Even on a rainy midweek afternoon, it’s easy to see why Vicar Of Dibley star Dawn French loved living in the picturesque Cornish coastal town of Fowey.
With narrow streets of medieval and Georgian houses tumbling down to a pretty quayside lined with restaurants and trendy eateries, it’s one of Cornwall’s most popular tourist spots, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
When French sold her home there last year, apparently in search of somewhere quieter, a friend said she would ‘miss all the locals who made her so welcome’.
It’s clearly a very friendly place. But it seems that the Reverend Geraldine Granger, the vicar she played in the much-loved sitcom, might feel rather less enthusiastically received in Fowey following a storm which has blown up over the search for a new priest at its parish church, St Fimbarrus.
A notice pinned up in the church’s entrance earlier this week announced that the Parochial Church Council (PCC) has ‘passed a resolution based on Bible text and theological interpretation, to seek a male overall head for our church leadership in Fowey’. In other words, they don’t want a woman priest.
It’s easy to see why Vicar Of Dibley star Dawn French loved living in the picturesque Cornish coastal town of Fowey
Dawn French as The Vicar of Dibley, Geraldine Grainger
Although more carefully phrased, it’s the kind of statement you might imagine being issued by David Horton, the uptight head of the parish council in Dibley, the fictional village where the Rev Granger arrives, only to discover that the residents thought they were getting a male vicar.
‘You were expecting a bloke . . . beard, Bible, bad breath . . and instead you got a babe with a bob-cut and a magnificent bosom,’ she tells Horton.
Eventually, of course, they became great friends. But there are currently no signs of such a happy ending in Fowey, where the PCC’s decision has caused bitter divisions within the local community.
‘It appears the parish church representatives here are obviously bigots,’ said one comment on a community Facebook page.
‘You should hang your heads in shame, such a bad decision,’ read another. ‘Remind me, it is 2023 isn’t it?’
It’s an announcement which has caused all the more stir given that we are nearly 30 years on from when the Church of England first ordained women priests.
Since 2014, women have also been allowed to become bishops, and some 43 per cent of licensed clergy in the Diocese of Truro, within which Cornwall falls, are women, higher than the national average.
That’s reflected in the fact that Fowey is surrounded by communities with a strong track record of appointing female priests.
They include the Trelawny Benefice, a collection of five parishes centred on the village of Polruan which clings to the cliffs on the other side of the beautiful Fowey estuary.
Although only a quarter of mile from Fowey as the crow flies, it’s had three female vicars in the past 20 years, among them the Rev Louise Courtney, a colourful character who might well have got on with Geraldine Granger.
Now retired, the former air stewardess was known for roaring around the narrow Cornish roads on a quad bike and remembers inadvertently startling tourists on the car ferry which plies between Fowey and Bodinnick, the village which for many years was the home of novelist Daphne du Maurier.
‘They’d see me on the quad bike with my dog-collar and cloak and they’d take off their sunglasses and look in disbelief,’ says Louise who is now 75.
While her mode of transport caused a stir, nobody seems to have given much thought to the fact that she was a woman and she is surprised by the recent decision taken in Fowey.
‘A lot of people wouldn’t mind a woman priest, but it’s the ones that are against who always seem to have the loudest voices,’ she said on the phone from her home in France this week.
It seems those voices are being paid particular attention in Fowey because of a problem affecting the wider Church of England — declining congregations.
A recent report revealed that between 1987 and 2019, the number of people regularly attending a C of E church on a Sunday morning fell from around 1.2 million to 679,000.
The parish is seeking a male overall head for church leadership. In other words, they don’t want a woman priest at the parish church, St Fimbarrus (pictured)
Fowey resident Ron Davies, an 82-year-old who was a choirboy at the Grade I listed church in the 1950s, was born near the church and remembers the pews there being packed at every service.
‘In those days all the locals went to church,’ says the former merchant seaman. ‘There were so many people that I was very nervous when I walked down the aisle in my cassock for the first time.’ These days, except for the summer season when numbers are swollen by visiting holidaymakers, Fowey’s church struggles to attract a congregation of more than about 30 worshippers to its Sunday services, around one per cent of the town’s population of about 2,500.
Many who do attend are retirees, reflecting the ageing population in Fowey where the influx of outsiders buying second homes has seen prices rocketing, forcing out youngsters who grew up there but can no longer afford to live in the town.
The church’s problems were exacerbated when, four years ago, the previous vicar Philip de Grey-Warter decided to leave the C o E because he disagreed with its decision to allow trans people to be baptised to recognise their transition.
He set up another church, holding Sunday services in the local sailing club and taking many of St Fimbarrus’s congregation with him.
And, even allowing for the gloom cast by the rain dripping from the daffodils in its graveyard this week, it has the air of a church in decline.
Visit other churches across the country and you will see the walls of the entrance porches festooned with posters and leaflets reflecting community life, from craft fairs to coffee mornings in aid of the Turkey-Syria earthquake appeal. Here there are only two notices — one about ‘safeguarding’, the other that statement put out by the PCC.
As it explains, the appointment of a new priest following Philip de Grey-Warter’s departure was delayed pending a review of how the Diocese of Truro was organised and it was only last month that funding for a part-time priest living and working in Fowey was finally approved.
In the meantime, the running of the church has fallen to a small group of volunteers, among them church warden Carol Carruthers, a local businesswoman and grandmother of eight who is a member of the PCC.
‘We were left in a situation where we only had a handful of people still in our church, so we had to pick up the pieces,’ she said.
‘Of that small group, it became apparent that there were definitely two different theological views on whether you need to have a male vicar leading a church.
‘That isn’t my view and I’m in support of women priests. But I don’t want the church to split again and if we appointed a female then they would leave the church. We’re trying to be inclusive and respect differing theological views.’
The Mail was unable to find anyone on the PCC who was willing to talk about why they oppose women priests. However, they are thought to have been in the minority with those who support the appointment of female clergy going along with the decision in ‘a spirit of unity’ as the statement puts it.
It adds that the PCC is offering ‘a compromise position where we will both welcome women priests to teach the Bible faithfully each Sunday and lead communion, but seek an overall male priest in charge’.
Far from mollifying those who believe there should be women priests, this has been interpreted by other members of the congregation as akin to suggesting that women should be allowed to clean, cook and host social gatherings, but not take part in any big decisions about how a house is run.
‘Everybody I know would be perfectly happy to have a woman priest,’ said one female parishioner who did not want to give her name. ‘I feel intense irritation. I just really don’t see why a very small body within the church should manage to deprive the rest of us of a priest in charge on gender grounds.’
‘It’s a very divided congregation on the issue,’ said another female worshipper at St Fimbarrus, who also asked not to be named.
‘I think it’s really sad. In this day and age, we should have women priests and as my husband always points out, the Queen was head of the Church and she was female.’
‘I used to go to the services
regularly,’ another woman told me. ‘But I’ve stopped because of what’s been happening at the church.’
Regular church-goers aside, other locals have been angered by the negative light which the PCC’s decision has cast on Fowey generally.
‘There’s not a single person I know who is against women priests,’ says 39-year-old Alan Giles, a carpet-fitter who doubles as the town crier.
‘We’ve all been taken aback by it. There are all these social media posts calling Fowey sexist and we’re like ‘hang on, don’t tar us all with the same brush’.’
‘It’s very disappointing,’ agreed 36-year-old Kate Longman, owner of Shrew Books which overlooks the church.
‘It’s not how I’ve understood the church community here. I believe that most people here have a fairly progressive outlook.’
‘I’ve got two children that I’m looking at getting christened,’ said Colette Malone, 33.
‘We’re not taking them there though because I don’t agree with what they’re saying about women priests, and I don’t want to look as though I do agree with it.’
As for Ron Davies, that nervous choirboy of yesteryear, he, too, has no problem with women priests.
‘I’d be happy for my cremation service to be taken by one when my time comes,’ he said.
The Vicar of Dibley is a British sitcom which ran on from 1994 to 2007
Whether there will ever be a female incumbent at St Fimbarrus to perform such honours remains to be seen.
For the moment it seems unlikely but Rev Louise Courtney, she of the dog-collar and quad bike, believes it might be only a matter of time.
She recalled how, in one Cornish parish where lots of denominations worshipped together, there was a Catholic man who refused to talk to her, let alone take communion from her.
‘I’ve always won people over by just gently working with them,’ she said. ‘After about two years, I was going down the row and when I got to him I stood back to let the male priest give him communion but he said: ‘No, I’d like you to please.’
‘It was one of the most marvellous things that has ever happened to me and I still get a lump in my throat when I think about it.
‘So maybe there’s hope for a woman priest in Fowey yet.’
Source: | This article originally belongs to Dailymail.co.uk