Fellside team's 20 years of parish partnership

Bring together five rural Lancashire parishes and what do you get? Answer: A Fellside team. Its 20th birthday is a time to look back and look forward, as Fiona Finch reports.

Tuesday, 16th February 2021, 2:49 pm

As birthdays go it was a bit low key.

Video footage shows the Rev Steve Cooper singing happy birthday and cutting himself a slice of cake, alone in a rural church in Lancashire.

But be assured there will certainly be more celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of a special team which brought together five country and village parishes - the Fellside ministry. It’s just that with the pandemic they can’t be held...yet.

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Team Rector Steve Cooper outside St Mary's church, Goosnargh Photo: Neil Cross

The video footage on YouTube of the cake cutting formed part of a reflective service marking the birthday moment. What is being planned is a special pilgrimage walk taking in the five Anglican churches in the Fellside patch, which is located near Preston and Garstang. A booklet of treasured prayers is also being created.

The team was, says current Team Rector Steve, brought together in a spirit of forward planning.

Rev Steve said: “I think there were people who could see the writing on the wall where church finances and clergy numbers were going. It was worked at for a number of years, rather than being forced at the last minute by circumstance. It was worked at to be a constructive response to the realities of where things were.”

But its work had barely begun before a devastating disease hit, with foot and mouth leading to livestock farm lockdowns nationwide.

Rev Dr Susan Salt

It was a terrible time for many farmers and the Fellside ministry stepped up to help, with then curate Rev. Gill Henwood leading the way. Rev Steve said: “She was very involved in trying to support our farming community which was really struggling at the time because of the constraints of foot and mouth and the impact on their livelihood...trying to be active to support the rural community is very much part of what we do as a team. How we engage and support our rural community in difficult times is part of what we do as a church, but also how we engage and support them in good times and seeing how things change.”

The Fellside ministry covers the five mainly rural parishes. The current team comprises Rev Steve, Rev Garry Whittaker, Rev Dr Susan Salt and licensed Reader Emeritus Mrs Delphine Burn. They bring, as you would expect, different life experiences. But there is a surprising range of interests and experience - Rev Steve previously served as a member of the lifeboat crew and remains chaplain to the Fleetwood lifeboat team. He even penned a ditty for the Fellside webpage describing his many past roles including time in the merchant navy and as a policeman in London: “Baker, sailor, no candle-stick maker/copper, scientist, care-worker who’s/been a priest, teacher, chaplain, now Rector/husband, dad, lifeboatman too!/What that makes me, I know not, do you?”

Although oceanography and physics graduate Steve, 62, who is married to legal researcher and solicitor Rachel, has primary responsibility for St Lawrence, Barton, St Eadmer, Bleasdale and St Mary, Goosnargh he emphasises they work as a team to cover the patch saying: “We back each other up and care for each other and we do services for all the churches.”

Meanwhile Rev Garry, who also serves as chaplain to Myerscough College and Butler’s Farmhouse Cheeses at Inglewhite, is a keen Rugby League supporter who was formerly chaplain to Rochdale Hornets. He has primary responsibility is for the St James, Whitechapel and St Hilda, Bilsborrow parishes.

Rev Garry Whittaker and wife Deborah

Curate Rev Salt, whose patch is Barton (St Lawrence’s) , was a doctor who specialised in palliative care. She opted to help at Blackpool Victoria Hospital during the first few months of the Covid crisis and is married to Rev Neil Salt, vicar of Grimsargh.

Rev Steve sums up the team’s ministry as wide ranging and varied but rooted in one essential: “It’s about ensuring the church is a lively active presence in all our communities.”

While there is a crossover between urban and rural communities in terms of needs he notes that: “Rural communities tend to be very independently minded. If you go into a rural community they are people who have a profound link to their community, where they live, to their farms, their land, their hills - to those trees, those animals, those birds, this environment.

They are communities where there’s still a strong sense of community and people pull together to make community work.” There is he says support and care in difficult times and celebration in good times.

The Fellside team (from left): Rev Garry Whittaker, Rev Susan Salt, Reader Delphine Burn and Rev Stephen Cooper

Offcomers are, he says welcomed, if they too show the same community of interest: “People who come and join these communities if they want to be part of it they are welcomed with open arms.”

His role means he get a clear overview of the changing tapestry and demographic of rural life and its challenges and the need to work with other denominations too. There are those seeking a rural retreat, those who are isolated, young residents who cannot afford house prices but hope to return when they can, those moving on because they cannot find work or because of transport difficulties as they grow older and those who trace links with their land back centuries: “You get people forced back into town when they cannot drive any more.There are none of the facilities that people expect as a norm, shops, pubs, doctors, buses,all these norms aren’t there. We have quite a lot of rural poverty. Houses are big and they cost a lot to either buy or rent. There’s a lot of fuel poverty in rural communities where heating costs more than 10 per cent of your income”.

Life does not quite go full circle. But 20 years on from the Fellside launch the farming community is again facing a potential crisis with an uncertain future beckoning post Brexit and the introduction of a new agricultural policy by central Government. Questions such as who will even want to take over their farms in the next generation abound. He notes people are wondering will their farms be viable in the future, will the public be prepared to pay what it now costs to produce food, what will future food standards be. Steve said: “Brexit undoubtedly is an issue because on the one hand it’s in an area which voted to leave.”

He concludes that to live in rural areas: “Actually you’ve got to be quite determined...It’s a very beautiful part of the world. Drive round the Fellside team (area) it’s a prayer to the beauty of creation. It has lots of benefits, lots of challenges. Our churches are holy wells where people come to do business with God. The fact we have these holy wells that are cherished enable people to do that - for some people very week, for some very day, for some people it’s the celebrations and challenging times.”

He acknowledges that many people put “huge amounts of time and energy” to help keep those churches in good order and ensure they offer a welcome. Congregations varied from 15 to 60 in pre-Covid times on a Sunday.

Of the current pandemic he says: “It’s difficult and it’s a challenge because we are not able to do church in the way we’re normally able to do church.”

Team Rector Rev Steve Cooper pictured inside St Mary's, Goosnargh (Photo:Neil Cross)

Of the job itself it is clear no two days will be the same. But there are constants. He noted: “One of the challenges is working across five different parishes and five different churches and different communities and there’s never enough hours to go and do the job properly. There’s always a balancing of competing demands and needs and trying to find ways in which to do that. At the heart of it for me it’s about relationships.There’s been a church in all these communities for a very long time. Part of the job of the church is to be there so there can be the church for another 1000 years. We’ve got a long term vision and Fellside team is part of that.”

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