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and the rural economy, key services had been withdrawn to the towns, and poor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
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
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
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
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
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
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
(b) urge Government nationally, regionally and locally to:
acknowledge the vital contribution that rural churches as key stakeholders make
to rural community development and community cohesion;
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
(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
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