A behind-the-scenes look at the lives of country vicars. Nicholas has to face up to the fact that churches are not sacred spaces to everyone as he deals with a break-in.
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More tea, vicar. Yeah, go on, then.
Vicars - pillars of the community...
Are we high enough yet?
..as English as tea and cake, and cricket on the village green.
Nice to see you, to see you...
But times are changing.
-Would you like to pray now? Would you find that helpful?
Congregations are ageing and faith is fading.
People in this country do not go to church.
So today's vicars are working hard to stay relevant.
The safeguards that are in place
are not catching people who are in desperate need.
In this series, vicars from Hereford,
the Church of England's most rural diocese,
let us into their life and work...
Whoever did this has got lessons that they need to learn.
..being there when people need them most...
..and guiding them through rites of passage.
It's all part of A Vicar's Life.
Hereford diocese straddles the Welsh border.
At its northern end lies the small town of Much Wenlock.
Since the eighth century,
the Church and its vicar have been at the heart of the community.
But there's never been a vicar here quite like the current incumbent,
There is a competition within family and friends,
who can find me the most religious tat.
I've got the Cheesus Christ cheese grater...
..and then, obviously, this is really classy,
this is an inflatable Jesus.
A solar-panelled Pope Benedict.
Oh, that needs a dust. And solar-panelled Jesus.
I hope it doesn't cause any offence to anyone,
but they jiggle and dance.
Me and the kids laugh at you...
Matthew's wife, Julie, and their two teenage sons
are used to his eccentricities.
He's become more normal.
Obviously, being with a Scouser for 20-odd years, it kind of rubs off.
He's approachable, compassionate and passionate about his job.
The lovely thing about the priestly life,
it's so varied, that no two days are the same,
but from a Church of England perspective,
the bread and butter of ministry
is the hatch, the match and dispatch,
the births, the marriages and the deaths.
They give us an opportunity to have that unique and personal encounter
with people who have, maybe, little or no church contact.
And fitting that brief, are hairdresser Mel...
..and fireman Stu.
Both locally born and bred,
Matthew has persuaded them to shun the registry office
in favour of a church wedding.
We're only getting married in the church because of Matthew
and I know my wedding wouldn't be the same
if it was any other vicar.
He just makes church very now, very today.
Yeah, I'm excited, really,
because it's nice to get the family together and have a nice time.
We like getting dressed up.
How are you? Make sure you do the crossword.
Matthew will be dressing up, too,
in a surprise vicar's shirt made especially for the wedding.
He's having something made, I don't know what,
he won't let me know anything!
God knows what he's up to.
He does, actually. He is a vicar.
Yeah, yeah, exactly!
Matthew has arranged a wedding rehearsal
for the bride and groom to be.
-Good morning, Matthew.
-Yes, thank you.
So are we definitely on for half past six,
seven o'clock on the 14th August?
Are you going to have the 60-minute guide to marital bliss
from the mad vicar beforehand or afterwards?
Shall we do it after?
And Brendan is busy, as we speak, surprising you with my fancy shirt.
I promise you that, obviously,
the bride will still look better than me.
Yeah, don't upstage me.
No, I would never do that to you Mel, ever.
-Don't upstage me!
-See you soon.
-Bye for now.
At the western end of the diocese is the Black Mountains group
of parishes near the Welsh border.
Here, the Reverend Nicholas Lowton lives with his two spaniels...
Not that way!
..Pelham and Canning.
Before I was here,
I was assistant chaplain in a school,
and being a chaplain is actually very different work
from being a parish priest.
And being a rural parish priest
is very different from being an urban parish priest.
If you're working in a big town and something happens,
you might not know about it.
In an area like this, you do know, because everybody knows each other.
With 1,300 parishioners spread over 40 square miles,
Nicholas has the most rural patch of England's most rural diocese.
But it seems he's known by everyone.
What job have you got for me?
I thought it was time you showed off your baking talents.
you think the world is ready for my boiled fruitcake?
I am challenging every man, come on!
It might look like God's own country,
but Nicolas's six churches aren't held sacred by everyone.
They've broken all this off here as well.
One of them, Clodock, has been broken into.
The thieves made off with this heavy iron chest,
but all they found inside were old record books,
which they abandoned in a soggy field.
Luckily, they've now been returned.
PCSO Fiona Witcher is on the scene.
First of all, they kicked in this, here.
-And you can see they tried there.
-Then they came in here...
..and they kicked that panel in.
Oh, I see.
There we go.
They must have been so disappointed when they jimmied it open and...
They found that.
..there were just a load of books in there.
In a recent survey,
over a third of listed English churches reported criminal damage.
The books stolen from Clodock were marriage and burial records
dating back to the 19th century.
They were worthless to the thieves, but priceless to the community.
I mean, the burials one is obviously important
because people do like to come back to a place
and to see where their nearest and dearest were buried.
The return of the record books is a relief,
but they're badly damaged and will need restoration.
The last example, in my book, of divine intervention
was in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
It's then up for us to learn from that,
and, clearly, whoever did this has got lessons
that they need to learn.
The city of Hereford lies at the centre of the diocese.
Its Cathedral has dominated the skyline since the 12th century.
On the outskirts is Holy Trinity Church.
Its vicarage is home for school teacher John, 11-year-old David,
three-year-old James, and, of course, the vicar herself...
How hungry are you, Dave?
James has never known me be anything else than a vicar,
and so I think it's just to him,
it's just what happens, that's what Mum does.
David has just gone to secondary school,
and for the first time,
he's asked me not to wear a collar to pick him up.
Which is fine.
James, are you going to say grace?
Dear Jesus, thank you for our food.
Amen. Dig in.
I'm not your average vicar's wife.
I don't wear hats, I don't do coffee mornings.
It makes for an interesting life, you know,
we never lack for things to talk about.
There is no one day that is the same as another.
For example, this morning I came out of a staff meeting,
only to find that a very dear member of the congregation had died,
and so you never quite know what you're going to face.
Helping people to face the end of life
is one of the most challenging aspects of Ruth's ministry.
In Hereford Hospice, her church warden, Barbara,
is terminally ill with cancer.
With only weeks to live,
her thoughts have turned to her funeral service.
I don't want it to be all doom and gloom, you know.
I have planned it with funeral...
..music, if you like, the hymns.
But, hopefully, they're not dreary ones.
Barbara has been at the hospice for six months,
and Ruth spends time with her every week.
Hi, Ruth. How nice to see you.
-How are you?
-Today, she is joined by trainee Clark.
Lovely to see you. I've brought Clark again with me.
-Do you remember Clark?
-Yes, I do remember Clark.
-Clark is your bag carrier, is he?
Amongst other things, many, many other things.
I was trying to think in the car on the way up
what's happened in the last week.
What gossip, what?
We don't gossip, Barbara, we have news, we don't gossip!
Grace has had her operation.
Oh, has she? And it seems to have gone well,
so she's got to have a bit more treatment and then...
Oh, super. That's great news.
Ruth has brought her essential tools of the trade,
a portable communion kit.
Barbara is a former ward sister, and old habits die hard.
The silver needs cleaning.
Barbara! I told you she was straight-talking!
I will bring you the polish and you can sit and clean it for me.
Yeah, I will do.
Barbara, the body and blood of Christ, keep you in eternal mass.
You take care.
Lovely to see you.
It's going to be really tough...
..yeah. And to be honest, the amount of times I've driven away here,
you know, almost in tears just because I can see her slipping away.
So when, actually, when she does die, it's going to be hard.
In Much Wenlock,
preparations are underway for a very special occasion.
It's the high society wedding of the year in Much Wenlock
of Mel and Stu,
and, obviously, Mel and Stu are a local couple,
lived in Much Wenlock all their life,
went to the local school, and it will be a real community affair.
The fanciest embroidery at this wedding
will be on the vicar's surprise shirt.
Just a stone's throw from Matthew's church
is an ecclesiastical outfitters,
one of just a handful in the country.
Led by Brendan and Julie,
they create everything from choir robes to Bishops mitres...
..perfect for the flamboyant vicar about town.
I'm just drawing this design for the back of Matthew's shirt.
I thought I'd do it like a tattoo, you know, the old-fashioned ribbon.
Mel loves Stu.
The concept of the design combining the fire of Stu's profession
with the scissors of Mel's comes from Matthew.
Very often, Matthew's ideas are ones where you think to yourself,
"That will never work in a million years!"
But then when it actually all comes together on the day, you think,
"Actually, yeah, no, he was right."
It'll be the jazziest clerical shirt we've ever made.
Following the church break-in,
Nicholas wants to raise the issue of security
with the wider church community.
So he's invited police officer Charles Naylor
to address a gathering of churchwardens
at Dore Abbey, and, of course, to help ease the pressure
on the groaning buffet table.
Oh, oh, how could I refuse?
You are kind. Thank you.
One of my favourites.
Just over the last two or three weeks,
we've had at least three reported thefts,
burglaries from churches and it does focus the communities.
Hello, everyone. Thank you very much for inviting me.
One of the measures we're looking at
is to provide churches across Herefordshire
with a basic alarm system that I'm hoping
we can roll out across Herefordshire,
and if you need me to follow up,
I can do that through any of the representatives here.
Thank you very much.
The damage done by the recent breaking and entering
far exceeds the value of what was taken.
So for Nicholas, the message is simple.
Could I counsel against simply locking all churches
because locking a church does not actually
necessarily solve the problem.
CHURCH BELLS RING
You're never, ever, ever, ever,
ever going to make these churches 100% safe and secure.
You know, if somebody's going to want to break into it,
then they'll get into it.
You've just got to take sensible measures to discourage it.
Hereford's 403 churches are looked after
by a small army of mostly elderly churchwardens.
After nearly a decade of service, Ruth's churchwarden, Barbara,
had to give up her duties six months ago.
People from the church have begun to say goodbye to her.
She's ready to die, she's accepted that's what's coming
and she would like...
..it just to be over.
Perhaps that's why people turn to faith in times of trouble
That's when they can open themselves
and God draws close to them and they can draw close to God.
Let me give you a kiss. Hello.
Are you not feeling too good?
I'm not too good, no.
I'll sit on here for a minute.
I've brought that for you.
It's kind of always reminded me of the power of prayer
and the comfort of prayer.
What do you pray for?
I pray for my family.
That they'll be all right when I've gone.
Have you spoken to your daughter in Australia?
Yes, I have.
She's always very loving on the phone.
She wants me to be comfortable and...
You take care and just WhatsApp me
if there's anything you need.
Yes, I will.
Keeping with the times.
You take care. All right?
-Thank you, Ruth.
-Lovely to see you.
Thank you for coming.
See you again.
It's really hard to see her like that,
because, on the one hand, you really care about her
and you don't want her to die,
because then she won't be here, but on the other hand...
..you really want her to be free from what she's suffering,
and there's so many people who do care about her
and I think would want her to be free and at peace...
..but then you want her to be around, so, it is,
it's hard to see her like that.
It's a vicar's job to guide people through the milestones
in their lives.
As their wedding draws near,
Matthew wants to explain to Mel and Stu what Christian marriage means.
So we'll now do
what I call Reverend Matthew's guide to marital bliss.
There is a legal requirement on my part
to obviously prepare you for marriage, yeah?
This is not marriage counselling, do you know what I mean?
There is a big difference between a registry office,
swanky hotel and church,
because we are saying, from a Christian point of view,
..at its best is the ultimate expression of love.
It's about you two expressing your commitment to one another,
and it's also the Gaffer expressing His commitment to you also
because He wants to be
that supporting cord that ensures
that your marriage is fulfilling and lifelong, OK?
The Church of England conducts around 40,000 weddings a year,
a fifth of the national total.
We've done the marriage rehearsal bit, yeah?
So obviously, I'm just going to go through the service
so that you know exactly what you're buying into.
As official registrars,
vicars log each wedding in books stored for future generations.
Back at home, Nicholas is determined not to lose the valuable information
recorded in his water-damaged registers.
I phoned up the County Records Office,
and they were really, really, really helpful,
and they sent me a fairly detailed e-mail about what to do,
which is basically that the books need freezing.
While they're damp,
they're going to go mouldy and in fact, the burials register,
the cover of that has already started to go mouldy.
These black marks are new,
and they've come up in just a few days,
and so you can see how something like this can deteriorate
if you don't do something to it, like shove it in the deep freeze.
At the moment, I just hope that the information there is recoverable.
When you put them in, you need to make sure...
..that they go in spine down on the bottom
and as the burials register is the most important one,
that's what we've done with that.
The records will stay in Nicholas's freezer
until they can be sent to a specialist book restorer.
Anybody who does damage in a church, which is a sacred space,
and steals something from the church, which is a sacred space,
is somebody who's got big problems.
But if you pinched the records box and you're watching this, yes,
I forgive you.
After seven months in Hereford Hospice,
Barbara, Ruth's church warden,
has passed away.
She died peacefully in her sleep.
Barbara did not like having her photo taken,
and so trying to find photos of Barbara was very difficult,
and so these are the ones that we actually came up with,
but this was Barbara in her absolute prime,
this was when she was churchwarden,
and was a very prominent figure in the church and a very strong lady.
The loss is huge. It's like losing a member of the family.
There have been a lot of tears shed,
there have been a lot of questions and I think tomorrow will be...
There will be a lot of people here.
Every day in England,
there are seven so-called lonely funerals,
with often nobody in attendance.
Barbara may have lived alone, but as part of a church community,
her death is mourned by many.
Today, we celebrate Barbara's life
and we commend her to God's loving eternal care.
Barbara was confident in where she was going,
and her faith in that loving care of God
remained strong until her death.
Visiting her in hospital,
and then later in the hospice,
and then finally helping to take her funeral,
it's a privilege to walk with somebody along that whole journey.
You just pray that somehow,
God speaks through you and offers His comfort and His peace.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil...
..for thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory forever and ever.
In Much Wenlock, the church is being prepared
for one of life's happier milestones.
Steadying his nerves in time-honoured fashion,
groom Stu has stopped off for a quickie.
Only a couple of pints, I don't want to get too drunk
before the wedding day.
Here's to a nice day everyone. Cheers.
Just for once, bride-to-be Mel has taken the chair in her salon.
Just really looking forward to the day, really excited.
The nerves haven't set in yet.
Mel has planned every detail with one exception -
the one big unknown is what is underneath the vicar's cassock.
Just to give a lift for Mel at the end,
I shall speed round the back of the organ...
..take my cassock off and give her a flash of my back, that's all,
and obviously, she can obviously see
this very special commissioned design
for the wedding.
CHURCH BELLS RING
For the bride's arrival, the sun has come out, along with half the town.
Nothing wrong with a swanky hotel or the registry office
but I'm going to be biased,
I don't think you can beat a church wedding.
All right, well, the girls are going down first
so we'll wait for them to get to the bottom.
They're going first, yeah, that's fine, that's fine.
-But cherish the moment, yes?
Oh, my days.
I'm really desperate for a glass of water,
but I'll hold on for three quarters of an hour
and then have a gin and tonic.
God is good and the sun is shining,
and a genuine warm welcome to all of you
who have travelled both near and far on this very, very special day.
In the presence of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
we have come together to witness the marriage of Stu and Mel,
to pray for God's blessing on them,
to share their joy and to celebrate their love.
For me, it's always about not taking myself too seriously,
but taking God and what I do seriously.
I, Stuart William David Tabron...
I, Stuart William David Tabron...
You know, I'm very passionate about ensuring that I give people
the most positive experience of the Christian faith,
and, indeed, the Christian church as I possibly can.
In the presence of God, and before this congregation,
I proclaim that they are husband and wife,
and for that, we break the formality
and give them a round of applause.
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
Mel and Stu's marriage is recorded in the church register,
as countless generations have done before.
But the next ritual, like the vicar himself, is a one-off.
It's been an amazing day, and the service was fabulous.
I loved his shirt as well,
Matthew's, it went really, really well, didn't it?
He probably has changed our thoughts on things.
I could see myself going now to, like,
an Easter service or Christmas service.
We've got to live up to the vows now.
What's yours is mine and what's mine's mine!
Whether people come to church or not, the church is there for them.
You meet people where they are,
you ensure that your church is as open,
accessible as possible
because I think that's what Christ expects of us.
Next time, Ruth gets a new assistant fresh from college...
Matthew swings into action at the village fete...
This is a man who got a U at A-level RE and look at me now!
..and Nicholas issues a wake-up call.
We don't want to be the generation
which finally put God's church to bed.
It is a tough time to be a vicar. Congregations are down, money is tight and churches are battling to survive. This episode introduces three vicars - Matthew, in a small Shropshire market town, Ruth, in the cathedral city of Hereford, and Nicholas, in the scattered hill farming communities of the Black Mountains.
These vicars have to take every opportunity they can to bring people into church, and they don't get better than a good summer wedding. Matthew has twisted the arm of local hairdresser Mel and her fiance Stu, a fireman, to get married in church. Now he has to pull out all the stops to impress them. Ruth has a very different challenge - caring for her terminally ill churchwarden as she faces the end of life. Nicholas has to face up to the fact that churches are not sacred spaces to everyone as he deals with a break-in and theft of priceless church records.