Joan Bakewell: Churches are the solution to the post office crisis

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The Independent Online

Among the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the threatened closure of post offices, two apparently irreconcilable forces are locked in conflict.

One is the Post Office – which concerns itself entirely with money: all those remote post offices averaging only 16 callers a week, the benefit system now paid directly into bank accounts... the bottom line is that the sums don't add up.

The other side talks up those other considerations... community cohesion, social support for the lonely old, the survival of rural life, helping keep cars to a minimum. And what about people without cars? All such matters are paid lip service by regretful Post Office managers, but, shaking their heads, they insist nothing can be done. But suppose something had to be done! Suppose the challenge is to reconcile these two warring ideologies. I suggest something can be done.

At the heart of every village in this country – whether it has a post office or not – stands a fine building created for the use of all, often currently averaging no more that 16 people a week, and in desperate need of being wanted. These historic places cannot be sold or demolished. For centuries they have been the pivot of village life, offering care and comfort to all comers... qualities that have something in common with the claimed merits of our post offices.

I refer of course to the 16,000 parish churches , often fallen on hard times, run on a shoestring and desperate to reclaim the place they once held in people's affections and daily life. Surely some coming together of purpose with today's secular affairs of the village – people's need for stamps, to weigh parcels, to collect application forms for a host of things – would strike many as a bold initiative. Yes, I'm suggesting churches collaborate in helping village communities retain their independence and sense of identity. Let us have post office counters at the back of the pews.

It isn't as though the grubby hand of commerce has not already sullied sacred ground. At the west door of many churches and cathedrals lurk a whole array of stalls and tables touting postcards and guidebooks, souvenirs, CDs of the choir, and perhaps, if you're lucky, a few holy texts. Churches have gone to considerable trouble – deploying glass screens, small booths – to set the worldly apart from the spiritual. But it's no good; the traders are already within the temple.

What's more, many such parishes have for many years been units of civil government, with parish councils holding elections and people serving with a dedicated sense of community. They are ideal institutions to come to the rescue in the current post office debacle. As for staff, the church already depends on a reserve of willing volunteers. What better way of fulfilling the Prime Minister's wish to draw the voluntary sector into public service. A mix of professional post mistresses and the ladies who serve on the flower rota might make the churches a cheery place to call for postal orders and road tax applications.

Jesus might not approve, of course. He sensationally lost his temper – recorded in three of the gospels – with the traders in the temple whom he found selling birds and animals for religious sacrifice and trading foreign coinage so the price could be paid in shekkels. The event was clearly violent, with tables being turned over and even, according to St John, Christ making a scourge and whipping the stall-holders. So he was obviously very angry.

But times and Christianity have changed. Many of the churches that bear Christ's name have unwittingly drifted from the precepts he preached – disregard for worldly wealth, comfort for the poor and needy, swords turned into ploughshares and such – so perhaps commerce in the interest of local communities might be something the ecclesiastical authorities could tolerate.

I remain optimistic. This Easter, as usual, I expect to be there in the pews of one of the country's most lovely abbeys. I shall gaze, as I often do as I listen to the choir's anthem, at one of the most beautiful ceilings ever built to the glory of God. It will probably be crowded for Easter Sunday, as many churches are for the great annual festivals. But not for the echoingly-empty Sundays in between.

Even worse, many churches are locked up and silent throughout the week denying access to passing visitors, the Philip Larkins of this world stopping to see a "serious house on serious earth". Some daily secular activity would help revive them, make them places buzzing with talk and friendship, active participants again in village life. And surely God would be pleased. Happy Easter!

joan.bakewell@virgin.net

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