Churches supporting flood-affected communities

People disembark a fire and rescue boat used to ferry residents backwards and forwards to the flood stricken Somerset village of Muchelney.(Photo: Ben Birchall/PA)

Churches are doing what they can to support communities affected by the flooding that has swept over large parts of the south-west of England.

Reverend Jane Twitty of Muchelney, Somerset, looks after four local parishes and has swung the church at the centre of one of the isolated communities into action.

The village has been the focus of a great deal of press attention since the floods turned it into an effective island, only accessible by boats run by the fire brigade.

Speaking to Christian Today, she said "As soon as the flood started, the church has been open 24/7 for anyone who wants to come in, for any reason"

Taking advantage of the church's position, sat atop the highest point in the village, the community has been storing and providing food, keeping the town up to date with newspapers, and acting as an emergency local post office. It has become the community's sanctuary hub, a central point to keep the wheel of village life turning.

"There's also tea lights there," said Reverend Twitty, "In case anyone needs them, for prayer".

To help grease the emergency service's wheels, they have even been offering hot drinks to the firemen who ride the boats in and out of the stricken community.

"It's really not easy for people," Reverend Twitty told Christian Today. "It's been going on so long. It's taking hours to make short journeys. While it is great that we've got the boat service now, it really is an excursion to use it. It's not just a hop in the car."

In an attempt to keep spirits up, the church services have had people writing down the positive things to come out of the recent events, such as an increased sense of community closeness, and the support of the firemen.

The church has also been the centre of a tractor taxi service provided by members of the congregation. Other acts of generosity have included people with holiday homes offering emergency lodgings to take care of those displaced by the rising water, and the giving up of time to organise the payloads coming in on the boats.

"People have been just wanting to help," Reverend Twitty said. "Volunteers have been helping in any way they can."

On the first Sunday of the flooding, people were invited to make models of their houses, and put them on the altar while praying for the situation. But amidst this positivity, the central reality has not escaped them. "We are praying for an end to the rain," Reverend Twitty said "We would just ask that all the community pray for us. People are getting very tired and its not at all easy".

She told one story of how the children reacted to the help from the Church. "One afternoon, we had children at the back of the church playing with crayons and large sheets of paper, and without any prompting some of the older children wrote on one piece of paper 'To everyone who helped us during the floods: thank you' and they all signed it."

Rob Walrond, the rural life adviser to the diocese of Bath and Wells told Christian Today that many church congregations have not only been providing food "mostly fresh produce, eggs, milk, fruit and veg, all that sort of thing", but they have also been delivering it from the boats to the communities themselves.

"Sometimes, between where the boat stops, and the nearest shop, there's something like a mile's walk," said Mr Walrond "and many in the community are elderly, so the people in the congregations are heading out there to do the long walks themselves, to make sure things get received."

Alongside the essentials, they've also been transporting treats to keep people's spirits high "wine, cakes, things like that. Just things that they can't be getting at the moment." Mr Walrond explained.

In a letter to all the bishops in the House of Lords, the Bishop of Taunton, the Right Reverend Peter Maurice, said that upon visiting the church at Muchelney with Archdeacon Nicola Sullivan, he felt "very proud" of what the church there was doing.

"I think it is now necessary for your influence in the Lords to be brought to bear in questions to the government about what they propose to do" he said, and he himself has not been idle in this matter," he said.

To better the situation in the medium term, the bishop has leant his support to the Somerset Community Foundation's (SCF) emergency flood fund, which aims to provide £150,000 for those affected by the floods in the Somerset area, including local businesses.

The SCF chief executive, Justin Sargent, said to Christian Today that he is "absolutely delighted" that such a leading figure in the community has endorsed the appeal.

He points out that it is not just been local churches who have been getting involved. "Last week we had a church in Wiltshire offering to donate their collection, which is just excellent," he said.

The Archbishop said in his letter to bishops: "Action is needed now to help people and the recovery phase must be properly planned and funded by Government if this awful scene is not to be repeated."

A major Christian charity assisting with the recovery is the Farming Community Network (FCN). On the front line, they are providing psychological pastoral care.

Chief Executive Charles Smith told Christian Today that one of the biggest challenges for farmers in these areas is "dealing with the anxiety and stress... mental health problems and relationship difficulties", which have all been "heightened as a result of everything that's been happening".

In the longer term, however, the floods will still be impacting the area long after the TV and news crews have cleared out.

"Long term, the impact on [the farmer's businesses] will be quite severe as the land will be in very poor condition," said Smith.

"It will take a lot of effort and considerable investment to return [the lands] to productive condition ... the natural ecosystem of the soil, a lot of that will have been killed off."

One of the biggest concerns on top of having the farmland underwater is the EU income that was supposed to have come in around now, in the form of the single farm payment from the Common Agricultural Policy. The FCN has been working with affected farmers across the region, trying to ensure they get the money they so desperately need.

"With everything else that's happening, this increases their anxiety, so we're doing everything we can to secure those payments for them," said Mr Smith.

The FCN are also helping to co-ordinate between farmers and the emergency services, to make sure that all those who need help are getting it, as well as providing essential support and expertise to emergency services who are trying to deal with the movement of livestock.

That work sometimes means calming tempers and managing relationships between the emergency services and the farmers.

"There's lot of resentment towards the emergency services out there," said Mr Smith. "Many people feel like they've been left out on the road, and so we've got to be there to support them, and help them in that situation."

While the Church is working hard to ensure that the communities affected by the flood are looked after and their needs tended to, every indication is that the bad weather is not going away soon.

Will Lang, the Met Office's Chief Meteorologist, warned on Monday that more Atlantic depressions were making their way towards Britain.

"Heavy rain and gales sweeping in from the west later on Tuesday and for Wednesday brings the risk of further flooding in some areas and possible disruption to transport and power supplies," he said.

"Southern England is also at risk for further heavy rain on Thursday night. However, there is some uncertainty about whether this area of low pressure will reach our shores, it may stay to the south of us and we are monitoring how it will develop."