The collapse of the Church of England

There was a time when High Ham had its own rector. Then it was absorbed into Langport and High Ham had a vicar under the rector in Langport. Then there was no longer a vicar in High Ham. And now even Langport has no priest. The vicarage being let, the living is suspended.

The neighbouring benefice of Long Sutton, Pitney, Muchelney and Drayon is also suspended.

The Church of England has brought iself to this situation.  Distant, arrogant, high-handed, pompous, self-obsessed – the list of apposite descriptions is long. A failure during the Covid pandemic, lacking leadership, having little understanding of rural communities, the decline has been long an inexorable.

In Somerset, the irrelevance began a century ago. In his book In God We Doubt: Confessions of a Failed Atheist broadcaster John Humphrys remembers his father as not being very favourably disposed towards clergy,

‘That can probably be traced to an experience he had as a young man when he was staying with his aunt at her little cottage in a Somerset village not long after the First WorId War had ended. They were about to sit down for Sunday lunch when the door burst open and the vicar strode in. Without so much as a by-your­leave, a tap on the door or even ‘Good morning’, he demanded to know why my great-aunt had not been at the morning service. She did a little bob – not quite a curtsy, but not far from it – and stammered some sort of apology. She tried to explain that she seldom had visitors and she’d been busy preparing lunch for her nephew whom she hadn’t seen for a year and who had come from a long way away (the other side of the Severn estuary) but she’d make sure to turn up for evensong. He was having none of it. He barked at her, ‘See that you do! Don’t let it happen again!’ and marched out without another word. He did not even acknowledge the presence of her guest.

My father was outraged and remembered that en­counter in minute detail until his dying day. How dare the vicar treat his aunt with such disdain – exactly like a lord of the manor dealing with a serf! But those were the days of deference, especially in a rural backwater like Wellow in Somerset, when the working class knew its place and would never have dared to stand up to the authority of the vicar’.

As someone who grew up in a working-class family in another rural backwater of Somerset, the story told by John Humphrys’  is reassuring, this was how working-class people experienced the church. There is a certain schadenfreude in watching the disintegration of the institution. Perhaps something Christian will emerge from the ruins.

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