Why the nation needs to support country churches

02 November 2006

THE PLACE of the village church in country life was debated by the General Synod on Tuesday afternoon, when it considered the report, Seeds in Holy Ground.

The Synod carried a four-part motion addressed to both Church and state, calling on the Government to take the "vital contribution" of the rural churches seriously in decision-making processes.

This was the first debate on rural affairs since the publication of Faith in the Countryside in 1990, said the Bishop of Exeter , the Rt Revd Michael Langrish. There had been shifts in agriculture and the rural economy, key services had been withdrawn to the towns, and poor transport meant the restriction of choice, especially for the poor, women, the old, and the young. Rurality was a diverse concept, he said.

In many parishes, the Church was effectively lay-led, and ordained ministry was provided from outside. That could lead to developments in church life, but there were feelings of fragility. There were also challenges about using church buildings in creative ways.

The first purpose of Synod's debate was to affirm the Church's commitment to work with ecumenical partners to sustain a presence in every community. Despite government rhetoric about the Church's contribution to rural life, when it came to applying for community funding or joining partnerships for regeneration, churches were often discriminated against through prejudice and ignorance.

Appropriate resourcing was needed. Hence the second reason for the debate was to invite Synod members to urge the Government to recognise the Church's contribution to rural communities, and to support it.

The report before the Synod was intended to help rural churches do what was best for their communities. It offered information, and stories of good practice. He hoped the Synod would consider the adequacy of its support for the rural Church.

Terrence Musson (Truro), who said he was selling his farm because of the crisis in the farming industry, wanted to thank the House of Bishops, on his behalf and that of the farming community, for their support. He had often told other farmers: "The Church is behind us." He spoke of the difficulty of connecting with working farmers. Despite getting up at 5 a.m., they still did not have enough time in the day.

The Revd David Felix (Chester) said that voluntary organisations and faith bodies had a place, as of right, on government agencies concerned with the countryside. Churches needed to be involved and "ready to sustain bruises".

The Bishop of Ely, Dr Anthony Russell, noted the changes in how the Church was perceived, from being seen as part of the problem to collaborating with a huge number of organisations, and welcomed as a partner. The Church had earned gratitude for its work during the foot-and-mouth crisis.

But farming had been exported. Part of the human consequence of this were agricultural colleges without farming courses, and farmers using helplines - anecdotally, there had been 36 farmer suicides in one region. "We have to intervene in what goes on," said the Bishop. He also noted the indifference and hostility of the Government, the power of supermarkets, and the EU regulations - which included a 29,000-word directive on duck eggs.

Robin Back (Norwich), in a maiden speech, said that despite the withdrawal of services, small communities did survive. In his village, the church had recently been used for a public policy-planning meeting. The solution to some problems lay in the communities' own hands. He commended Seeds in Holy Ground as a framework for action.

Sr Susan Bloomfield (Deaf Anglicans Together), also in a maiden speech, said that her father had been a dairy herdsman. Her involvement with the local church had been helped by the provision of a radio mike for her by a charity - it had enabled her to take a full part. It was vital to provide resources to ensure that marginalised people were included.

Anne Sloman (Archbishops' Council), said she got "slightly fed up" with people who spoke of the church as a burden instead of a privilege: it enabled the congregation to witness as a caring community. A village church acted as a focus for information, prayer, and support for the sick, bereaved, or those in trouble. To maintain worship in her nine-parish benefice, many services had to be lay-led. Training and intercession material made a difference. The C of E's website was being developed to help here. Also helpful was something to read in place of the sermon - for example, Jane Williams's lectionary commentaries. The retired clergy were valuable, too, and the Church should think more creatively about them.

Gillian Ambrose (Ely) said she would have liked to see more awareness of the church primary school as central to the life of a village. She called on the Board of Education to work more closely with the rural-affairs committee to ensure the role of such schools was recognised.

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, spoke of how he had seen some of the most remarkable missionary churches among the smallest churches and parishes.  
He recalled one church, with a population of 201, where the churchwarden would visit everyone who was to be prayed for by name on the coming Sunday to tell them.

But the people who carried on this ministry did not feel that the Church belonged simply to them, which was why it was a puzzle to them to be denied funding by agencies that looked on them as centres of the narrowest evangelism. That government attitude often meant that both church and parish hall had to be separately maintained rather than the church buildings developed for community use. He also said that the rural poor were the most invisible community in England.

Diana Taylor (Bath & Wells) spoke of the importance of the Arthur Rank Centre. It would be "unthinkable" for the Church of England to withdraw from supporting it, when it was needed more than ever.

Dudley Coates (Methodist Church) appreciated the ecumenical references in the report. Deprivation was hidden, and choice was much less in rural areas: there was a real issue in the Government's choice agenda around schools, hospitals, pubs, and churches, he said. He urged effective use of partnership working.

The Revd Chris Lilley (Lincoln) highlighted the way his diocese had reduced its dependence on stipendiary clergy, so that children's and youth workers, for example, were not just found in towns and cities.

Debra Body (Exeter) said that lack of affordable housing was a real problem. Contributing to it was the huge number of second homes.

The Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Price, stressed that climate change was a more important world issue than terrorism. As the climate changed, rural communities and food production became essential to the well-being of the nation.

The Government had been encouraging diversification as the way forward for farmers, but he thought the limit of diversification had been reached. Chain stores, supermarkets, and conglomerates had grown fat on the backs of rural communities. The countryside looked idyllic, but women in rural areas had the highest rates of depression, and farmers had high suicide rates.

Timothy Allen (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) drew attention to the inadequate funding of the post of National Rural Officer. Thousands of small rural parishes looked after their buildings without financial support. Within the C of E, the efforts of benefices should be recognised in the calculation of parish share.

The Revd Moira Astin (Oxford) sought recognition of the stresses when a benefice got made bigger and took on a "couple of extra parishes, just like that".

Roy Thompson (York) reported the success of a North Yorkshire tourist ministry, which had seen a 117-per-cent increase in recorded visitors to churches.

Margaret Condick (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) spoke of the benefits of living in caring communities with "superb pastoral care", but also of the ever-greater reliance on lay members experienced by small congregations.

The Bishop of Lincoln, Dr John Saxbee, declared the biggest single challenge to be changing a mindset that gave rural churches the reputation for "going to the nation with a whinge and a begging bowl". They were not so good at declaring up-front what they brought to the table, and asking: "Give us because you need us."

The motion was carried by 235 nem. con. It read:
THAT this Synod, being aware of the importance of strong rural communities to the life of the nation:

(a) affirm the Church of England's commitment to work with ecumenical partners to sustain and support an effective Christian presence in each rural community;
(b) urge Government nationally, regionally and locally to:
(i) acknowledge the vital contribution that rural churches as key stakeholders make to rural community development and community cohesion;
(ii) proactively involve rural churches and other faith groups in the decision-making processes that affect rural communities;
(iii) recognise that excluding churches and other faith groups from equitable funding is detrimental to rural community development;
(c) commend Seeds in Holy Ground to rural churches in each locality, call on dioceses to ensure adequate resourcing for their rural strategies, and ask the Mission and Public Affairs Council to report to Synod on the progress of these strategies within the present quinquennium; and
(d) request the Archbishops' Council to review the adequacy of its national support of the presence and witness of the rural church.

What parishes need: the Revd Moira Astin speaks about small communities

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