A day in the life of a country rector
David Baldwin is the Priest-in-Charge of the Lulworths, Winfrith and Chaldon. Tony Burton-Page spent a day with him.
Published in January ’10
7.55 am. David Baldwin’s first official duty of the day is to say Morning Prayer in Holy Trinity in West Lulworth. In his previous parish, in rural Shropshire, he had a five-minute walk to his church, but today he only has to walk a few paces from his front gate: the church is so close that he can see it from his study window. It is a requirement of a Church of England priest that he says the Morning and Evening Office in his church every single day, even if there is no congregation; but when he has finished ringing (more accurately, tolling) the bell on this winter morning, there are four villagers in the church by 8.00 – not a bad turnout considering the earliness of the hour and the coldness of the church. David is used to being on his own for the Offices, so he makes sure that things are a little more formal for the benefit of the worshippers. The service is quite brief, only a quarter of an hour or so, and soon everyone disperses to start their day’s work. David leaves the church unlocked. To him, a locked church is pointless: as David Edelsten put it in one of his ‘Leaves from a Dorset diary’ published in Dorset Life last year, ‘an oxymoron in stone’. David Baldwin is blunter: ‘If you keep your church locked all the time, you might as well knock it down and build flats on the land!’
8.45 am. Once a week David takes assembly at the local junior school. Lulworth & Winfrith First School is split over two sites, with the older children coming to Lulworth. David walks the half mile to the school, greeting several villagers on the way: ‘Even if they don’t want to talk to me there and then, at least they know I’m around.’ David believes in the importance of being seen by the local community, and very often people who would not think of making an appointment to see him will talk to him informally. This morning he chats to some parents before going in to take a brief assembly – a short biblical anecdote and some prayers. There is a longer service once a month on a Tuesday afternoon at one of the churches, to which the whole school comes, as do all the staff and quite a few parents. The children particularly enjoy it, partly because they are free to go home straight afterwards.
9.45 am. David drives to Winfrith to take the weekly 10.00 Holy Communion service at St Christopher’s. This necessitates metaphorical as well as literal gear-changes, for David has to switch from schoolchildren mode to 1662 mode, as this service uses the Book of Common Prayer. It is especially popular with more senior worshippers and is a full-length service, complete with organist and congregational hymn-singing – and the congregation is larger than that of many churches on a Sunday. Many of them will go on to have lunch together at the Red Lion, half a mile down the road, but this is a luxury for which David does not, to his regret, have time.
11.00 am. Back at the Rectory, David welcomes Tim and Samantha into his study. They are due to be married in St Andrew’s at East Lulworth in three months’ time. They do not live locally – in fact, they live in London – but they have chosen to get married here because Tim’s family live in the village. There is also the attraction of being able to have a glamorous reception in nearby Lulworth Castle. He likes to talk to those wanting to be married in one of his churches in order to be sure that they are marrying for the right reasons and that they understand the concept of a Christian marriage. In this case, he explained at a meeting with them four months ago the complexities of getting married in a parish which is not your own: a Bishop’s Licence must be obtained, and to qualify for that one of the couple must spend at least fourteen nights in the parish during the three months before the wedding. This second meeting gives him the chance to get to know the couple a little better and to ensure that the formalities are all in place. It also gives him the chance to see how they are getting on with their homework, for David asks all the bridal couples who come to him to learn their marriage vows by heart. ‘After all, they’re marrying each other, not me!’ Tim and Samantha were daunted at first but are now almost word perfect. At least this pair have not requested anything particularly unusual for their special day. David has had two requests in only the last twelve months for dogs to be bridesmaids – lace gowns and all; on one occasion when he allowed the bride’s dog into the service, proceedings had reached the point where the bride said ‘I will’, which was greeted by a lugubrious canine howl.
1.00 pm David just has time for a quick bite of lunch with his wife, Jane, before the monthly ‘Praise and Play’ session, which is for mothers and toddlers (‘Little Pilgrims’). This takes place not in the church but the village hall, which has the benefits not only of being warmer but also of having running water – and loos. David is delighted with the number of families who have opted to come to this little service, which he runs with Jane. It is an even younger version of the school service, with action songs and easy stories, and it has proved especially popular with families from the army camp up the road. It only lasts about twenty minutes, but it is extended into the afternoon by the fact that the mums sit and chat over their coffee afterwards. This gives David a chance to get to know them (he has, after all, only been here for just over a year) – and as a bonus it provides a mother with an opportunity to ask him if he will baptise her child. ‘Another way of connecting with the community,’ says David.
3.30 pm. David is at Holy Trinity for the funeral service of a village resident. He finds these occasions to be some of the most fulfilling parts of his ministry. ‘You’re helping people at one of the most vulnerable times in their lives.’ As soon as he had heard of the death, David arranged to see the family, primarily to offer them his comfort and support, but also to find out what form they want the service to take. Today, a granddaughter reads her own tribute, and she plays a CD of ‘The Lark Ascending’, one of her grandfather’s favourite pieces of music. Then David says his eulogy, based on what the family have said to him about their loved one. ‘But it’s not just the funeral; the period after it can be even more important for the bereaved, and they know I’m there if they need me.’
4.55 pm. David is back at the church tolling the bell for the Evening Office; this time it is him alone in the church, as it almost invariably is. So he does not always say the words of the service aloud; and often afterwards he will stay in the church to pray and to mull over the thoughts he has been assembling during the week for his Sunday sermon. He stopped writing them out many years ago – nowadays he finds it easier to speak ‘from the heart’, as he puts it. Early in the week, he reads through the readings prescribed for the next Sunday. He will usually focus on one of them in particular and reflect on it over the next few days, and times such as this are invaluable in the meditation process. He knows that by the end of the week he will be able to put his thoughts in order ready for the next day, and his traditional Saturday afternoon walk with the dog is almost a rehearsal for the sermon.
6.00 pm. The office work can no longer be put off – and there is a surprising amount of it. Finances are a perpetual problem, mostly because maintenance of the fabric is so expensive: to finish off the pointing of the stonework at St Andrew’s will cost £43,000. These churches are all listed buildings and need the attention of specialists –gone are the days when the local handyman could simply get up his ladder and slap on some mortar, for nowadays scaffolding is required and the mortar mix must be to approved standards.
7.30 pm. The day’s work is over for David – for once, there is no PCC or Deanery Chapter or other meeting which he must attend, so the evening is his own. In the summer he would probably be umpiring a local league cricket match, as his skills are in great demand: he is a highly-qualified umpire who has been on many rigorous courses. But at this time of year, skills of a different sort are needed. The Lulworth Players’ pantomime is in rehearsal, and David has the role of Kevin the Dwarf in Snow White and the Ice Queen. Since David is considerably taller and more solid than most men of his age, I wonder about the wisdom of the casting, but it turns out that the Ice Queen has put a spell on all dwarfs to make them standard(-ish) size. David is almost as enthusiastic about his drama work as he is about his cricket: ‘At the rehearsals, I get to meet people who have never set foot inside a church. They expect me to talk about the Bible and so on, and they’re pleasantly surprised when I don’t. So they get to see a different side of me, and I get to be more involved in the community – which is what I’m here for.’
1. Ken Ayres