For hundreds of years, the New Forest has had its own Romany community. In 1926, seven compounds were created to prevent members of the community roaming the Forest as they had always done. One of these compounds was in what it now my parish. Members of the community lived in Benders – simple dome tents made of branches and sheets. After WW2, the compounds were emptied and their residents made to live in houses. Today, around 200 people belong to this community with a great diaspora of those who have been priced out of the parish but retain strong links to the village and churchyard.
It’s been a steep learning curve for me as I’ve sought to serve this community and share Christ with them, not least because community members relate to their inheritance in different ways. For example, some were racially abused at school with the word ‘gypsy’, whilst others (usually younger people) proudly embrace it. Others prefer the term ‘Romany’. Most don’t seem to like the term ‘traveller’.
In his 1909 book Gypsies of the New Forest, the missionary Henry Gibbins wrote, ‘you might as well try to bend an old Forest oak as to convert them’. There is a strong local perception that this is still true, even though we’ve seen eleven members of the community join our church in recent years.
There’s a great reverence for the dead in our local community and the whole extended family comes together to visit the body in an open casket at home before the funeral. I’ll never forget my first funeral for a large Romany family. They requested the hymn ‘The Old Rugged Cross’, explaining that it was traditional in the community. I didn’t really know it, but they must do, I thought. For reasons of cost, the family decided not to use our organist. When everyone stood after I announced the hymn, it became instantly clear that another tradition was not to actually sing at a funeral. So there I was, singing a hymn I barely knew as a solo to some 150 people crammed into our tiny church. But what a gift that hymn has been for explaining the Gospel, with it’s great promise that if we cling to the old rugged cross, we’ll exchange it someday for a crown. Country music with strong Christian themes is also popular at funerals and I’ve often been able to use the words of a song in my talk.
In contrast to the reverence of the funeral, baptisms are often a fiasco, with people quietly talking throughout – and worst of all for a preacher, people not laughing at my tried and tested jokes. I’ve really struggled to make baptisms engaging and would love some wisdom here. I want to know the extent to which my experience is specific only to our local community of New Forest Gypsies as part of a bigger question as to whether generalisations can be made. If they can be made, would the Network consider putting together a resource to help clergy understand Roma communities and culture and which suggests possibly fruitful areas to explore as a means of sharing the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ?