PEWSEY, UK: My Experience of Worship in a Church of England Country Parish
By David W. Virtue in Pewsey, Wiltshire
March 21, 2017
It's Sunday morning and I have been working for a week with Global Christian Network, a new news service focusing on the Persecuted Church around the world. Last year some 90,000 Christians (one every six minutes) were either jailed, tortured or simply murdered for just being Christian, and there is no sign it will abate any time soon. America's new president has promised to make this an issue in his administration and in talking with Middle East leaders. We shall see.
I decided to attend the local parish for 11.am worship, and so I made my way up the hill to St. John the Baptist Church, Pewsey. I was told this is the main church in a team ministry of 16 parishes served by three full-time stipendiary clergy. This precludes a 17th century church with no electricity held in the middle of a field which only has a couple of services a year. Only four of the 16 have a service every Sunday. This is the biggest and most well attended parish in the diocese.
The woman vicar who might have passed for a slimmer version of the "Vicar of Dibley" but with more and better teeth, smiled a lot and seemed desperately concerned to please everyone and make everyone feel comfortable and at home. She was clearly the vicar of nice.
The service began with a "hymn" from a hymn book I had never seen before. Scanning through it, I searched in vain for any hymn I might recognize including "A Mighty Fortress is our God," but it failed to pop up. The tunes were unrecognizable, and judging by the congregation's average age (somewhere between 75 and 85) they too were unfamiliar with the hymns.
A woman next to me later opined that she felt the loss of the old hymns and wondered why a few had not been retained, if only for the tunes and the words she remembered.
The service itself can only be described as the most unAnglican a service I have ever attended. Cranmer would not have recognized it.
After the opening hymn, which began "O breath of life"....and ended with "And fit your church to meet this hour". I looked around at those present and counted some 35 mostly single elderly women with an average age of somewhere between 75 to 85 and the ten men just a few years younger. There were no Millennials or youth of any age present, just one young family with two kids in tow who will undoubtedly be gone when they hit their teen years.
Following the hymn there was confession - of a sort. NO one actually confessed anything. There was no, "Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you..."
Following a read confession by the priest she then announced absolution for all. There was a reading from the Gospel of John which she then related the parts to all the good things being done by people in the church.
Following the "sermon" we affirmed our faith.
No Nicene, Apostles or Athanasian Creed. This concoction might well have been cooked up by two priests sitting in a hot tub sipping wine.
We believe in God the Father,
From whom every family
In heaven and on earth is named.
We believe in God the Son,
Who loves in our hearts through faith
And fills us with his love
We believe in God the Holy Spirit,
Who strengthens us
With power from on high.
We believe in one God;
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Where was the, "maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen."
Or, "the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made."
Or what about "our salvation that
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man."
And the crucifixion? Nothing.
"For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father."
No ascension, nope, nothing.
The priest then announced that as part of the parish's "common life" the church would now hold its annual parochial council meeting. When I later inquired why this was done in the MIDDLE of a worship service I was told that if it was done after the service no one would stay and if held midweek no one would show up. The parish needed a quorum, so the service was temporarily halted to have a parish meeting. Very disconcerting.
One of the slightly "younger" men rose to say they could now make direct bank debit deposits for the church without worrying about putting anything into the weekly plate.
The biggest news, however, was that the bells of St. John's would once again ring having been restored after appropriate fixes so they wouldn't collapse on any one's head. Brief applause was heard. There was a new appointment for a Safeguarding Officer which is ironic as there were no youth present and one wonders if half the hearing aids I saw and the stooped over ladies even know vaguely what pedophilia is. One wonders if the word "homophobic" was even vaguely in their vocabulary.
"What was that Agnes? homo what! Gawd, what is the Church comin' too."
One woman rose to complain that getting up and down for various hymns and prayers during the service was far too much for her and most of the aging congregation and would the vicar kindly let them all sit through most of the service. The priest readily agreed.
We were told that a recent pancake party netted the church 900 pounds ($1,111.20) which would be sent to some charity organization. This was met with more applause.
A ministry called Stepping Stones, a mission to share the peace and joy found through a personal relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, got the vicar to say that "we must all be open to where God is leading." Looking at most of the congregation one can only conclude that gravestones are this church's only real future...and where God is leading most of this congregation.
We did say the Lord's Prayer...fully recognizable.
At Communion, we shuffled forward and stood behind a non-existent railing. The wafer was offered to us with the words, "This is the body of Christ" but no 'broken for you' or 'bread of heaven', likewise with the cup, "This is the blood of Christ," but no 'blood of the new covenant shed for you for the remission of sins' or 'cup of salvation.'
As I left the church I looked at the parish graveyard and crooked gravestones. Someone will need to raise this at the next parochial council meeting and allocate money to bury 95 percent of the congregation whose final pit stop will shortly be here.
There was profound irony in the words of the hymn we finally warbled;
Revive us Lord the world is waiting
Equip thy church to spread the light.
Whatever light this church is spreading in Pewsey it is decidedly dim and won't be spreading very far. The lightbulb is almost out.
I headed for the nearest pub for a plate of whitebait and a pint of ale.
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