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As part of my role as Rural Dean, I have the responsibility of conducting inspections of churches on behalf of the Archdeacon of Hertford. I share this responsibility with my Assistant Rural Dean and the Deanery Lay Chair.  It sounds a bit like Ofsted, but it isn’t that.  Our archdeacon is very keen to ensure that the churchwardens know “We are checking in, not checking up!”  There are some key questions to ask, of course, but predominantly, it’s a matter of making sure that the churchwardens (and the parishes more generally) are given the opportunity to ask for support if needed and to pass on their concerns (or celebrations) to the diocesan team.

Each year, there is variation in the questions we are given to ask.  There are standard ones about safeguarding practice, insurance and the general aspirations and experience of parish life, and then there are targeted questions on different subjects each year.  This year, there were quite a few relating to Net Zero Carbon.  Like other institutions, we are expected to do what we can to get to Net Zero Carbon emissions and the Church of England has committed to do so by 2030.

As I was conducting one inspection, a couple, having seen the door open, walked into the church.  The churchwarden I was with greeted them warmly and excused himself from our conversation.  It turned out that they had come to visit family graves in the churchyard and had decided to take the opportunity of renewing their wedding vows at the same time.  They had been married in that church 15 years earlier (within a day or two) and were planning on just walking up to the front, facing each other and saying “I will” – just like they had on their wedding day. I suggested we could do better than them standing alone if they wished… Having conducted many weddings, I know the vows off by heart, so I offered firstly to remind them of the vows and invite them to reaffirm them to one another and secondly to pray for them (for the next 15 years…).  They were delighted.  So that’s what we did.  With the churchwarden and God as their witnesses, they heard and reaffirmed their promises of marriage and I prayed for them.  It’s what some call a “Godincidence” – like a coincidence, but better… God took my need to be at that church for a routine administrative inspection and created out of it a very special moment for them.

For many of our churchwardens, secretaries and treasurers, quite a lot of church activity is pretty mundane business, and it may sometimes feel like clergy are the only ones who do the real work of ministry. This is far from the case. (In fact, Ephesians 4 tells us that the pastors and teachers are a gift from God to his church, given with the task of equipping everyone else for ministry, suggesting that the real ministry is actually done by everyone other than the clergy!) The truth, of course, is that the hours spent by secretaries and treasurers carefully preparing accurate financial reports and minutes of meetings as the foundations for important church decisions are not of little value – rather they are precious in God’s sight as expressions of worship and service. Similarly, the hours spent by wardens on such practical ministries as opening the church, setting the heating and dealing with enquiries about history are also of incalculable value. Were it not for these and other low-profile ministries being exercised, our churches would not be the welcoming communities they are. Were it not for the open church door and the requirement for the warden to meet me so I could inspect the church registers and inventory, the couple in my story would have gone away with less of an experience of God’s grace.

Our next Synod meeting is 21st November. At that meeting, we will be electing the new Standing Committee. We invite all Synod members to consider standing. We need clergy and lay representatives, and are especially looking for a Lay Chair, now that Diana Perkins’ third term of office has come to an end. There are role descriptions in the “My Files” section of this website. Some of this work may not appear really exciting at first, but God can, and does, use these ordinary things for his extraordinary purposes. Do pray about your involvement in deanery life.

May you see God’s benevolent hand in all your “coincidences”, and may you know God’s delight in you as you serve him in any way, however mundane.

Mark Dunstan
Rural Dean

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