The numbers attending a particular church nowadays can depend very heavily on the popularity and charisma of the vicar, minister or pastor. If a church leader is disliked, or too verbose at sermon time, or too outspoken within a community, the congregation can voice their disapproval with their feet, and patronise the kneelers down the road if they wish.
But this was not always so. When church-going was virtually compulsory, parishioners had little choice about their encumbent and vicars could be as tyrannical, eccentric and prejudiced as they pleased, as indeed they sometimes were. One such vicar in a remote hamlet lived in permanent religious dis-unity with the neighbouring Chapel goers:
"The Vicar was a bit of an eccentric, his wife was delightful, and they had a great big vicarage, they used to run it for the two of them, nearly froze in it I should think. He was very much the School manager and liked to supervise. He came down and took scripture lessons, and one thing and another, and he'd only three regular people at church. One was the organist, one was his wife and the other was me! And even the man that rang the solitary bell just came in to ring the bell, and then walked out again. They all went to Chapel, they were very Chapel people...they used to pray for me that I'd be saved from damnation because I was a Protestant and went to the other church.
"But they came into our church for funerals and weddings, only the Vicar was so...what shall I call it...bigoted - that he wouldn't allow them to set foot on the bottom step into the chancel, even to turn the coffin round. He used to stand there and make sure nobody put their foot in... I mean, the whole church is sanctified, surely, not just his end. I horrified him once by saying that I'd like to argue some of the things that he'd said in his sermon. He said, 'How dare you question anything that I've said.' His wife spoke up, and she said, 'Well, I would like to, often!'"
Generally, the role of the Vicar in a parish where the Church of England dominated was far wider than simply involvement in church affairs:
"The Vicar was expected to be interested and to take part really in everything that went on, whether it was the Womens Institute, the local gala, football, or anything like that, and the majority of our vicars as I have personally known them, and I've had a great deal of contact with the church because I was a vicar's warden for 23 years. All have taken more than what one would term a passing interest in affairs of the valley. They've all wanted to be part and parcel of the valley as a whole and the parish."
In days gone by, the Vicar could chose his personal church warden:
"In the days when I was first appointed, it was the vicar's prerogative to appoint a warden, and the warden was known as the vicar's warden. Now the peoples' warden was elected at the annual meeting by the whole of the meeting, so you had in effect two wardens, the vicar's and the people's."
Being the vicar's warden was far more than just a title:
"It was a job which entailed quite a lot of work, and responsibility because in effect the wardens are responsible for the wellbeing of the fabric, the grounds, the church yard, the burial ground and anything like that and they are responsible for the virtual day to day running of the affairs of the church."
Being a Roman Catholic priest in a small community differed greatly from the expected role of the vicar within an area. Catholics were perhaps more isolated than any other non-Establishment religions, and mixed very little in a village, or even amongst themselves some seventy five years ago:
"There was no society or nothing like that, you didn't get together very much at all, it was more or less left to the weekend when you came of a Sunday to services and that."
But the arrival of a party of Catholic Belgian evacuees during the First World War encouraged more social mixing, and there were Christmas parties - although Catholics from neighbouring villages still met together very seldom. Grasmere Catholics came to Mass at Ambleside, to the little old Tin church, which was built by parishioners of corrugated iron, lined inside with wood, and ornately decorated. Although they attended the same church, there was little contact between Grasmere Catholics and Ambleside:
"We didn't get in touch with Grasmere hardly at all, although Grasmere had to come to Ambleside to church, and Windermere had its own. We used to meet sometimes for certain functions but not very often."
Being a Catholic child in a town like Ambleside, where the Anglicans and Methodists dominated local life, meant almost leading a double life. Only one Anglican school served the community, so Catholic children received their own religious instruction daily before joining other children at the Infants and Junior School. First Holy Communion at seven years old for the boys was quickly followed by training to be an altar boy, and mastery of Latin:
"In those days it was all Latin, there was no English whatsoever and it had to be perfect. When I started first my father was Master of Ceremonies and then there were about six or seven of us under him. Eventually we got to be about nine, and then as years went on, they dwindled away, as altar boys do."
Every child went every day for Instruction, which consisted largely of learning the questions and answers of The Catechism off by heart. Learning to serve on the altar at the old Tin Church required nothing short of perfection:
"The priest used to take us through many a time to get us into perfection - as I grew up, I trained other younger boys and some of my altar boys are parish priests now."
Mass in the old days, with its use of Latin, sometimes incense and much ceremonial,was quite a challenge for young altar boys:
"Well, really speaking, if I had to go back and say my own, I would prefer the old fashioned way. We'd been brought up with it and knowing it all off by heart was no trouble to me, I could go back and do every movement there was in those days now."