Page 9, 19th January 2007

19th January 2007
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Page 9, 19th January 2007 — Why is this church empty on Sundays?
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Why is this church empty on Sundays?

Anna Arco on a furious battle between Plymouth diocese and the parishioners of a Doliet village which produced five Catholic martyrs

After centuries of keeping the flame of faith alive, the village of Chideock in West Dorset risks losing the thing that has mattered most to its Catholic population: the Mass. But a determined group is fighting to save it.

Our Lady Queen of Martyrs and St Ignatius, built in 1872, stands on the site of a barn where for centuries the villagers of Chideock tenaciously celebrated secret Masses, despite the stringent ban on Catholic worship. • Masses have been held clandestinely here since the Reformation, and five martyrs hailed from or were caught in the village.

Saturated in Catholic heritage, home to a strong and lively community, this beautiful little church — one of the "gems" of English Catholicism, according to English Heritage — has become the scene of a battle between the parishioners and Plymouth diocese.

Over recent years the diocese has implemented restructuring moves in response to a shortage of priests. The parishioners in Chideock, meanwhile, have fought to save their Sunday Mass. The result: 15 months of confusion, anger, bafflement and hurt.

Campaigners have even been told by their parish priest that they are flirting with "simony and bribery".

In October 2005 the 80strong congregation of the quaint Romanesque church was shocked to learn that its Sunday Mass would be discontinued. The decision was presented as final, despite Bishop Christopher Budd's assurances that he would be happy to enter into "conversations" with the parish.

In reply to the original announcement, the community wrote over 50 letters begging the bishop to reconsider.

But plans to withdraw the Mass went ahead and on November 20, 2005, Fr Jonathan Shaddock, the parish priest, celebrated Sunday Mass in Chideock for the last time. During the service he read out a statement from the bishop.

Unbeknownst to the congregation of Chideock, a merger between the parishes of Chideock, Beaminster and Bridport on April I , 2004, had shifted "priorities". The more populous Bridport had became the focal point for the new parish conglomerate, outweighing the historical significance of Chideock.

The martyrs' cross stands on the site of Chideock Castle, where the Arundell family used to harbour priests, host secret Masses and hold out against countless attacks by the Protestant establishment. Blessed John Cornelius S1 was caught in Chideock, where he was chaplain.

After the castle's destruction in 1645, the villagers continued to worship secretly in a barn. It was only when the property was bought in 1802 by the Welds of Lulworth, an old Catholic family, that the barn was turned into an actual chapel. The present church, attached to Chideock manor, was completed in 1872 and included the former barn in the transepts.

For over 300 years the sanctuary light has been burning, in one way or another, guarding the contents of the tabernacle.

The 2004 merger had left both Chideock and its satellite church in Beaminster with the status of chapels of ease.

According to the bishop's public letter of 2005, the decision implemented a policy he had initially launched in the 1980s to "improve the quality of our celebrations and to build communities that had Sunday Mass at their centre". This was to involve parish priests saying no more than two Masses on a Sunday.

Bishop Budd wrote: "We are fewer than we were but, compared to other parts of the world, we still have a reasonable number of priests in full-time active ministry.

"Our problem is one of ageing and that is not going to improve in the short term."

The bishop, who is currently in the Holy Land, was unavailable for comment, but Canon Peter Webb, the Dorset deanery's episcopal vicar, explained the thinking of the authorities.

"The diocese is under a difficult process of trying to cope with a shortage of priests," he said.

"The main reason for restructuring the Diocese of Plymouth is that we are desperately short of clergy. We've tried to make it positive by trying to improve the quality and the dignity of the Mass, but we are much reduced. In 10 years there will be two priests to serve the entire West Dorset area."

However, the parishioners of Chideock argue that the priest shortage is not an issue.

Fr Shaddock has three churches to serve. He says Mass in Beaminster on Saturday evenings and in Bridport on Sunday morning. Compared to the priests in the two neighbouring parishes, this is a relatively light load for a man in his 40s.

To the north of the county, there is a Canon in his 70s saying three Masses every Sunday: to the west, the priest with responsibility for the parishes of Axminster, Lyme Regis and Seaton also says three Masses, though he will say four before Christmas and during the holiday season in the summer.

When the people of Chideock see the engagement and energy that the neighbouring priests invest in their parishes — in order to maintain the Mass in as many places as possible they say they feel let down by both the bishop and Fr Shaddock.

In addition, they cite a recent address by Cardinal Francis Arinze, who said that, if a diocese does not have enough priests, "initiatives should be taken to seek them from elsewhere... and to keep fresh in the people a genuine 'hunger' for a priest".

More disturbing to members of the congregation is the fact that Mass has not been said in their church, whether Sunday or weekday, since November 3.

Yet, they claim, Fr Shaddock has the time to advertise his professional services as a psychoanalyst in local papers.

Fr Shaddock declined to be interviewed for this article and so could not address these concerns.

However, Canon Webb maintains that the priest has not said Friday Mass in Chideock since November because the church is unheated. "The clergy find themselves very beleaguered, carrying double workloads," he said. "People get aggrieved and take it out on the clergy.

"People don't understand how painful it is and how little we are prepared for this new way of being."

Whatever the case, it is generally agreed that the situation has been badly handled.

After the initial announcement, the bishop suggested that two or three members of the Chideock community should meet him. There were two meetings to discuss the Sunday Mass situation, at which, according to several parishioners, very little was actually discussed or resolved.

They insist the meetings were "simply for show".

The minutes for a Dorset deanery pastoral forum on January 19, 2006, support the view that other parishes in the deanery were also worried about the way Chideock's Sunday Mass had been axed without even the semblance of a real discussion.

Horrified by the situation, a group of Chideock's faithful got together to found the Friends of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs and St Ignatius, in order to campaign for the restitution of Sunday Mass.

Key members include Gaby Martelli, a member of the Weld family on the board of trustees for the church, which is still owned and maintained by a trust in the hands of the Weld family, Professor Denys Brunseden. Kevin Lazenby, Christian Tyler and Karen Warburton.

Together with others, they have organised meetings, written letters and compiled a quarterly newsletter to keep supporters up to date with the campaign.

They have kept their community going, despite the lack of Masses, with "songs of praise" and prayer services.

Not only have their Sunday Masses been axed, but Masses that were promised on the first Friday of every month eventually stopped.

Mrs Martelli voiced her frustration and anger about the situation. "For six months we had a first Friday Mass. Other Masses I had to ask for, then finally even these petered out," she said.

"It feels as though Fr Shaddock has lost interest in Chideock and is not going to bother to say Masses there or attend any of the services that we put on.

"He is reneging on his obligations to one of the churches which he is supposed to serve."

Many of the core congregation did not go to Beaminster or Bridport but defected further afield to Axminster and Lyme Regis. A few have joined Anglican congregations because of their outrage at what has happened to their church.

The absence of regular Masses and the dispersion of the former Chideock congregation has meant, inevitably, less money in the collection plate and fewer donations to church funds.

Without the income from Chideock and burdened with rising costs, the new amalgamated parish's finances have suffered. According to campaigners, it is now running a deficit of £20,000 when previously the books balanced.

Fr Shaddock approached Mrs Martelli recently in order to ask her whether the Weld Trust could also pay for the running costs of the church such as heating and electricity. Having conferred with the other supporters and trustees, the trust agreed that it would take over the running costs and would also guarantee a stipend of £10.000 per annum if Fr Shaddock agreed to say Sunday Mass.

This offer was vehemently rejected in a letter in which Fr Shaddock appeared to wash his hands of Chideock. He left the running costs to the trust, implied that pilgrimages were a source of income for the trustees, and blamed the remnants of the Chideock congregation for the lost funds.

"The suggestion you give the parish £10,000 per year in exchange for Sunday Mass carries the danger of sounding like simony and bribery, and in any case we are all aware that the bishop has said that Sunday Mass is to be celebrated in the main parish church and not in Chideock," he wrote.

Members of the Chideock congregation are at the end of their tether. They no longer understand what is going on and feel that, although they were a growing congregation in a place that has historical and sacred significance, they have been mistreated by a bungling bureaucracy.

"We didn't cost the diocese more than the running costs of our church. We weren't a financial burden on the parish and we were large for a rural community. It just doesn't make any sense," said Kevin Lazenby.

The main problem with Chideock, said Canon Webb, is that the congregation was not a local one. It depended too much on outsiders.

"We want to avoid a consumer Church. Increased mobility has led us to be customers, not family members. The new model will help us prevent that happening."

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