Thursday, 26 September 2013

‘Sadness as Comberford
church is to close’

The Church of Saint Mary and Saint George in Comberford is due to be closed next month (Photograph: Tamworth Herald)

Patrick Comerford

Under a headline that says, ‘Sadness as Comberford church is to close,’ Helen Machin reports in the Tamworth Herald today [Thursday 26 September 26, 2013] that the village church in Comberford is to hold its last service next month before closing its doors for the final time.

The report points out that the Church of Saint Mary and Saint George in Comberford was built in 1919 on land donated by the Paget family to the Lichfield Diocesan Trust for the erection of a mission church.

Just last year, the residents of Wigginton Parish, including the villagers in Comberford, were celebrating having raised £6,000 to repair the roof of the church. Their fund-raising efforts came an application for a National Lottery community grant was unsuccessful.

However, the report points out, the church in Comberford needs further work. Services are held there only once a month, and now a decision has been taken to close the church.

Wigginton Parish also includes Saint Leonard’s Church in Wigginton and the historic Spital Chapel between Ashby Road and Wigginton Road on the north side of Tamworth. Two services are held at Saint Leonard’s each Sunday and one at Spital Chapel – but the total congregation numbers only between 70 and 80 adults and around 15 children. In the mediaeval period, Wigginton (or Wigginton and Comberford) was a prebendal parish, with the tithes and church rentals supporting the Prebendary of Wigginton and Comberford in Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church, Tamworth.

The Revd Debra Dyson in Comberford Church (Photograph: Tamworth Herald)

The the Vicar of Wigginton, the Revd Debra Dyson, told the Tamworth Herald this week: “It is sad, but a congregation of our size just cannot maintain three churches.”

According to the Tamworth Herald, she said: “It costs thousands of pounds to run Saint Mary and Saint George’s with the heating and lighting and insurance – and there is a lot more repair work needed on the building.”

She added: “The church community has to be about helping people, not just pouring money into empty churches. We are able to show God’s love in more practical ways.”

She said letters about the planned closure of the church were sent to all 22 houses in Comberford but that feedback was received from only one resident.

She added: “There is one long-term resident who is upset that the church is closing and that’s understandable in a way, but it is inevitable, it’s the only thing that makes sense. “I hope people will see it not as an ending, but as a changing.”

However, one “devastated” resident in Comberford told me today: “The whole church closure business has been quite stressful.”

The last service at Saint Mary and Saint George will take place at 6 p.m. on Sunday, 13 October. The service, led by the Bishop of Wolverhampton, the Right Rev Clive Gregory, will be a Harvest Festival but will include be a celebration of the life of the church for almost 100 years. All are welcome to attend and refreshments will be served after the service.

For many generations, my family continued to regard Comberford as our ancestral home, despite some of the complicated details in the family tree. My great-grandfather, James Comerford, had a very interesting visit to Comberford and Tamworth at the end of the 19th or in the early 20th century, visiting the Peel family who lived there … he probably had his heart set on consolidating those family links.

I first visited Comberford and Comberford Hall in 1970 and have been back many times since then. I have written before how – when my mind and imagination go wild – I think of how nice it would be to buy back Comberford Hall, and even dream of using that grand old house as a retreat centre or as a centre for spirituality and the arts, with the village church close at hand, across the fields at the end of a public right-of-way footpath.

Comberford Hall … on the market for £850,000 (Photograph Paul Carr Estate Agents, Sutton Coldfield)

But the closure of the church can be the harbinger of the death of a village … and the church should be the last place to condemn a village to death. Comberford village, in Lichfield Rural District, is two or three miles north of Tamworth and about four or five miles east of Lichfield … as the crow flies. The village is without either a post office or a pub; now the Church of Saint Mary and Saint George, which has been at the heart of the village for over a century, is closing.

Until recently, the parish described itself on its website as being “on the traditional side of the Church. That said, we have embraced the new services of Common Worship very happily and also enjoy a mixture of traditional hymns and modern music. But we are Catholic in the best sense of that word, seeing ourselves as rooted in the Holy Eucharist, and the traditional vestments and the reserved sacrament.”

It is a description of a church that would have appealed to many members of the Comberford family in previous centuries. However, they would have worshipped in Saint Editha’s Church in Tamworth, where generations of the family are buried in the Comberford Chapel ... although the original Comberford Hall may also have been used for Roman Catholic Masses in the late 16th century and for Quaker meetings for a short time in the mid-17th century.

The church in Comberford was built on a site donated in May 1914 by Howard Francis Paget (1858-1935) of Elford Hall to the Lichfield Diocesan Trust for the erection of a mission church. Howard Paget’s father, the Revd Francis Edward Paget (1806-1882), was Rector of Elford, an early follower of the Oxford Movement, and the author of Tractarian fiction, including The Curate of Cumberworth (sic) (1859).

The Paget family’s interest in the area continued for generations. Howard Paget’s daughter, Charlotte Gabrielle Howard Paget, married Joseph Harold Hodgetts, and died in Lichfield in 1979. Their son, the late Harold Patrick Hodgetts, lived nearby at Model Farm in Elford, and Pat Hodgetts was proud that his grandparents had given the church to the village.

The church is of architectural interest as one of the churches designed by Andrew Capper. A well-known Gothic revival architect, he worked closely with George Edmund Street. He designed, refurbished or contributed to rebuilding other churches in the Diocese of Lichfield, including Saint Leonard’s Church, Dunston, South Staffordshire; Saint Cuthbert’s, Donington, a Grade II Listed Building; and, I think, Saint Mary’s, Dunstall. His work alone makes the village church in Comberford of interest to architectural and heritage groups.

The emblems of Saint Mary (white rose) and Saint George (red cross) recall the church in Comberford on a hassock in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The closure of the post office or the local pub is a bitter blow to a village. But if the village church stays open against all the odds, then it is ac living testimony to our faith in the villagers and to our faith in the Resurrection, affirming the people who live there and asserting that their value is not to be assessed in merely fiscal terms or by counting the financial contributions they make to the life of the wider Church.

I have visited Comberford many times since 1970 … following in the footsteps of many generations of my family

Some estimates say about 20 Church of England church buildings are closed for worship each year, and the church in Comberford becomes the latest church about to join this list.

Saint Mary’s and Saint George’s Church is on Manor Lane, but the parish does not own the surrounding land, and access to the church is along a public right of way. But still this church has been the focus and point of contact in Comberford village for years. The attractive interior decoration and the rounded ceiling – both in wood – have created a sense of peace and tranquility.

Although the attendance at the 9 a.m. Holy Communion on the fourth Sunday of the month has varied between four and ten in recent months and years, the villagers and the wider community have values its presence and outreach, and the church was full for last year’s carols by candlelight, with extra seating needed because the church was so full.

The church was full last year too for an event marking the Jubilee celebrations, including an exhibition on the village history, a cheese and wine reception and the launch of 43-page booklet on village memories and history over the past two generations, which was presented to every householder in the village.

Other successful recent ventures have included flower festivals, arts and crafts weekends, wine and cheese evenings, school painting competitions and sponsored walks, and there was a special pealing of the church bells last year to mark the 2012 Olympics.

The church has also been a venue for meetings of Wigginton and Hopwas Parish Council, which serves the villages of Wigginton, Hopwas and Comberford and is part of Lichfield District Council.

Saint Mary’s and Saint George’s Church … local fundraising helped repair the bell tower and spire

When the fabric of the bell tower and spire of the church needed repair, and a failed lottery bid meant the cost fell to the parish, the Comberford Committee organised events that raised £2,000, and a further £5,000 came from the parish restoration fund.

Some time ago, a sponsored walk and other events raised £2,000 so that new heating could be installed in the church, making it a comfortable place with no cost to the PCC.

“People power has prevailed in Wigginton after money was raised to carry out much needed repairs to a village church,” the Tamworth Herald reported last year. “Work began on the roof of St Mary and St George’s Church, in Comberford, this week after years of fund-raising from churchgoers and residents.”

The proprietors of ‘The Wigginton’ pub, Sarah and Steve Gibson, present a cheque for £950 to the Revd Rowan Davies, after an auction to raise funds for the church in Comberford (Photograph: Tamworth Herald)

The local pub, ‘The Wigginton,’ organised several auctions on behalf of the church. One event raised over £950 in just two hours towards repairing the spire, and in the process raised awareness of the church and the importance of its place in the community and the outreach of this small church beyond the village.

Sarah Gibson, the landlady of the Wigginton pub which hosted regular quiz nights, told the Tamworth Herald at the time: “We get a lot of customers who use the church so to know that the money we have raised is helping is a fantastic feeling.”

After one successful fundraising effort, the Revd Debra Dyson told the Tamworth Herald: “It’s fantastic as the church is a great link for the local people. This is truly down to the hard work of the community.”

There is a truism that we do not inherit what we have from the past but hold it in trust for the future. The future for the church in Comberford may be something very different than we can imagine. It would be sad to see it become another private house in the village It seems to me that its location offer sthe potential for a retreat centre or a centre for the arts and spirituality. The expansion of Tamworth may open potential for future generations. Who knows?

According to today’s report in the Tamworth Herald, the church is likely to be de-consecrated and sold, possibly for conversion to a house.

But, despite next month’s closure, I hope that with a little imagine this church this church can remain a great link for local people and a centre for the community for generations to come.

The church spire had fallen into disrepair but was restored after a £6,000 fundraising project (Photograph: Tamworth Herald)

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