A new BBC series will focus on issues besetting rural Britain: isolation, homelessness, poverty, and cuts to public services. It will highlight how the church serves as a major welfare provider, as it did in medieval England.

A Vicar’s Life (BBC2) depicts country life through the eyes of four Church of England priests in Herefordshire, one of England’s most rural counties. On the surface, the area seems idyllic. Its backdrop is the Black Mountains and the Welsh borders. Many villages carry on in traditional ways, with church fêtes selling homemade cakes.

Masked from view are much tougher realities. The four vicars featured in the series shot for six months are depicted helping people trying to cope with losing their jobs, homelessness, and loneliness. Many live in fear that arriving immigrants imperil their jobs and way of life.

Many Herefordshire vicars are in charge of multiple parish churches. The Rev. Nicholas Lowton, an area dean in the picturesque countryside who is responsible for 24 parishes, says the days when most people were closely involved in church life are long gone.

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“The majority of people in this country don’t go to church. We have to change our approach,” he said, explaining that his area will soon have a priest focusing on the “missing generation (people between the ages of 21 and 50 who have never been churchgoers).

His comments are borne out by national statistics. The latest British Social Attitudes Survey showed that the number of people calling themselves Anglican has been cut in half in less than two decades. In 2000, 30 percent of people said they were members of the C of E, but the most recent survey showed a slump to 15 percent.

The paradox is that while people seem to turn their back on Anglican worship, many depend on the church as a place of last resort in the absence of public services or when welfare benefits are cut. Government statistics suggest one-sixth of people in rural areas live in poverty.

The bishop of Hereford, the Rt. Rev. Richard Frith, said: “In these times of austerity cuts and a reduction in the voluntary sector, the church is often the only organization left helping those in need, particularly in our very rural parts.”

A Vicar’s Life premieres at 8.30 p.m. Jan. 12.

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