Part-time vicars `could save nation from paganism'

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"HOBBY" priests who work for the Church of England in their spare time could save the nation from descending into paganism, the General Synod was told yesterday.

Full-time workers who fancy a double life as a vicar are being trained to cover for over-stretched parish priests. Although regarded by some as second-class clergy, the caretakers, postmen, factory workers and others who volunteer their services at weekends are essential for the country if it is not to turn pagan, the Rt Rev Robert Hardy, Bishop of Lincoln said. Taking his own diocese as an example, he said the Roman Catholic Church had never made inroads and the ground was unrecoverable by Methodists.

"It's a case of the Church of England or paganism. I do not exaggerate. If we withdraw we would return to paganism in large parts of our diocese in a very short space of time. A church gives a community its identity and its roots in the past."

A spokesman for the Pagan Federation said that Bishop Hardy's fears were not unfounded. "It does seem that for whatever reason people are turning away from established religions and looking for alternatives," he said.

"People are looking at the General Synod arguing over women priests and homosexuality and they do find it a little bit abhorrent."

The Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Rev John Oliver, said he had been "deeply suspicious" of hobby priests at first, but had been converted by "the quite remarkable experiences of people's gifts and talents which have been revealed by this process".

There are currently 150 Ordained Local Ministers (OLMs) in Britain, and another 170 in training, spread across 16 mostly rural dioceses. Their training is carried out within the parish rather than in a residential college, and the emphasis is on experience not theology. They are what the Rev Mary Crameri, from Salisbury, described as "home-grown tomatoes".