VOTE: Rector: Use your church or lose it

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The spectre of a boarded-up church – closed because of poor attendance – has prompted moves to boost numbers at a sparsely populated hamlet near Midhurst.

Roger Williamson, rector of Iping, chose his Christmas Day sermon to warn parishioners at St Mary’s Church: “Use it or lose it.”

Now, one of the four Sunday services each month is being changed in a bid to attract a larger congregation.

Mr Williamson told the Observer: “Like a lot of churches at the present time, St Mary’s is packed out at Christmas and one or two other times of the year, but on standard Sundays there are just a handful. We have a service every Sunday at Iping and the average attendance is ten to a dozen people.

“We have fairly traditional fare, as it were – matins on two Sundays and communion on two Sundays. We are going to replace one of the Sunday matins with a different service to make it a more family-friendly, Songs of Praise sort of thing to encourage more people.”

The rector has devised the idea with churchwarden Vanessa Blaber and the parochial church council which jointly serves St Mary’s and its neighbour, St James at Stedham. Both buildings are listed and have had considerable sums spent on their maintenance in recent years.

He has made it clear any prospect of closure at Iping is not imminent: “Certainly as long as I am here I will take services and welcome as few or as many as turn up.

“We are making a bit of an effort to try and encourage more, otherwise the diocese could start looking at the figures.”

Mr Williamson added: “If you look at the number of churches we have between Midhurst and the county boundary with Hampshire, there are some people who think we should cut the number.

“But on the other hand, in many small villages and hamlets, they are the only remaining centres of community life. For example, we now have a library at St Mary’s where people can borrow books, trying to make more use of the building.”

Stedham church is not facing the same questions about its future. With a larger village population, the building is more used, Mr Williamson said.

“We could always welcome more but it is definitely in a better position.”