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Released for Mission report: initial responses from the rural Church

by
13 February 2015

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From Harriet Ryan

Sir, - As the General Synod discusses reform and renewal of the Church this week, I suggest that all this discussion will not throw light on how we are to cope with our beautiful rural churches and grow the Church at the same time.

We held a very successful benefice morning with our six churches, carrying out a healthy-church audit - to help shape the way forward for the benefice. We ran it in one of our churches, which could accommodate 60 people working at six long tables.

We turned the heating on to constant the day before (estimating that we would have to spend £300 to get the church to a reasonable temperature - which it wasn't). A wise member of the ministry team brought bags of blankets to wrap up our elderly congregation members. They just about survived.

For the Sunday-morning services, the temperature had dropped to 9° again. We wouldn't put babies or elderly people outside in this temperature; so why do we think they should have to endure church for an hour on a Sunday? I am fed up with freezing each Sunday in churches (six to choose from).

We are not a backward-looking benefice, as the church we were using has an award-winning south aisle converted into a meeting-room, kitchen, and facilities for the disabled. Our churches have worked hard to provide lavatories despite the cost. Our benefice cannot afford to rebuild the churches to make them energy-efficient - nor, I expect, would we be allowed to. We do not have the luxury of church offices or halls.

So we cannot be surprised that the young families don't want to leave their centrally heated houses and come to church regularly. We can provide activities, events, and facilities to welcome them, but we can't keep them warm.

What do rural churches have to do to survive beyond being beautiful buildings? We had so much enthusiasm at the benefice morning, and yet we will always be defeated by our beautiful, cold buildings. You have to be very hardy to attend church here in rural Dorset.

Harriet Ryan
Benefice secretary, Winterborne
Valley and Milton Abbas
The Rectory, North Street
Winterborne Stickland
Blandford Forum DT11 0NL

From the Revd Chris Mitchell

Sir, - At least the report Released for Mission: Growing the rural Church (News, 6 February) seems to recognise something of the reality of life in rural parishes. Many parish structures seem to have been invented with large town parishes in mind, and impose an impossible burden on small country parishes.

For example, tiny village parishes are expected to produce two churchwardens, a PCC secretary, a treasurer able to meet increasingly exacting standards, and a representative for the deanery synod.

In a parish with a population of fewer than 100, and a congregation of a dozen (on a good day), this is a totally unrealistic expectation. The clergy often spend a great deal of time in a frustrating attempt to fill vacancies. Often the result is that one person takes on most of the positions, or these are filled by people with relevant skills but little commitment to the Christian faith or to worship. Occasionally, an instance of the latter can result in those individuals' growing in faith, but more often it simply weakens Christian witness and mission in that parish.

CHRIS MITCHELL
42 Melton Avenue
York YO30 5QG

From the Revd Geoffrey Squire

Sir, - Once again we see a report on rural ministry including the increasing number of parishes and churches, sometimes 11 or more, under the care of one parish priest; but rarely is reference made to the serious result thatthe faithful in those parishes are deprived of a weekly eucharist.

Part of that problem is the refusal in many places to acknowledge the presence of very able, willing, and experienced non-stipendiary priests who may go for many Sundays without celebrating the eucharist, or are one of several concelebrants in one church.

These priests may havevery little scope for ministry where they are, because they are "not counted". If more of these clergy were appointed as incumbents of some of these parishes, it would dramatically improve the situation, and might encourage many more to offer themselves for this form of ministry.

To take the matter further, there are many clergy, stipendiary and non-stipendiary, who have retired or reached the compulsory retirement age of 70, and who would be delighted to continue exercising the light duty of being priest-in-chargeof a small rural parish, but church law prevents it; so the faithful are deprived of the eucharist, and the priest concerned may not be able to celebrate the eucharist. It is nonsense.

What is required is a complete rethink of the position of experienced non-stipendiary clergy and active and willing retired clergy, together with whatever changes in church law are required to enable much greater flexibility.

GEOFFREY SQUIRE
Little Cross, Goodleigh
Barnstaple, Devon EX32 7NR

From Mr Nigel Holmes

Sir, - The General Synod report Released for Mission: Growing the rural Church ignores the key to keeping the rumour of God alive in the countryside, the parish magazine.

Ours, which is paid for, reaches at least a dozen times the number of people who attend worship in a given month. From a clear Christian perspective, it carries information about the wider community as well as about the church, and helps to weld a multi-parish benefice together.

Too many rural magazines, though, are rather thin. Could diocesan communications officers offer magazine editors an electronic feed of interesting material month by month to enrich the editorial content?

Nor does the report mention social media and other forms of electronic linking ideally suited to the rural setting. If it is to turn the tide of decline, the Church must redeploy resources, including paid posts, to connect more effectively with younger people.

Cherished clerical autonomy and unrivalled job security might frustrate this, but, in an age suspicious of supposed certainties, we must be prepared to think radically, and deploy our considerable resources to spread the gospel by all available means.

NIGEL HOLMES
Woodside
Great Corby
Carlisle CA4 8LL

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