Closure threat to strike village church

It is one of the most notorious Norfolk episodes in living memory - a skirmish between church and school that led to the longest strike Britain has ever seen.

It is one of the most notorious Norfolk episodes in living memory - a skirmish between church and school that led to the longest strike Britain has ever seen.

But now the church at the centre of the row in Burston, near Diss, could be closed for good, with the congregation most weeks struggling to get into double figures.

Just a handful of Burston's 600-strong community come to church on Sundays, leading Church officials to threaten pulling the plug on the historic building unless the village's Christians come forward to be counted.

The blow comes as other Church figures around Norfolk make clear their frustration at presiding over ever-declining congregations that spend more time worrying where money will come from than on their spiritual wellbeing.

And the Bishop of Norwich yesterday threw his weight behind a Church of England campaign to get state funding for religious buildings, with many communities fast running out of cash.

In Burston the situation is different - a well-organised Friends team keeps St Mary The Virgin Church financially afloat - but with congregations sharply declining it too faces the prospect of closure.

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Writing in a parish newsletter Rachel Hobson, chairman of the Friends group, said: “I have just returned from a Sunday morning service where the congregation - as is often the case - was in single figures, nine of us, including our rector and organist.

“This, week in week out, does not give us the critical mass to thrive - and a body that fails to thrive, dies.

“There are just not enough people coming to church to build up that critical mass, to kick-start us on to an upward spiral of growth, rather than the downward spiral of defeat towards which we are headed. We should consider our future, which must include closing the church.”

The Burston Parochial Church Council will hold a meeting on April 30 when closure will be discussed.

Yesterday Mrs Hobson added: “I don't know what legal right we have but there may soon come a time when we say to the Church of England that it's not viable to maintain our church.

“This is such an important building for the community, especially with our heritage, but it also needs to be valued as the centre of our Christian community. I could name 25, 30 Christians in the village who don't use the church regularly and we need to see them in there.”

Jan McFarlane, spokesman for the Bishop of Norwich, said any closure would be extremely unlikely.

“The chances of it being closed down are extremely slim,” she said. “It's very well used by community groups during the day. The challenge is now to get them coming to church services. People love having churches in their community but don't always show up on Sundays.”

The only time the small parish of Burston, which shares a rector with Winfarthing, Shelfanger, Gissing and Tivetshall on a five-week rotation, is busy is during annual celebrations of its famous strike.

Between 1914 and 1939 socialist teachers Kitty and Tom Higdon set up their own school in Burston in an epic battle with Rev Charles Tucker Eland, rector of the village and chairman of the school board, who had them suspended for not showing due deference.

It became the longest strike in history and is still celebrated today with a museum in the school house the Higdons built and an annual rally, featuring the UK's leading trade unionists, that takes place on the first Sunday each September.