Paul Hart, circa 1970. Ink & colour wash on cream paper. 45x30mm. Private collection
Paul Hart, circa 1970. Ink & colour wash on cream paper. 45x30mm. Private collection

Sturminster Newton was an ideal parish: an historic market town set in the fertile Blackmoor Vale on the banks of the River Stour. The town is approached across an eighteenth century bridge with its distinctive warning of deportation for anyone who damages it. I was also responsible for the neighbouring parish of Hinton St. Mary with its ancient church, tiny village and manor house where the patrons of the benefice, the Pitt Rivers lived.

The weekly calf market was the biggest in Europe. The population of 2,500 was still served by independent local shops. The much mourned railway had only recently been closed. The town centre had developed little, though small suburbs had been built through the twentieth century. It was a balanced agricultural community in which the Vicar had a clear role to play.

A new Vicarage had been built – where our fifth child was born. Opposite was the vast old vicarage built by a wealthy nineteenth century predecessor who had also re-ordered the ancient church of 1485.

My immediate predecessor had only stayed for eighteen months, following a beloved vicar who had served for a very long time. There was a sizeable schedule of work to be done on the fabric of the church, necessitating a wide-ranging stewardship campaign. We started a bell-ringing band as the basis for contact with young people. When the choirmaster left I also took on the choir training as another pastoral contact point.

Unlike my previous post I was not here required to build up a sense of community, rather to play my part within a strong existing one. I joined the Rotary Club, there to rub shoulders with the town’s professionals; I also joined the secondary school’s governing body. It was important to be seen around the town and at the weekly market and I often went after Sunday morning service for a pre-lunch drink at one of the pubs, where I met some of the men who hadn’t been to church. We launched a town and parish magazine: “The Bridge”.

An active link was formed with an agriculturalist, Buck Bailey, working for the Church Missionary Society in Uganda. A family legacy enabled me to visit him for six weeks with a grant from Rotary to film Buck’s work. We also extended the parish’s links with Christian Aid and began a series of annual art shows which provided an outlet for the work of local artists and raised funds for world development.

In the wider Church liturgical reform was gathering pace. Series 3, the latest official revised liturgy was introduced with new music; vestments were tidied up, new kneelers made; mid-week communion was linked with new approaches to prayer and healing ministry; a reading room was set up where refreshments were served after services. Ideas from the Charismatic movement were welcomed and Sturminster church linked with the Barnabus Community, based along the valley at Whatcombe Manor.

It is the personal contacts that are of the greatest importance. Ray and Frank were the supportive churchwardens. Lendon, Tommy and Roger were retired priests who with Donald our reader shared in ministry. Henri(etta) did much to engage young people. I pursued my study of personal growth through the dynamics of group relationships attending courses by the C of E Board of Education.

As a vicar I found myself more involved in Diocesan matters than I had been as a curate. The Bishop of Salisbury was the kind and saintly Joe Fison who made a point of being available to his clergy and of developing a team sense among us. He held regular clergy lunches at his house and required us to attend an annual summer school with him.

Rich though all this was I began to feel that I needed to work on a wider canvas and applied for posts at Church House, Westminster but though short listed, I was not selected. In this process I was introduced by the Clergy Appointments Advisor to my next parish in Bristol.

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WAREHAM: 1964-1968