Canon George Rayner, now retired, with his dog, Ness. Picture by Peter Boam.
WIGHT LIVING THE canon 'parachuted’ in to save a Ryde church is well used to firing broadsides across the bows of the church authorities — so why, in 'retirement’, should things be any different?
George Rayner may be in his 89th year, have a recently diagnosed heart condition and be a veteran of five knee operations but he still has fire — if not brimstone — in his belly.
His passionate belief the church must adapt to survive is undimmed by the passing of many years.
He has just hung up his full-time dog-collar at the same time as celebrating the diamond jubilee of his priesthood — six decades in which he believes change came much too late to his church.
As he conducted his final service as priest-in-charge of St Michael and All Angels Church at Swanmore, he had already agreed to help out at St Lawrence — and you can bet he’ll pop up in pulpits far and wide when needed.
It was at Easter 2011 Canon George stepped up to the plate to help the remaining few at St Michael’s, who were reeling from the departure of seven of their number to the Roman Catholic Ordinariate.
Canon George set about the task with customary vim and vigour.
He simplified the style of worship, held family services, established an afternoon drop-in for families and a toddlers’ group too.
The toddlers’ group was especially successful but, whatever else he tried, little or no difference was made to congregation numbers.
Canon George concluded the parish and its worship needed a complete change of direction — one which needed someone younger than him.
He had the ideas but no longer the energy for the task.
He chose Friday, December 20, as the day to stand down because he was ordained on that same day in 1953.
Among those attending the celebration service and party was the Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Rev Christopher Foster.
Canon George left St Michael’s facing a huge financial challenge. Insurance, heating and its contribution to the clergy stipend amounts to more than £450 each week.
"To service that alone would need an average congregation of 45, each contributing £10 per week, which on present attendance is unrealistic," he said.
Canon George departed with a sense of regret he had not achieved his goal of putting St Michael’s on a firmer footing.
But he thoroughly enjoyed the, albeit, unpaid privilege to serve the 'lovely’ people of God in Swanmore.
He saw the plight of St Michael’s as a microcosm of that of the wider church — the Church of England only stopping its fiddling when congregation numbers were 'burning’.
"It is sad to say that since the last war, it seems the Church of England has spent a great deal of time talking to itself over all sorts of seemingly important matters to its members and neglecting the mission to the entire outside world, which is to bring the good news — the gospel — to everyone in the parishes," he said.
"It is only when times are desperate, with shrinking congregations, it has awakened to its true calling and belatedly embarked on 'mission’."
You have to travel back 70 years to trace the birth of his belief about the direction in which the church should travel.
He was born at his grandmother’s house in Oakfield, educated on the Island and became an apprentice printer at Yelf Bros in Newport before being conscripted to the coal mines from 1944 to 1947.
"It was during my time as a Bevin Boy, working underground, that I found my way back to the Church of England fold, and was confirmed in Gateshead at the age of 19.
"Immediately, I was eager to discover what the church was about and a friendly bookseller recommended a new report produced in 1944 at the request of the then Archbishop William Temple, who was keen on evangelism.
"It contained all manner of ground-breaking ideas to cope with the thousands of disillusioned folk returning from a ghastly war with questions of every kind regarding religion and its relevance.
"Much of this challenged accepted parish practice and bid the clergy — a bastion of tradition and conservatism — to adopt new approaches and new skills."
Before it could be implemented, Temple died. The report found its way onto a dusty top shelf and nothing altered.
"In those vital ten years, any momentum for change was lost. I would point out Jesus had a contempt for religious rules — which led to his crucifixion.
"This is when I believe the Church of England betrayed the people of England, whom it was created to serve.
"Had the report been fully implemented, the church would have become a vital, forward-looking body, seeking out new ways and approaches to worship and organisation more suited to the 20th century."
When he was ordained in 1953, the young cleric was completely sold on the report and tried, from then on, to implement its recommendations as best he could.
But he found conservative forces were very strong, especially among the clergy.
"I was disappointed to find in my first parish, as a curate, the services were identical to those when the church was built — in 1880.
"No one thought it odd: 'It had always worked, so why change it?’ seemed to be the motto."
On appointment as vicar of a big Taunton parish in Devon, at the age of just 30, he did his best to implement many of the suggestions in the report and has done ever since.
"In today’s church climate of modern language, a wear-what-you-like attitude to clerical dress and many other changes, it is easy to forget so much of this was foreshadowed in that report but acted upon too late."
He pointed to the report suggesting removal of fasting communion, which required people to come to 8am services hungry — which repelled lots of young people.
Then there was the suggestion of evening communion, house groups, family services of all kinds, refreshments before or after services and weekday Sunday schools.
"Parishes that read the report put the measures in place but, without leadership from the very top, there were too few," he said.
When he came to St John’s in Sandown in 1963, he brought firm ideas with him and was then asked to take over Wootton where he re-opened the long-closed church of St Mark.
There he ruffled a good few superior feathers with his newsletter. It incorporated his forthright views and drew on one of his other skills — printed as it was in his garden shed.
It was in 1989 he first 'retired’, moving with his wife to Glastonbury, assisting at Wells Cathedral, the local Methodist circuit and, from 1992 to 2002, taking on six country parishes, The Six Pilgrims, with the aim of welding them into one worshipping community — which they remain.
As a columnist for Wells Diocesan Grapevine, from 1990 to 2000, he ruffled a few more feathers.
He returned to the Island in 2002, and has been almost continually ministering, where needed, at Gatcombe, Wroxall, St Lawrence, Bonchurch, and, since Easter 2011, at St Michael’s.
Hardworking most certainly but a career cleric? No.
If he had wanted personal advancement, he would have compromised and toed the church line but 'Bishop’ Rayner wouldn’t be quite the same.