Instagram filter used: Hefe
Photo taken at: St James’ Church Finchampstead
Instagram filter used: Hefe
Photo taken at: St James’ Church Finchampstead
This morning at just after 7am, rather than eating my breakfast as I would normally be, I was instead on the phone talking to Andrew Peach on BBC Radio Berkshire in a phone in discussion about falling church attendance, triggered by the provisional 2010 attendance figures published last week. In terms of the Oxford Diocese they show a fall in various weekly attendance stats that in percentage terms is middle of the pack, but thanks to the large number of churches in the diocese sounds a lot more of a crisis if you quote the actual number, which BBC Berkshire did – frequently. However the stats also show that membership across the diocese has gone up, and a rise in church weddings, and similarly healthy figures for baptism.
The discussion was trailed as the main topic of discussion yesterday, so I actually e-mailed in talking about our church St James’ Finchampstead where attendance is doing anything but falling, and at lunchtime I had an e-mail from a BBC researcher wanting me to participate.
I’ve listened enough to the Peach show to realise how they work, generally the discussion is kicked off by a couple of people, usually with opposing opinions, and since I was asked to be one of the first it looked like I was being lined up as one of those people. I didn’t find out who the other person was until I heard them on the radio with everyone else, and it turned out to be a chap from Ascot, now member of the Reading branch of the Catholic Ordinariate who was previously a member of the Church of England (I’m guessing at All Saints) who was quite clear that the reason numbers were falling was because the Church of England was going all liberal and ordaining women.
Now in my experience whilst the press and media absolutely love a good scrap between Anglicans over women priests, or women bishops, or even better a good gay story, and whilst there are parts of the church that regularly make a big noise over it, for the overwhelming majority of the average people in the pews it’s a non-issue. Since the Vicar of Dibley most people outside the Church of England, and a good few inside it are surprised, even shocked that there are still churches in the Church of England that will not recognise an ordained woman as a valid priest. It really is not something that figures in their thinking. What people are interested in is whether the services are interesting or boring, whether their kids will be welcome, whether the sermons will be too long, whether the music is to their taste. For the vast majority of people the sex of the person up the front, or what they do in the bedroom doesn’t figure at all.
So, with him having said his piece, Andrew came to me, and basically asked for my comment, to which I gave much the same response as I’ve just explained above. Given that the Priest in Charge who started the growth at St James’ Finchampstead was a woman, which I’d mentioned in the discussion with the researcher yesterday, I’m thinking they were hoping I’d angrily point out that a woman had turned our struggling church around, but I didn’t. My thought was very much that this shouldn’t be about the hot button issues, but should be much more about what we and other growing churches were doing. In my little slot I got in the point about services catering for a broad range of people, and Andrew moved on. What was particularly pleasing is that although there were one or two texts and tweets who provided some media pleasing bashing the other Christians with bible verses many of the people followed me talked about their thriving churches and didn’t rise to the bait. Interestingly they even tried to bait Bishop John with replaying the same interview an hour later, but he didn’t rise to it either. At one point they also had Sean Green who is a pastor at Reading Family Church who made a comment about falling numbers not being his experience with Church of England colleagues in the town, and how you can show a lot of things with statistics – very true given the line the programme was taking.
So the big question is why are some churches growing, and others shrinking? Given our experience at St James, it can’t be generalised into saying that the evangelical churches are growing and the liberal ones are shrinking, nor can it be categorised looking at worship styles or anything else. All across the spectrum of churches there are some that are growing and some that are shrinking. Fundamentally I think it comes down to which churches are connecting with their current and potential members and which ones aren’t. The strong welcoming communities are the ones that are growing, so in our case the people who come are perhaps looking for a more traditional type of service, something that is recognisably a traditional church. For our part we make sure we do traditional church well, and provide a broad range of different services, activities and event under that umbrella each of which brings in a different group of people. As to why other churches have falling numbers you can’t make sweeping generalisations, they have falling numbers for a variety of reasons, and to be honest those churches need to sit back, and look at themselves and the people they are called to serve to understand themselves what is going wrong and why.
You can hear the discussion and my contribution to it for the next few days on the BBC iPlayer – anyone in the UK should be able to listen to the programme, those outside the UK I’m not so sure.
This post is one of a series about the ongoing health issues I have had recently beginning in February 2011.
Once the GP and Ear Nose and Throat specialist had established that there wasn’t really anything significant wrong, the general advice was that I needed to ride out the infections, but would benefit from some lifestyle changes.
Of course this is the same sort of general healthy living advice that I suspect most people get when they visit their GP – certainly a colleague at work said he gets much the same every visit to his GP, however like most people I wasn’t eating as healthily as I could, and certainly wasn’t getting enough exercise.
I’d already changed some things as a result of the effects of the post nasal drip. For two or three months I’d been getting morning nausea, which really wasn’t helped by having milk on cereal in the morning. For part of the time I’d just cut out the cereal, but that left me feeling decidedly hungry by lunchtime. Since the previous belief that too many eggs were bad for you had been changed recently I decided to try poached eggs for breakfast – Sam had already developed a bit of a liking for eggs for breakfast too, so it wasn’t too much of a problem to change. The change was also beneficial in cutting my sugar intake, as the muesli I was having had rather a lot of sugar I discovered when I was advised to cut down.
So why cut down on sugar? If you take a look at this WebMD list of immune system busters and boosters third on the list is sugar intake – apparently it can have a dramatic effect on the immune system and it’s ability to fight infection, indeed Sinus Survival, one of a number of deal with your sinus problem guides that are available recommends cutting refined sugar and dairy products totally when you are suffering from a sinus infection.
I’ve had not too much problem cutting out sugar as I’ve never been a great one for snacks, however when the birthday cakes come out at work I have to keep temptation under control. Having said that wanting to end months of being ill is a good way to keep it at bay!
Dairy wise again I’ve pretty well cut it out, but then I never had much dairy anyway, aside from milk on breakfast cereal I’ve just had to stop having cheese. Beth has also cut down on sugar and dairy, although going dairy free was something she was thinking about anyway having had a friend who had children who were lactose intolerant, and had gone dairy free as a family for convenience, and then ended up feeling better for it. In the case of sinus problems the reason for doing so is that dairy products are believed to cause an increase in mucus production, so by cutting it out it reduces the mucus.
The other recommendation from the GP was to start taking some multivitamins, so I’ve joined Beth and the children in taking my vitamins every morning – initially an immune building mix but subsequently myself and Beth are both having the same standard multivitamin.
Alongside this we’ve increased our fruit intake – so we’re certainly eating more than our five a day I’m sure. But the big change on my part is that I’m making time for a walk, often at lunchtime, but with a longer walk at weekends.
Although I work in a town centre, I’m lucky that five minutes drive up the road are the RMA Sandhurst training grounds. Although I have tried walking up there, in the limited time available in a lunchtime it means you end up spending 20-30 minutes walking alongside traffic choked roads, and only get a limited time out in the public parts of the training grounds. Driving up gives time for a 2-3km walk in the hour for lunch. There are plenty of paths to explore, and even a couple of geocaches that I’ve picked up. If I want a shorter walk, heading from the office up to the Camberley Obelisk is about 1km there and back, even if the Obelisk itself is in a bit of a sorry state nowadays and the view is mostly obscured by trees. (Saddleback Hill in the RMA Sandhurst training grounds gives a much better view.)
I’ve also done longer walks in and around Arborfield and Finchampstead. There is a nice circuit from St James’ down through the village and across to Fleet Hill and back, and there would be an equally nice circuit from home around to Arborfield village if it wasn’t for the fact that one key path from Langley Common Road to the village appears to end at a dead end at somebodies back fence! I’ve also picked up quite a few of the local geocaches over towards Farley Hill.
Certainly the diet changes and exercise are making me feel better, but until the hayfever season is over, it remains to be seen whether I’ll finally beat the sinus problems!
At St James’ we’re now officially in what used to be called an interregnum, but is now somewhat more boringly, (although accurately if you know your Latin) called a vacancy. Although his final service was at the end of July, Rev’d Richard our Priest-in-Charge for the last six years didn’t officially stand down until now, and was nominally still in charge, but now we’re on our own for at least the next few months, probably a year.
The interregnum is always a bit of a difficult and uncertain time for those left behind, especially when a church has experienced a lot of growth under an incumbent just departed. There is always the concern that people were coming because of a personal connection – a connection that goes with the departure of a popular priest. To some extent we won’t know whether that is the case until we’ve looked at the attendance figures a few months down the line. Certainly there were a couple of people who rushed to get services done before Rev’d Richard left, and I have had conversations with other people who are more on the periphery of the congregation who are less inclined to come without Rev’d Richard there, but at the moment I’m fairly hopeful that as a result of having a large team leading services and our popular NSM Rev’d John still very much on the scene things should continue as before.
There is also a big fear of change amongst many, which often manifests itself as a desire to not change anything for however long the interregnum lasts. Obviously that isn’t going to happen for a number of reasons. Firstly going from having a full time incumbent to running a parish such as ours with no full time staff – the duties of the incumbent get split between our part time NSM and the Churchwardens mainly – it is inevitable that you can’t run things the same. It is also in my opinion unhealthy to try and resist change. Like any organisation a church is in a continual state of change different characters in different roles, even down to the people turning up to services affect how the organisation operates in a wide spectrum of ways. Rev’d John is a different person that Rev’d Richard, and whilst we’ll continue with the service pattern as before, he will obviously do things subtly differently. In actual fact it took all of a week after Rev’d Richard’s last service before I had a “I don’t like the way this place is going” conversation with somebody! The church community doesn’t just wrap itself up in bubble-wrap until the new Rector comes along, obviously you can’t decide to kick out the choir and the organ and bring in a band for all the services when an incumbent leaves, but equally you have to keep moving forward.
On a personal level, my Church workload, along with a number of other peoples workload goes up quite a lot during an interregnum. I have to say I’m really rather glad that I’m not one of the Churchwardens at this point, as they take a lot of the load on their shoulders. Being a Churchwarden and working full time is a lot of work in a normal year, but during a vacancy it would be nigh on impossible. In my current role as lay deputy chair of the PCC the main additional workload is being in the chair for PCC and Standing Committee meetings. It’s a bit dependant on the incumbent, but up to now although I’ve been lay deputy chair of the PCC for a number of years, I’ve only ever actually chaired a meeting twice when Rev’d Richard was ill. Now I chair every single meeting until a new incumbent is in post.
There are also a number of extra meetings on the cards. One of the more complicated aspects of this interregnum is that the Diocese is taking the opportunity to do some pastoral reorganisation. Our neighbouring parish, St Mary and St John California is also in a vacancy following the retirement of their priest in charge in June. Their electoral roll is now such that in the current climate they would not get a full time incumbent, and ours is such that we are allowed to have two. Effectively what they are proposing to do is to merge the two parishes into one, and appoint two clergy to the parish. It is worth highlighting at this point that many years ago St Mary and St John started life as a daughter church of St James’ set up amongst the new housing that was being built to the north of the village. As that congregation grew ultimately it was separated and became a parish in it’s own right – not without some drama that I will not rake up here – and the church has been charting it’s own path for a number of years. However of late it has been between a resurgent St James’ and of late the brand new Finchampstead Baptist Church next door – the Baptists having seen increases of 40% in their congregations since opening the new building – St Mary and St John are facing some real challenges.
What is really important is that this mustn’t be some sort of ecclesiastical assimilation – some sort of take over. St Mary and St John are a very different congregation, and with very different goals and focus. For example St Mary and St John took the decision not to have a church building, and hold their services in the local school, whilst we at St James’ have just spent in excess of £0.5 million keeping our grade one listed building a safe and usable environment for our congregations.
Somehow the two PCC’s have to meld our very different vision and goals into a job spec and profile for whoever will come and be our new Rector and associate priest. There are big decisions about how closely the two congregations work together. It all begins with a joint PCC away day, but I’m sure it will be a long road ahead.
So here we stand at the beginning of the next stage of the journey. Various people keep hoping for a quick interregnum, but being realistic we’re looking at probably this time next year before we’ll be getting a new person in post. With working around school schedules for any priest with children, much as happened with Rev’d Richard, whilst we may appoint in the early part of 2011, if they are based outside the local area, they won’t be able to move before the summer. Hopefully then we will still be the vibrant and growing church we are now, ready to move on into the next era at St James’.
Today I received what will be the first I’m sure of many notices shoved through my door asking for my support at the upcoming election. Whilst there are many national issues to be dealt with in the general election, on a local scale there are big decisions to be made. And what a decision, there has never been so much need for a “none of the above” option.
I’m sure I don’t need to highlight the massive housing plans that are currently being touted by our council, with the sitting Conservative administration having voted to buldoze swathes of the land around Three Mile Cross and Shinfield, both north and south of Wokingham, and development primarily in outlying areas of Finchampstead and Barkham around Arborfield Garrison. What is interesting from the point of view of a resident of Arborfield such as myself is that the last time our elected representative, Gary Cowan stood for re-election three years ago, he did so promising to try to minimise the housing that would be built – now he is standing for re-election again with his name on the planning documents that bring over ten thousand homes across the district, and three thousand five hundred on his own doorstep – although his election materials repeatedly highlight that the majority of the houses are to be built in Finchampstead and Barkham, not Arborfield.
It doesn’t take much digging around to find the flaws in the current housing proposals. Going through all the glossy pictures and grand plans, and talk of build dates, you’d think that there was a definite departure date for REME and the Arborfield Garrison. If you thought that you’d be wrong.
REME have been “about to move” for years, and the move keeps being pushed back. The original defence training review was over a decade ago and it still hasn’t been implemented. There are local protests against the scale of the new training site in Wales, and recently the government yet again has pushed back a definite decision on the move, now waiting on making the controversial decision until the summer, after the General Election. With tightening defence budgets concern is continuing to be expressed about the £13 billion price tag for the project, with some politicians already highlighting the plan as an ideal candidate to be cut. David Cameron has spoken out about the uncertainty for the people of Wales, but has noticeably refused to commit a possible incoming Conservative administration to the move, instead mentioning just the kind of defence review that could cut an expensive plan such as this. With the need to save billions from national budgets, why waste so much money on a move like this?
Whilst all of this is going on, the Arborfield SDL is still being pushed as a brownfield development by our unitary authority. However in order to make a “viable community” many homes need to be built on greenfield sites – sites that would still be available if the Garrison moves or not. If the plan goes ahead and is adopted but the Garrison fails to move, without the brownfield areas the developers will only have the greenfield sites – the adopted plan is tantamount to outline planning permission. Even building on all the planned greenfield areas there will be so many fewer houses such that key trigger levels for the desperately needed infrastructure improvements such as additional schools, the district centre and a bypass for Arborfield will not be met – the whole reason for focusing on strategic development locations in the first place.
But then what of the extra houses that then could not be put on the site at Arborfield? The council is committed to build over twelve thousand over the next fifteen years, and as many people may know, the SDL’s do not meet the total housing allocation for Wokingham anyway. Several thousand are going to be in unspecified small scale developments scattered across the borough – if the Garrison fails to move that will be several thousand more that will end up as infill and backyard development, just the kind of thing that is regularly rejected when the residents of the area are consulted on what development they would like because it doesn’t give the significant funds needed for the infrastructure we as a borough desperately need.
What was needed from the council were clear and realistic plans as to where new development was able to go, what we’ve got is our unitary authority taking a massive gamble on Arborfield Garrison moving to Wales and the brownfield site being able to take the largest proportion of the new housing in the borough. If that doesn’t happen – and concerns were being expressed in the national press in 2008 that it wouldn’t – all we’ll get is more piecemeal development, more lack of investment in infrastructure and more unsustainable communities.
So where was the opposition on our council when this was going ahead, plans that are obviously gambling on the future of our communities across the whole borough by picking a site that is increasingly unlikely to be available? Were they calling the governing body to account for potentially dooming Wokingham Borough to many more backyard developments? No. It seems the Liberal Democrat group abstained en-masse from the key vote.
Never has there been so much need for a “none of the above” option.
Whilst I’m sure what I’ve written above will be seen as NIMBYism, it is worth saying that as any resident of the Garrison area, we moved here in the full knowledge that the future of the Garrison was uncertain, whatever was said at elections, a look at proposals going back years always finds Arborfield touted as a potential development site. However what we have always been promised is a sustainable community, one that can accommodate the extra people the redevelopment of the base will bring. Sadly with the ongoing unrealistic attitude to the floundering plans for the move from our council, and with the planned locations of two of the three schools and the district centre sitting squarely on the Army owned land, that in such a scenario would not be released, it seems we will instead be left with hundreds of extra houses and none of the infrastructure such a new development would need, and a consequential impact that will be felt across the whole of the rest of the borough.