirty-two years, and whose predecessor had also served there for thirty-two years. In sixty-four years the place had only known two vicars. In another parish my immediate predecessor had been rector for twenty-seven years. “I’ve known twelve vicars here,” said one elderly lady there, “you’re the thirteenth.” Unlucky for some!
Such long-serving predecessors become legends in the parishes, loved and respected, and talked about long after they’ve moved on or died. In fact people delight in talking to us as clergy about our predecessors and what they “used to do”. Whenever I’ve been involved in making new appointments to parishes I have discouraged people from talking about the previous incumbent. It gets a little tiresome after a while for the newcomer. Clergy are all different, with different skills and interests, and different kinds of spirituality. “Beware the legacy of the predecessor,” said a bishop to me one day. Sometimes it’s “Beware the cult of the predecessor” too! A priest I trained with in Leicester reckoned after he’d been there for five years that the parish was running about fifty per cent how he wanted it to run, and fifty per cent how his predecessor had run it. This picture here shows William E Hallam, Rector of Barnardiston, one of the parishes I currently serve, between 1898 and 1915.
“The past is a foreign country: they do things different there,” wrote the novelist L P Hartley, born at Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire at the beginning of ‘The Go-Between’. Some people harbour nostalgic images of what life used to be like and seem to long to want to inhabit past ages. I’ve sometimes had people talk to me about the “good old days” and asked them if they want to go back to having a dolly tub instead of an automatic washing machine. Of course they don’t!
Things were done differently in the past. The picture is from Felbrigg Hall, a National Trust property in Norfolk. We wouldn’t put much trust nowadays in the old fire engine we see in the picture. We rely on the modern fire fighter to use the most up to date equipment in fighting our fires. We wouldn’t expect our doctors and surgeons to go about their work in the same way that their predecessors did: we wouldn’t want them to! Nor would we want to have our dental problems looked after in the way they were previously. We expect professionals in all the various walks of life to use modern approaches, tools and techniques in their work.
It’s interesting to see how the clergy of previous ages and generations lived and worked. The Revd Francis Kilvert was one clergyman who in the late nineteenth century wrote in his diaries about rural life. Had he lived today he would probably have written a blog. Some clergymen in the past took a keen interest, as I do, in the world of nature, and some were recognised and respected naturalists. We have to remember though that what was possible for clergy hundreds of years ago, or even a few decades ago, is no longer possible for the clergy of our modern multi-parish benefices. Life and work in the twenty-first century makes different demands upon us and we must endeavour to make sure that our methods and our ministry are appropriate to the age in which we live.
Whilst our message is the same as it ever was, and the truth of the love of God for people is the unchanging message people need to hear, our methods and our media and our ministries need to continue to change and evolve in order to relate to the twenty-first century society in which we live. It is a society which presents us with new opportunities but also with new challenges and problems. Clergy and lay ministers alike today face issues on a daily basis which were unknown to clergy and ministers a few decades ago. We cannot continue to work as clergy as our predecessors in former decades and former centuries did – and – importantly – nor should we be expected to.
The Church is a living, moving and growing organism. At school we used to have a school song, and the chorus (in English translation) was “It lives, it grows and in eternity it flourishes”. The phrase loses something in translation, because in the Latin it rhymes, but what a lovely picture of what the church should be, living, growing and in eternity flourishing. I was looking recently at sermon notes from nearly thirty years ago, and I came across words about growing, upwards towards God, together, towards each other in fellowship, outwards into the community and then growing numerically. I remembered today that the parish where I served in Leicester thirty years ago had a “growth committee”. Today the Church is still talking and thinking about growth.
The fact that the Church lives, and to live must adapt, means that it must change. One writer, some years ago (and if I knew who it was I would gladly attribute it) suggested that the words which Church members sing and say may sound more splendid than the deeds and attitudes they actually show. He wrote “they like singing lustily that no goblin nor foul fiend shall daunt their spirit, yet can get remarkably anxious when a new order of service or a new hymn tune is introduced. Claims to be ‘Christian soldiers, marching as to war’ look a little lame when members of the Parochial Church Council reveal a greater interest in looking to the past than in marching to the future with courage and boldness.”
There’s a story about a Bishop who was visiting a country church and spoke to a man who had been church warden forty years “You must have seen some changes in the church during your forty years,” said the Bishop. “Aye,” replied the church warden, “and I have opposed every single one of them!”