During the current vacancy, members of the PCC and Ministry Team are contributing a ‘Letter from the Rectory’ in the Rector’s stead to the ‘Itchen Valley News’ each month (seeking to fill the big shoes left by Alex Pease in this respect, as in many others). I contributed the following Letter to the June issue:
A couple of weekends ago Simon Ffennell kindly invited our neighbour Nick Fuggle, my wife Nicky and me for a lesson in ringing the bells at St Swithun’s Church in Martyr Worthy. The wind outside was blowing hard at the time and so happily I don’t think villagers would have been too disturbed by the suppressed sound of our novice attempts (and in particular by my difficulties with timing and the resultant clash of the bell I was ringing with one or both of the other two).
While inside that remarkable building once again, my eye was drawn to the framed commemoration of the Rectors who have served at St Swithun’s over the last nearly 750 years since the first mentioned, Hugh Tripacy, who was here in 1279. Since then, as set out in this commemoration, there have been a further 30 Rectors serving Martyr Worthy exclusively, until 1955, four Rectors of Martyr Worthy with Easton between 1955 and 1991, two Rectors of the unified Itchen Valley Benefice from 1991 to 2005, and three of the newly merged Parish of the Itchen Valley from 2005 to date, for a total of 40.
Interestingly (if my count is accurate!), since 1279 (so during Henry II’s reign) there have also been 40 English and British monarchs to date (counting only those about whom there is no dispute, i.e., excluding claimants like Lady Jane Grey). In terms of length of Rectorships vs reigns, only one St Swithun’s incumbent comes close to Elizabeth II’s 69 years on the throne: Henry Derneforde is stated to have served as Rector from 1384 to 1447, or 63 years.
On further reflection, returning to that extraordinary date of 1279, I thought of all the history to which St Swithun’s and its succession of Rectors have been witness locally as well as nationally over the intervening centuries: civil and world wars, pandemics and plagues, fruitful harvests as well as failed ones, political and industrial revolutions, changes in climate and landscape (recalling that Britain endured a ‘Little Ice Age’ between the mid-17th and mid-19th centuries), advancements in medicine alongside no doubt agonising losses of life too early, and much more.
Of course, such witness is not exclusive to St Swithun’s and its incumbents. St Mary’s in Easton is thought to have an even longer heritage and St John’s in Itchen Abbas also to have been a site of worship since at least Norman times (all three are mentioned in the Domesday Book, according to the eminent local historian Robin Greenwood). The distinctively Georgian St Mary’s in Avington is a relative newcomer on the scene, having been built between 1768 and 1771, although it was a site of worship via earlier structures for some time before these dates, again as researched by Robin.
Set against such varied history over ten centuries in St Swithun’s and its sister churches’ cases, the continuity of Christian worship in these places through thick and thin is both striking and, in my view, inspiring. There can be few places in the world with such an uninterrupted record of God’s Word being preached and a community of believers being gathered regularly, through every season, cycle and even era.
Clearly there have been real challenges in maintaining cohesion as a Christian community amidst the difficult and draining realities of the Covid-19 pandemic. At times leading services via Zoom over the last year has been exhausting for our Church leaders and for the dedicated volunteers making their transmission possible. Many parishioners also understandably yearn for a return to fully fledged services in our churches in person. Amidst such potential sources of discouragement, perhaps we can celebrate that, in this troubled season, in new and innovative ways we have joined multiple prior generations living here since late Anglo-Saxon times in ensuring that Christian worship in this valley has not ceased, whatever the pressures of the day may be.
At Theo Mezger wrote in this column last month, our Parish is now in a period of vacancy between Rectors and a careful process is underway to appoint a successor to Alex Pease. We can all pray for the right candidate to be identified to be St Swithun’s 41st Rector (who will also serve the whole Valley), one who can build on this extraordinary continuity of faithful witness over the coming years.