Historically, Kemsing and Woodlands have been two separate parishes. This is a structural point. England is divided up into "parishes", such that every square inch of England is the particular responsibility of an individual parish church. So we had two parishes: The parish of Kemsing, and the parish of Woodlands.
Those two parishes have, for several decades, been twinned into what's called a "benefice". A benefice is a larger structure than a parish - it's the area looked after by a single vicar. Historically, many benefices contain a single parish, so that they are really the same thing. In many places, that is still the case, but here as elsewhere there were two parishes in the benefice. The benefice was named "Kemsing with Woodlands" (for reasons of history, that it would only complicate things unnecessarily to explain).
There are times in the life of a parish when things have to be organised by the wider benefice. The obvious one is when the vicar moves on, and the parish has to find itself the next vicar. Because all the parishes in the benefice will share that vicar, they have to work together to work out what they want and then recruit to fill the vacancy. There are other times, too, when parishes within a benefice work together. Here in Kemsing and Woodlands, we've been doing so increasingly. We worship all together 5-6 times a year, we share Lent Courses and our Pesach meal, we help staff each other's activities, and more besides. There has been a growing sense that we are not just two parishes with a vicar in common; we are two parishes in partnership, working together to serve our God and to share the good news.
For a few years, the two churches have been discussing whether we might formalise this partnership. Specifically, might we merge and become a single parish. We've felt our way forwards, until we reached the point in January of this year where the two PCCs voted unanimously to proceed. Specifically, we voted to ask the Bishop of Rochester to draw up what's called a "pastoral scheme". This would petition the Church Commissioners to merge the parishes formally. There then followed a few months in which there was a wider consultation of various interested parties, and then a public consultation period. Finally, in the middle of November, the deed to merge the parishes was signed and (quite literally - see the picture) sealed.
This takes effect from today, 1st December. From today, the parish of Kemsing and the parish of Woodlands no longer exist. In their place is a new, single parish, the parish of "Kemsing and Woodlands". The benefice has also been renamed; we are no longer the benefice of "Kemsing with Woodlands", but the benefice of "Kemsing and Woodlands", to match the name of the new parish. We are now a single parish benefice; the "and" signifies that this is a partnership of two equals (even if we differ in size).
At one level, nothing changes because of this. Neither church building has closed, or even been demoted to a "chapel of ease". Each of our two church buildings remains open, as a parish church in its own right. We don't plan any immediate change to the times and pattern of services taking place in the two buildings each week.
On another level, there are structural changes that are now possible. Going forwards, we will have one PCC, one set of accounts, one treasurer, one secretary, one annual meeting, and so we go on. This means less time spent running the business of being a parish, and more time serving the people who live around us.
There's another very important level at which things will start to change. For the people of Kemsing, the church at Woodlands is no longer "another church with which we are in partnership" but "the other site at which we gather". The same is true for the people of Woodlands, looking down the hill to Kemsing parish church. We are not "us" and "them" any more, but "us" and "us". As the reality of that sinks in, it's our prayer that this new way of talking will become a new way of relating, an even deeper, more God-honouring partnership than has been possible so far.