In our monthly series of “The Faces of Sherborne” we introduce you to the people behind the faces. This month (December 2011)
MEET SHERBORNE’S VICAR
CANON ERIC WOODS
Whether you are part of the regular congregation at Sherborne Abbey, whether you just like to attend an occasional concert or an annual Christmas Carol Service or whether you read his column in one of the local newspapers, it is highly likely that you will have come across the imposing figure of the Vicar of Sherborne, Canon Eric Woods. The vicar’s benefice or his area of responsibility covers five churches in all: Sherborne Abbey, Castleton Church, St Pauls@The Gryphon, Lillington Church and Longburton Church, ensuring that he ‘pops up’ in many places and in many different circumstances.
Read the full interview with the Vicar below:
Q: When did you arrive in Sherborne and what brought you here?
EW: I was the Vicar at Wroughton in Wiltshire, a large village just south of Swindon when I was asked to look at a job in London by the Archbishop of Canterbury. About the same time, I also received a letter from Simon Wingfield-Digby telling me about a vacancy in Sherborne. Having considered the job in London, I really felt that I was not best suited for it and so I decided to apply for the Sherborne position. As my application had been delayed whilst I was considering the London offer I was the last person to be interviewed and the interview began “Now that you’ve finally turned up…” but fortunately I was the successful candidate. That was in 1992 and I arrived to take up my post in 1993.
Q: Your remit covers a total of five churches and I notice that some of your predecessors were known as the Vicar whilst others were titled Rector. Could you explain the difference and which is most appropriate?
EW: Certainly. It’s all rather academic now as the differences were all done away with in the 1970s but originally a vicar was part of a parish owned by a monastery. The monks employed a secular priest to carry out the parochial work on their behalf, that is, vicariously! A rector received an income directly from his parishioners, from the estates owned by the church where tithes or taxes had to be paid. So I am the Vicar for Sherborne but Rector of Lillington and Longburton. My other title – Canon – means that I have a stall in Salisbury Cathedral granted to me as a senior priest of the diocese by the Bishop. That was back in 1998 and I’m now the longest serving Canon, which makes me feel very old!
Q: When someone starts a new job, they inevitably assess and analyse what they find and then set about prioritising their agenda according to their own particular aims. What were your priorities when you first arrived?
EW: Well apart from the obvious need to provide all of the services that make up the job, my first priority was to sort out the administration. There was lots of spiritual vitality but not a strong underlying structure; neither were the finances particularly healthy. We needed an efficient administrative headquarters and were fortunate enough to acquire the use of No 3 Abbey Close in 1994. That allowed us to set up a shop in No 1, which we already owned, and that gave us a stake in the commercial life of the town whilst providing an additional revenue stream for us. The vicar and the church wardens are together the legal guardians of the churches and the Church Council is the decision-making body. All of the other functions are hived off into working parties as and when we need them. I’m really exceptionally fortunate in having a super team and an army of supportive volunteers.
Q: What else did you feel you needed to attend to?
EW: I soon noticed that Sherborne does attract a lot of retired people but people with huge abilities and talents and I wanted to garner these and use them. Over the years we have developed a lively programme of lectures and study groups not just on mainstream core Christian topics but also on borderline issues; issues like psychiatry and spirituality – for example, does depression have anything to do with spirituality? For many years, I was a part-time lecturer at Bristol University where I taught moral philosophy. I still teach in Salisbury and elsewhere, and I believe it is important to debate and discuss issues such as the relationship between science and religion. We now run the Sherborne Abbey Insight Lectures which bring in all sorts of different audiences.
Q: We read that church-going is a diminishing activity. What are your thoughts on that?
EW: I think that the statistics and the surveys – people responding to the question “Do you go to church regularly?” – are very much misleading. First, there is the invisible congregation, all of those people who are house-bound or in residential homes; people who are very keen for us to go to them and who appreciate a monthly service in the care-home. They don’t appear in the usual statistics. But the biggest challenge nowadays is the change in people’s lifestyles. Now, it is usual for both parents to be working, very often the grandparents are looking after the grandchildren. The tradition of caring and self-sacrifice for one’s children has now been extended to the grandchildren. Also, retirees are much busier than previous generations were; they tend to travel a lot. They may be going to church less often but they still consider themselves as church-going. They may also be going during the week, on a weekday, so that they can be with their families on a Sunday. People are also less able to commit to things on a regular basis. Basically I suspect there are more people going to church now than when I was first ordained, but less often and in patterns different from those we have known in the past.
Q: What do you have to say to people who feel the church is full of old people?
EW: Whenever I hear that, I say “Look around you.” At the Abbey, there are up to twenty-two boys in the choir every Sunday. They are also there on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and at rehearsals on Friday evening. It’s a huge commitment on their part and they receive a very good musical education. At St Paul’s in McCreary Road, we have seen a transformation over the years. It has become less formal, more evangelical and offers a more contemporary approach. Numbers have grown so much it has become necessary to move the services to the Conference Centre at the Gryphon, where we also run a thriving Sunday School. As you know the Gryphon is classed as an outstanding school by OFSTED and the link with the Church is a key part of that. I do believe that our children need to be taught about religion; if they choose to reject it that is their decision but they need to know what they are rejecting.
Q: What do you feel about those people who only come to church once or twice a year?
EW: It shows that they do want to be part of a religious experience, that they want to be reminded of their inner being. As far as I am concerned, they are always thoroughly welcome!
Q: How do you see your work in Sherborne developing in the next few years?
EW: I do believe the Abbey has established a formula that is working and in the next seven or so years before I retire I would like to see that consolidated. The Abbey majors on glorious music, Castleton Church concentrates on the Book of Common Prayer and St Paul’s offers a more informal approach with café style services. So we offer a wide range of approaches for the community to engage with. I believe that people are looking for excellence in whatever we do. Most cathedrals record a 35% growth in their attendance figures over the last 10 years, and I think that is what we must aim for, by delivering the various formats of service that appeal to different people. I think the only problem might be in the little villages where buildings cost a fortune to maintain and heat. We need to find an alternative approach there.
Q: Finally, what is your message at this time of year?
EW: Theologically speaking, I consider Easter to be more important than Christmas but obviously Christmas has great emotional pull. I sometimes wonder, however, if it doesn’t leave people feeling a little flat. After all of that anticipation, it all seems to run out of steam after Christmas lunch. What I would like everyone to remember is that Christmas Day is not the end, it is the beginning! Like Lent and Advent, Christmas lasts for forty days. That’s why you will still find the crib in the Abbey at the beginning of February. The Wise Men came to find the baby Jesus on 6th January and Christmas doesn’t finish until forty days after his birth. Candlemas, the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, on 2nd February is a day of hope and light. So let us celebrate Christmas as a wonderful beginning.