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Something to sing about for ‘Unsung Heroes’


Twelve finalists from rural churches across the country were guests of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at Lambeth Palace as he announced the overall winner and the two runners-up in the Country Life ‘Unsung Heroes of the Rural Church’ competition.

Following a conducted tour of the historic Palace, the Archbishop presented an engraved glass decanter to the overall winner, Mr John Fall of the parish of Kirklington in North Yorkshire (Ripon & Leeds diocese), “a true unsung hero of the rural church”, in the judges’ opinion.  Churchwarden for 45 years, John was nominated by his fellow warden for his tireless work over decades in every aspect of the life not only of his own parish but also of other local parishes which are not so well-supported.   

The winners
Award-winner John Fall (right) and runners-up Dr John Wedley and Dawn Castle with the Archbishop

The two runners-up (Highly Commended) were Mrs Dawn Castle of Epwell (Oxfordshire/Oxford) – “a very warm and supportive individual” - and Dr John Wedley of Eskdale (Cumbria/Carlisle) – “modest and capable, he has brought a new lease of life to church and village”.  Dawn, too, was nominated by her fellow warden, especially for her imaginative work with the children and young people of Epwell.  John was nominated by the Rector of his two-church parish, principally for his extraordinary persistence in establishing Eskdale church as one of the first C of E churches to host a post office.  

As Dr Williams wrote in a special Country Life article: “In our countryside, armies of unsung heroes are keeping the circulation going in the community’s body.  They are organising community celebrations and simple local services like mothers and toddlers groups or drop-in centres.  But they are increasingly stepping into the gaps that have opened up in rural society in the last ten years or so.” 

Nominations came from across England, with several from Scotland and Wales, too.  The judges’ original brief was to choose 10 finalists – but the quality of the nominees’ contributions was so high that they could not reduce the list below a round dozen!  The judges assessed factors such as the extent of nominees’ service and the range of their contribution; responsibility for new initiatives; reliability and continuity; and making a measurable difference. 

The judges said:

  • “So much that is written about the country church focuses on its architecture, and it is right that this should be celebrated. But at the same time, we should also celebrate those who give so much time, energy and commitment to keeping those churches open, alive, decorated and welcoming.”  Bishop of Ely
  • “This competition drove home the truth of a circumstance so obvious that it is rarely stated: every thriving community depends on a circle of people who contribute their time and energy to its maintenance and development. The nominations reflected how immensely varied such contributions can be . . . and also in the most touching ways how valued these contributors to parish life can be. It was a very heart-warming competition to judge.”  John Goodall
  • “Many [of the nominees] were retired but with the energy levels of many people half or indeed a third of their age, devoting huge amounts of time and effort to their church, and having a lot of fun in the process.  In a refreshing antidote to the prevalent celebrity culture they do what they do, not for public recognition, but because they care, they believe it matters and they enjoy it.”  Anne Sloman
  • “Most striking were the inspiration these people created in their fellow parishioners, and the years that they had provided this wonderful, sustained care—often for several decades. The long term outlook for our splendid rural churches depends substantially on this commitment and devotion.”  Judy Dunn
  • “One sensed that for many nominees the cycle of the year was marked by the many different ways in which they were supporting and leading those around them. These are great people.”  Sandy Nairne



The judges were:

  • Mr Mark Hedges Chairman - Editor, Country Life
  • Professor Judy Dunn - King’s College, London
  • Dr John Goodall - Architectural Editor, Country Life
  • Mr Sandy Nairne - Director, National Portrait Gallery
  • Mr James Naughtie - Broadcaster and author
  • The Rt Revd Anthony Russell - Bishop of Ely
  • Mrs Anne Sloman - Chair, Church Buildings Council, Archbishops’ Council

The finalists came from:

  • Cambridgeshire
  • Cornwall (2)
  • Cumbria
  • Glamorgan
  • Kent
  • Norfolk
  • North Yorkshire
  • Northumberland
  • Oxfordshire (2)
  • Suffolk

Country Life magazine launched the competition in its Easter 2009 edition, with the results announced in its Christmas edition (16 December).  The aim, in conjunction with the Church of England, was to identify and recognise those unsung heroes whose commitment and initiative enables the rural church to be sustained and to flourish as the centre of its community’s life. 

In previous years, Country Life have run competitions about churches being used to serve the wider community.  But this year’s is about people, and highlights the wide range of voluntary activities taking place in and around churches and chapels and their churchyards - in addition to their being places of worship and vital oases of calm and reflection in a busy world.

The prize was kindly donated by the Church Commissioners, who are major agricultural landlords.

The Mercers’ Company generously contributed towards the cost of running the competition.

Daily Digest