When I was 12 or 13 I first went to our local village church. Fr Ian writes…The village was a small one, a former mining community of only about 250 people on the edge of Teesdale, County Durham.
The church, St Mary’s, Woodland, is a daughter church of a parish church, St John’s, Lynesack, about 2 miles away. It is a small building built of wood and corrugated iron, what is often nowadays called a ‘tin tabernacle.’
I went through the door that Sunday just before 3 pm, when Evensong was due to begin. I didn’t know what to expect. The first person I saw was Miss Millicent Hepple. She was seated near the door ringing the one churchbell. Miss Millicent Hepple lived with her sister, Miss Gladys Hepple, two spinster ladies who ran and lived at the village shop not far from the church.
Miss Millicent gently welcomed me and guided me to sit next to her in a pew. There were about nine or ten people in church. Now, fifty years later, I can still remember most of them by name, and I can still sense the simple but holy atmosphere of that place. The service began with a hymn and for this Miss Hepple went forward to a small organ and accompanied the singing. In fact most of the service was sung despite the small numbers. During the service I was gently guided through the service. The vicar who led the worship was gentle and devout, kind and welcoming. The whole experience made an enormous impression upon me. Although small in number the congregation was very welcoming and sincere. They were gentle and encouraging, I felt they were pleased to have me there with them.
This affirming experience inspired me to attend more often, and within that small homely congregation I first felt my call to be a priest.
The Church of England has many such small congregations. They can be part of the beauty and charm of church living out faith in some communities, for being small does not mean failure. After all a tangerine is not a failed orange, it is something smaller and often more sweet.
Of course some small congregations struggle with large expensive buildings. They may need to find more serviceable buildings, perhaps even tin tabernacles or their modern equivalents. Nevertheless a small gathering of peoples with faithfulness warmth and sincerity can so often be a place where faith is found or renewed and nurtured.
As I wrote this I came across, from a different context, this quotation of that great servant of God, Dorothy Day, and I reflected on how the ripples from that small church in County Durham have spread in many directions.