I recently spent a fortnight in a small village in deepest, most rural, France. We were going to be there for several Sundays so immediately on our arrival we checked when there would be a church service. The answer appeared to be never!
We also checked in the nearby town with its own beautiful medieval church. The answer there was the same. In fact it had the same notice displayed which said that a bishop had visited to take a service the previous month. Otherwise, nothing. It appeared as though the church had abandoned its flock.
The flock had clearly lost interest too. There were no notices about any activities organised by parishioners. We couldn’t even get into the town church to pray or appreciate the architecture.
We did get to see inside the village church at St Loup. The interior was a stunning example of Rayonant architecture. However, the building was dead as most residents never go inside despite paying for it to be floodlit.
How different to our parish churches. Yes, we have lost a few churches over recent years in the Henley deanery. However, it is still a reasonable expectation that one will be able to attend some kind of church service locally.
The churches are maintained by the energy of the parishioners and parish or team clergy who still live and work in our communities. I have previously asked whether the Church of England is the National Trust at prayer. Yes, we put an awful lot of effort into maintaining the fabric of our churches. However, we also keep the church community alive by having services.
The greater community still expects the church and clergy to be there for celebrations and at times of sorrow.
Bishop Colin, the Bishop of Dorchester and acting Bishop of Oxford, is particularly keen that more people should come to our churches on occasions other than regular services.
His “Mission Fund” provides seed money to encourage the start of recitals, exhibitions and talks in the same space where we worship. This brings life and attracts potential churchgoers who might have viewed the church as an exclusive club.
This has borne fruit in Ipsden with regular tea recitals and occasional art exhibitions. We are also blessed to have a new, energetic and highly successful Friends committee. All these have brought new life, funds and congregation members.
How much better it is to have faith in God and plan for growth. The alternative is to have the dead church of St Loup.