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Fresh look at country matters

23 March 2010

There are good ideas here, but they don’t go far enough, declares Anthony Russell


Country churchyard: the mid-14th-century church St Peter’s, Walton, in Yorkshire has a narrow tower with a Norman arch, a Perpendicular top, and a contemporary bell-frame. It is one of the illustrations in Yorkshire West Riding: Leeds, Bradford and the north, by Peter Leach and Nikolaus Pevsner, in the Buildings of England series (Yale University Press, £29.99 (£27); 978-0-300-12665-5). It is the first of two volumes covering the area

THIS BOOK is a collection of essays on rural ministry, edited by two bishops and the National Rural Officer of the Church of England, Dr Jill Hopkinson, who is based at the Arthur Rank Centre. It owes its origins to the work of the Rural Bishops’ Panel; and its 11 contribu­tors are all acknowledged prac­titioners of rural ministry, and analysts of its problems and oppor­tunities.

Its appearance is, in itself, a matter of significance. While the number of books about ministry in the countryside has increased in recent years, it remains relatively small. The bibliographies that follow each chapter are, therefore, of particular value — though it is surprising that the work of the Archbishops’ Commission on Rural Areas (published as Faith in the Countryside in 1990) receives scant attention.

The book seeks to provide an easily comprehensible account of rural ministry today, for both lay and ordained. There are chapters on those preparing for ministry, and those with the responsibility of pre- and post-ordination training. The topics covered include the distinctive values of rural churches; minis­try and mission in the rural context; the development of lay ministry and leadership in rural areas; vocational pathways for rural ministry; and appropriate forms of continuing ministerial education.

In all this, the background and the analysis convey an accurate understanding of the present state of the Church in the countryside. However, the principal economic activity of rural areas — farming, which is responsible for 75 per cent of rural land — is hardly acknow-ledged, at a time when there is discussion in many quarters about how the rising world population is to be fed, and the need for the UK to produce more food without con­sequential environmental damage. The economically precarious situa­tion of some sectors of the industry (particularly dairying) is also widely recognised.

Any book about “reshaping” implies that rural ministry should assume a new form. Though this central question is addressed, there is much more that could be said about the way in which the Church in the countryside should be re­shaped in the future.

It is widely acknowledged that a structure based on the ability of a stipendiary priest (with assistants, both lay and non-stipendiary) to serve as many parishes and churches as possible (as the appointments columns of this paper bear witness) cannot be increased for ever. Fur­ther thought and bolder experi­mentation are needed, and it is hoped that this book will pave the way for such initiatives in many dio­ceses.

Rural ministry, so long the re­pository of “classical English Anglicanism”, is now, Martyn Percy argues in one of the essays, at the cutting edge of the Church. Cer­tainly, it has been the place where many important experimentshave started, and this needs to con­tinue.

The Archbishop of York says in his preface that “the modern countryside is not the rural idyll many may imagine.” This book confronts the issues faced by the rural community and its churches. It is intended to stimulate, refresh, and strengthen those who are already working in rural areas, and encour­age others to consider rural minis­try. It is both timely and important, and deserves to be widely read.

Dr Russell retired as Bishop of Ely last month.

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