Sacked priest wins parish support

Divorced clergyman: Fighting spirit lives on in country church as diocese ignores illegal services
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The Independent Online

Religious Affairs Correspondent

A Remembrance Day service in the Norfolk hamlet of Little Cressingham is about as English as you can get. The church was full and not very warm, so that the breath of the congregants steamed a little in the autumn air. Some wore their poppies pinned outside their Barbours; the hymns were traditional; the vicar looked high-minded and nervous - ascetic in his half-moon spectacles. Nothing could be more traditional - expect that this service was illegal.

For the priest was the Rev Kit Chalcraft, and in the congregation was his wife, Suzanne Hall. Mr Chalcraft was sacked in February by the Bishop of Norwich, the Right Rev Peter Nott, who disapproved of the fact that Ms Hall is his third wife. Five of the ten parishes he looked after refused to accept his successor, the Ven Anthony Foottit, and claim to have unilaterally declared their independence from the diocese.

The rebel congregation now meets in each of its five churches in turn, among them St Andrew's, Little Cressingham. Even for Mr Chalcraft to preach is technically illegal, since anyone who preaches more than once in an Anglican church should have permission from the bishops. However, the diocesan authorities are making no effort to enforce the law, and hope that the whole thing will simply die away.

The rebels of Mr Chalcraft's congregation, however, believe they are standing up for principles more far-reaching than the right of a divorced priest to remarry as often as it takes to find happiness. They see their battle as one against wasteful and insensitive diocesan bureaucracy. Some believe they are returning the Church of England to the people, and that the end of their struggle will be a church purified; one returned to its roots.

You would not expect to find a revolution with such large ambitions in Little Cressingham, with its exquisite, but shrunken, church. Much of the original medieval building was blown down in a storm, and half the nave was bricked off in 1781. The ruined portions outside suggest grandeur and holiness even more powerfully than the functioning inside. Perhaps it is a model for the Church of England after all.

The congregation of about 50 contained just three children, and perhaps five of the adults were under the age of 40. The couples were county- ish: confident men with large teeth, and worried-looking women. Instead of an organ, there was a brass band accompanying the hymns; its performance possibly accounting for the expression of anguish on one woman's face: she was a concert pianist.

They sang I vow to thee my Country and two verses of the national anthem. The sermon, in keeping with the occasion,rambled around the twin themes of war and peace without attaining mastery of either subject.

But that, too, is part of tradition. Country priests are meant to preach badly and do other things well, and there was no doubt of the affection in which Mr Chalcraft is held by his congregation.

The service felt like a communal act of remembrance of the sort that is only possible in churches where the surnames of the congregation are the same as those on the village war memorial. It really did feel like the Church of England, or at least the church of an English community.

Such a feeling of community and belonging is certainly going to be needed if the Church of England is to pay its priests in an uncertain future where most of the Church Commissioners' income will go on pensions.

Whether these villages could provide enough money to keep their traditional churches going in the long run is another question. St Andrew's, in its tiny hamlet, needed pounds 60,000 over the past five years to make the structure safe - on top of the normal running costs.

And that is a problem less tractable, if less sexy, than the number of wives a vicar should be allowed.