A few weeks ago, I was addressing a meeting of 170 churchwardens from the diocese of Oxford. The setting was Burford church, a handsome, mainly 15th-century wool church, famous for the gunning down of the Levellers in its churchyard. It has already been reordered, to meet the demands of changes in liturgy, but also the needs of the wider community. We were gathered in an exemplar to which those attending could only, at present, aspire.

The event was held under the aegis of the Bishop of Dorchester, but it was also prompted both by my A Little History of the English Country Church and COUNTRY LIFE’s enterprising competition. Indeed, the most touching moment for me was when one of the churchwardens from Whatcote in Warwickshire, this year’s runner-up, stood up and spoke from the heart: ‘The adaptation of our church has been the best thing that has ever happened to it. Through it, both church and village have found new life. Go back and do likewise.’

I’ve been on the road now for almost a year, addressing meetings on this topic all over the country. Everywhere, they have kick-started the great debate about how to move forwards in the new century. Everyone realises that this can no longer be put off. I talked to a large gathering in Malmesbury Abbey. A few months later, a letter arrived from the Area Dean for North Wiltshire listing no fewer than eight parishes fired up by the Malmesbury meeting, each in its different way tackling the problem.

At the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, I was shown an enormous auditorium. I guessed that there would be an audience of 200 or 300 at the most. ‘But we’ve sold 760 tickets already,’ came the reply. In the end, all 800 seats were filled and droves turned away. What greater index could we have of the interest that surrounds churches in rural Britain?

I have learnt so many things from these forays. One was that, in parish terms, no one knows what their neighbours near and far are doing. Hence the excitement about the prize winners of last year’s competition, and the move to hire buses so that groups could go and see what had been done. It is extraordinary that the Church of England, now groaning under the burden of an expensive bureaucracy, has no organisation for churchwardens. A national association could become a vital resource centre for the exchange of ideas on what to do with church buildings. A new organisation, Sanctuary UK (www.sanctuary-uk.org.uk), initiated by Canon Lawrence Mortimer, could become the vital catalyst we need to draw together those concerned.

Other things surfaced. One was the crying need for a radical overhaul of the bureaucratic processes whereby change was achieved. There have also been unhappy experiences caused by those at the top who have the power to act, but no responsibility for what they land on hapless, penniless congregations. It is surely to be regretted that those societies whose role is to conserve and preserve should be regarded as the enemies without, and not as kindly leading lights within.

Within the next few months, I shall be winding down my role as a spokesman for adaptation. Our collective thanks go to the Mercers’ Company and the Sheepdrove Trust for making all of this possible. The Mercers’ Company have generously agreed to support the award for another year, donating prizes of £10,000 for the winner, and £5,000 for the runner-up.

Entering the Village Church for Village Life Competition 2009

Entrants from last year are encouraged to take part in this year’s competition. The award seeks to discover the finest example of a historic, rural parish church that has successfully engaged the wider community to create a focus for village life in the 21st century. Churches must demonstrate that the whole community—worshippers and non-worshippers alike—has played an active part in the project. In addition, an awareness of the importance of the churchyard will be taken into account. Churches that have taken steps to be environmentally sustainable are also encouraged to enter. The Mercers’ Company has generously agreed to support the award for another year. The winning church will be awarded a prize of £10,000 and the runner-up £5,000. Previous entrants can reapply.

To nominate a church please email Susannah Glynn, via the link below, with the name and diocese of the church, the name, address, email and telephone number of the church contact, and the reasons why you think the church should be entered for the award. Additional photographs (no more than 6) are strongly encouraged. Alternatively you can send a postal entry to The Village Church for Village Life Award, 33, Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7JS. Nominations should be in by the week before Shrove Tuesday: February 17, 2009. The winner will be announced in September 2009. For any more information, telephone 07538 274248.

For more information, please contact Susannah Glynn at susannah_glynn@freelance.ipcmedia.com

Read about the search for the winner of the Village Church for Village Life award in 2008:

* Village Church for Village Life Award launch

* Judging the Village Church for Village Life Award

 * Village Church for Village Life Finalists

* Village Church for Village Life Winner