July 16, 2010 11:52 pm

Spiritual shepherds fail to flock to rural parishes

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Bishop of Hereford performs the induction of Nicholas Lowton

Forty-eight hours after leaving the tumultuous Church of England synod in York, the Bishop of Hereford, the Right Reverend Anthony Priddis, found himself in a different setting.

On a rainy night, with irritable blackish clouds scudding over the Black Mountains, he was in the south-western corner of his diocese, at the Church of St Clydawg. He was there for the “institution and induction” of a new vicar, the Reverend Nicholas Lowton.

The church was full of floral decoration and so was the ritual: we had the “delivery of the spiritualities”, whereby Mr Lowton was made responsible for the cure of souls, and the “delivery of the temporalities”, whereby he was handed the church key. And thus he became Vicar of Clodock and Longtown with Craswall, Llanveynoe, St Margarets, Michaelchurch Escley and Newton, covering a vast, beautiful, sparsely populated area, stretching up the wild mountainside to the border with Wales.

The link with the ancient past was overwhelming. This church is part-Norman, but there was worship on this site long before that: Bishops of Hereford may have been coming here to bless new priests since the seventh century AD. However, the ceremony was a rare treat for these parishioners: Frank Rodgers, the last incumbent, stayed 33 years. Local opinion is that they have a worthy successor. “He gives the best sermons I’ve ever heard,” said one churchwarden. “Clear, erudite, witty.”

It was not, however, an arduous selection process. There were only two candidates, both male. The “statement of need”, the job spec drawn up by the wardens, mentioned someone who could reach out to “young people and young families”, implying a young, married vicar. Mr Lowton is 56 and single.

This is the reality behind the arguments at the synod. A minority in the Church still believes half the population is spiritually debarred by scripture from becoming priests and – most topically – bishops. From St Clydawg’s it seems an absurd argument.

The Hereford diocese has the highest percentage of churchgoers in England. And in these villages, the Church matters. Even so, most Sundays Mr Lowton may be delivering his sermons to a congregation in single figures.

In theory, there is no shortage of clergy. The 2010 ordination ceremonies at Petertide (June 29) produced seven new priests in Hereford Cathedral and 30 at nextdoor Worcester. Three of Hereford’s seven were women, which was unusual: they are more often in the majority. The Roman Catholic Church, which on Thursday described the attempted ordination of women as a crime, acquired 16 new diocesan priests in England and Wales in 2009 – compared with 110 in 1996. All priests prefer to talk about “call” rather than “career”. But both psychologically and practically, the job is now more attractive to women. “For a man, it may not feel like a dynamic thing to do,” said one observer. “For a woman, you’re an insurgent.”

It can also be a better fit with daily life. Retraining for the clergy might be an option for a mother going back to work, less so if she is the main breadwinner – a vicar’s salary is £22,000. The Catholics face other issues in recruiting priests, though raising children on the pay is not one of them.

Despite the free house, it would be hard to shift a family to Herefordshire for that money. “Getting anyone to move to a rural parish now is unbelievably difficult,” Mr Lowton said. “Getting anyone young is almost impossible. Had they been advertising for a Vicar of Surbiton, they would have had many more.” Even the inner city has its pluses for an ambitious cleric, keen to get noticed. The subtle problems of rural life are no route to preferment.

Mr Lowton would have been a strong candidate anyway. He spent many years as a housemaster at Cheltenham College: he knows about pastoral care as well as the performance aspect of the job. And he had the inside track: he has had a cottage here for 25 years and will live there, so – hooray – they can rent out the vicarage. But his eventual successor will very likely be female. That is the way the church is going, and this diocese has no qualms about it: only one parish out of 420 is against on principle. The path is now clear for Bishop Priddis to have a female colleague by 2014, and he fully supports that. So the battle has been won? He didn’t like that word. “It has been resolved,” he said carefully.

The Church of England, with its equable temperament, does not dismiss anyone’s reading of scripture lightly. “I do have some sympathy with the view that women can’t be priests,” Mr Lowton said. “But to say they can be priests but not bishops – I think that’s potty.”

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