The parish consists of a village community set in a rural area together with a number of outlying hamlets. It is served by a parish Church in the village of Sandford (Grade I listed building), a smaller Church at Upton Hellions (now effectively used as a “festival Church”) and a small but very active Church in a converted school building at another hamlet. Until recently the Parish community was served by a half-time stipendiary priest resident in Sandford. Of late, Sandford formed part of the Benefice of Crediton (the nearest town), but it undertook its business largely independently with minimal interference or input from the benefice. We have our own PCC and accounting function.
The relationship between the Church and the village and school was close and our attendance and electoral roll numbers have strengthened over recent years. We have been effective in maintaining our buildings and in recent years have repaired our Church roof, installed a new heating system, installed a meeting room/kitchen/lavatory in the main Church and refurbished one of the outlying Churches. All this was funded by voluntary donations and grants sourced by the PCC. We have always paid our Parish Share in full.
A bombshell was dropped upon us by our Archdeacon in October 2020 when he called a meeting of our PCC and announced that we were to become integrated with the North Creedy East group of parishes as part of a larger group of Churches within a Mission Hub based in a Church in the local market town of Crediton. We were given to understand that this was to be governed on the modified minster model, whatever that may be. There was no effective consultation about this and we were simply told what was going to happen. There were various alternative scenarios but the upshot was that our priest was told that he was likely to be required to take responsibility for nine parishes and eleven Churches. It seems less than a coincidence that he resigned almost immediately and took up a post in an adjoining diocese where his remit is limited to one parish.
We now hear that a replacement priest has been appointed. She will take on the nine parishes and eleven Churches, including Sandford, and has elected to live in Cheriton Fitzpaine some 5 miles away from Sandford through narrow muddy lanes.
The result of this remains to be seen. However, it seems to us that the very essence of the Church of England is the parish system and that it is impossible to maintain a credible Christian witness in the village community without a resident priest. Under the new regime, there will inevitably be fewer priest-led services, attendance will fall and there will be a consequent reduction in giving. We also fear that the ultimate upshot will be that the independence of the village Church will be eroded. There have already been resignations from the PCC and other officers and if this trend continues we are likely to find our PCC and finances subsumed into the minster hub.
Our experience is that the allegiance of the local Church and the community is all about the parish and that there is really very little interest in, or knowledge of, the wider benefice, the deanery or the diocese amongst members or supporters.
Such changes will tend towards accelerating the decline of the rural Churches and demotivating loyal congregations. The diocese is biting the hand that feeds it.
In the meantime, the Diocese of Exeter has a lot to say about its initiatives to foster and grow the rural church. To this end, it is spending around £1.8m (grants from the Church Commissioners and the Diocesan Synod) at the centre and employing three lay staff to support a variety of initiatives, publications and resources. There does not seem to be any intention to use these grants to employ additional clergy. The Diocese should be concentrating on providing ordained “boots on the ground” in the parishes and eliminating all non-essential functions, central staff and costs to assist in this.
If this trend is allowed to continue it will hasten the demise of the Church of England and we will be the last generation of many to enjoy its community benefits and traditions built over centuries since the reformation: its memorial for a future archaeologist to ponder is likely to be a dusty filing cabinet full of unread mission action plans and diocesan initiatives.
This is a personal opinion and should not be taken to be the view of the current PCC.
Peter & Rosie Baker
(Former PCC members, Churchwarden and Secretary to the PCC).