Over the past few weeks we’ve been watching A Passion for Churches on BBC2. It is a series of twelve programmes, each looking at a different church. Amongst the varied programmes so far have been a church buried in a sand dune and a church reclaimed from devil worshipers, however tonights church was really interesting.
The church in question was St. Mary’s Church in Orchardleigh in Somerset. The church is located on an island in the Orchardleigh estate, and in terms of it’s parish consists of only a few houses. Back in 1999 the estate house wasn’t habitable, and there was talk of declaring the church redundant as congregations at the twice monthly services were minimal. However that all changed when the estate was bought and turned into a conference centre and wedding venue. Many of the wedding couples who booked the house were then keen to marry in the church, however this being a Church of England church they were subject to the rules on residence to get married. What is really good is that there are a significant number of couples who are willing traveling several hours one Sunday a month in order to qualify for the electoral roll of the church. This is also having an effect on the church with some of the wedding couples getting baptised and congregations as a whole increasing by three times.
This however has caused a problem. Like many churches in Somerset the church is grouped with others, with one priest responsible for the church and four others, and the others having local congregations, whereas St. Mary’s congregation are primarily people who are coming from far away, and only for a short period of time. With upwards of thirty weddings a year and climbing, when a new rector arrives he feels that it is too much work and that he should be devoting his time to his local parishioners, and sets a limit of three weddings a month.
The crunch comes when a fourth couple tries to book a December wedding, and the rector initially says no. However he then talks to the Bishop. Although you only get a report from the rector, it does sound like he got a fairly clear message to find a way from the Bishop. The rector is told that as part of looking for new forms of church, and with the possibility of many parishes not being able to maintain a viable congregation, having a good sized congregation, wherever they may come from is to be encouraged. He is told to share the workload between the local clergy in order to meet the demand, which is what he has done by the end of the programme.
Although it’s not to quite the same level, marriage couples are one of the larger groups in our congregation because again we’re a pretty church, but with limited housing. Again we have a relatively large number of couples who are willing to attend services regularly to use the church for a wedding. Also, as with St. Mary’s the regular attendance has effects with couples attending Alpha courses and the like, and ultimately becoming part of the Church. As the Bishop tells the rector, it is about new forms of Church, and whilst some may be concerned at marrying people who effectively are there for the location, rather than belief, the possibilities of bringing them into the Church, even if only for a few months should be encouraged.
Incidentally, in terms of the weddings at St. Mary’s, the final line of the programme revealed that there are currently over sixty booked for 2006!