Covid-19 seems likely to bring an end to the Church of England in many places. The long decline will have become terminal.
A generation ago, our village had a vicar, it seems unimaginable now. I recall a conversation in Maisey’s, our village pub, when news of one of the last among the village clergy had reached us.
“I see the old vicar is dead.”
“The man who used to visit around the parish.”
“Alwyn. I’m sorry to hear that. He must have been a good age.”
“He would call and share a glass of whisky. He didn’t worry if you never came to church. He came to you. There aren’t vicars like that, now.”
Personal experience of Alwyn confirmed exactly the way he had been described. He was a man of kindness, generosity, good humour. He would drive to Taunton to visit villagers, like my father, who would never venture near a church service. He expected nothing in return. There was never a hidden agenda, never a feeling that he was awaiting an appropriate opportunity to make a religious point.
Why was Alwyn beloved of those of no faith? The apparent answer is that he visited them, but there must be a deeper answer, why did they value his presence in their houses? His style of being a vicar has all but disappeared. Perhaps the church would say its disappearance is not a loss, people didn’t believe, nor did they come to church, even though he spent his days going around the village knocking on doors.
Perhaps the affection in which Alwyn was held was rooted in something much deeper, in an ancient, non-rational worldview. Perhaps Alwyn functioned in our village in the way that “holy” men did in primitive societies, a subconscious safeguard against those things that we might not understand, those fears within us from childhood days that we would struggle to name.
The church will have been unaware of the impact of the work of Alwyn, being fondly remembered does not appear in diocesan statistics. In the days when the evangelicals are in the ascendancy and when vicars wear sweatshirts and chinos and are called things like “Dave” and “Baz” and lead performances of pseud-rock music, there is no place for such people as Alwyn.
In a generation, the church itself will be gone, its buildings remaining the only lasting testimony to the unreligious nature of the English. Covid has brought that end nearer.