September 2021

Dear Neighbours
Greetings from the cosmopolitan metropolis of Ewyas Harold, my home since 2018 and home to street lamps (yuck), GPs (yay), two pubs (yippee) and the best fish and chips this side of Shoreditch (yum). I’m Mark Godson, one of the local priests who will be supporting the Black Mountains Group of parishes in the coming months following the departure of Nicholas Lowton to the Elysian fields of retirement.

It’s a strange thing for a group of parishes to find themselves, not in a vacancy expectantly waiting the arrival of a new priest, but being part of a transformation across all 35 parishes in the area. Rather than being imposed upon us, we have all been invited to help shape the new Parish Clusters, and your church councils (PCCs) have been engaged in this since 2016 when Nicholas and others sought to find a good way to live well with the shifting sands of church finance, attendance and purpose.

After the past 18 months of threat, tiredness, confusion and loss, I’d be inclined to opt for rolling over in bed on a Sunday morning, hoping for a coffee and the Sunday papers, rather than check a labyrinthine schedule of which church service is where and how long it’ll take me to get there. I might imagine myself here when my current grouping of parishes had three clergy, and I could roll down the hill, frock up and rock up for a quiet 8am, a choral 10am and a sleepy 6pm – all within 100 yards of the aforementioned bed. Perhaps you imagine the time before 1977, when there were two stipendiary clergy for two benefices in the Black Mountains? Craswall, Llanveynoe and Clodock; and Michaelchurch, Newton and St Margarets?

We hanker for the familiar, the comforting, the normal. Part nostalgia, part simply a response to the trauma in our bodies. Just when we need the church to be just what we need it to be (insert whatever that is for you), we discover ourselves discomfortingly propelled forward at an unwelcome pace.

Clusters are not new, and the idea started with farmers. A pilot scheme was started by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust in 2013, and there are now over 100 Farmer Clusters in the UK. What is a Farmer Cluster? “It is a group of contiguous farms that work together at a landscape scale on ecological and biodiversity projects, chosen and organised by themselves.” (https://www.farmerclusters.com)

What is a Parish Cluster? It is a group of contiguous parishes that work together at a scale at which natural systems work best, and deliver real and lasting benefits on mission and ministry projects, chosen and organised by themselves. Small enough to be relational, large enough to be viable and sustainable.

Farmer Clusters help dispel the myth of rich farmers swaggering about in tweeds with shotguns or hunting poor little foxes while desecrating our landscape, despite the fact that agricultural wages (including those of farmers themselves) remain low and the average farm in 2019–20 did not make any profit.

Parish Clusters help dispel the myth of self-indulgent churches languishing in past glories or revelling in the obscure and incomprehensible while the country goes to hell in a handcart, despite the fact that in 2019 there were 20,000 ordained, and 10,000 lay ministers working across 12,500 parishes.

A central feature of Farmer Clusters is that they are made up of local people who retain the focus and oversight of their projects rather than having outside ecologists tell them what to do. In a sense they are not new, and you may recall common shearing – sociable, communitarian, efficient, fun. Local people, caring for the area in which many were born.

A central feature of Parish Clusters is that they acknowledge a strong streak of independence and dislike of centralising power common to rural communities. These Parish Clusters tell the tale of 1500 years of social history and change – common life, common prayer and common worship, radical and conservative. Nurturing local leadership, retaining focus and oversight of mission projects (children, schools, young people, older people, Life Events, pilgrimage, digital church etc).

In October, the new Parish Clusters will be launched – more like a ship than the latest Elon Musk rocket. The Parish Clusters will undergo fitting out, sea trials and working up to full capability. Heck, I’m beginning to sound like an admiral! They’re not set in stone, they are living, evolving, sociable and, maybe, even fun. All aboard!

The Rev’d Mark Godson

Abbeydore Deanery

 

 


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