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Who will be villages’ ‘parson’?

Rural benefices


Concerns: the Bishop of Knaresbor­ough, the Rt Revd James Bell

Concerns: the Bishop of Knaresbor­ough, the Rt Revd James Bell

THE General Synod took note of a report from the Mission and Public Affairs Council, Mission and Growth in Rural Multi-Parish Benefices, after a debate on Thursday afternoon.

Introducing the debate, the Bishop of Knaresborough, the Rt Revd James Bell (Northern Suffragans), said that the rural church "should not just be another social organisation, but one that is able to proclaim the gospel afresh in this generation". There was, he said, "ample evidence that this is happening right across the countryside. There is also plenty of evidence that the rural church is able to grow, not least through its closeness to the community, the parish, it seeks to serve."

Rural was different from urban "not just because it has a smaller population and longer distances to travel", but also "because community and place still have a prominent role, particularly in the nature of the church", which provided "a potentially fertile ground for sharing the Christian message".

In some places, the church was the last remaining open public space, he said, "creating good opportunities for mission and service through extended use by community groups and adaption to provide other services such as a shop or post office"; although he was not advocating that all church buildings should be used in that way.

He gave an example of a priest with responsibility for six communities within four parishes in the diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales. The priest "asked her people what they wanted. They said 'a service in each parish church at the same time every Sunday'. She explained that, since there was only one of her, this could not be holy communion. They said that was fine. The result is that weekly attendance has risen. That's not rocket science."

He said that the recommendations within the report (GS 1985) "seek to address the issues that hinder the rural church in achieving its huge potential - realised in many places despite the barriers". The recommendations were "not directed at specific people or communities", because "the changes that are needed will have to be enacted by all of us, from here at General Synod and the national church institutions, to every church in every parish in every multi-church group."

The report was "not a simple quick fix", but offered a "patient process of change". The recommendations, he said, sought to "release further the potential of the rural church as a place of growth in the Church of England".

Debra Walker (Liverpool) worked in a benefice where one village had no bus service, which made it difficult for people without cars to attend church. For drivers, there was not enough parking. Throughout the benefice, there were no churches other than two Church of England ones, and one Roman Catholic one; so local ecumenical initiatives were limited.

Opportunities for mission required innovative thinking, perhaps through using church schools as worship centres. But there were questions about how well those who expected traditional church ministry might adapt. How easy would it be to harness the support of a settled congregation?

Another factor was that much of the farmland was owned by Commissioners, and several families' livelihoods depended on them.

Canon James Allison (West Yorkshire & the Dales) had been a vicar of growing churches for 18 out of his 25 years in rural churches in multi-church benefices. That had made his life not more difficult, but more complicated. He had managed to do two midnight communions at Christmas. But what he had battled with was "the perception that this story cannot possibly be true. The narrative for multi-church benefices in rural areas is obviously [that] they are in decline."

The story had become "so pervasive and pernicious" that people in rural areas were starting to believe it themselves. He had once been surrounded by children in a church being told by someone: "The big problem is we have no children here."

He called for a "new story", which this report began to tell. "Growth is possible. Rural communities can be transformed. People can be drawn to faith in Jesus." There was a need to "loosen things up a bit", but there were creative ways to work.

"Multi-parish benefices can grow, and do grow, but need some help to be confident to see that growth, and to dream that it might happen there, too. I am so excited that God by his Spirit is on the move in rural areas."

The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Trevor Willmott, said that the Church was forgetting what it was. "[The rural churches] are not called to be a 'viable business unit', but a community of people who gather not for themselves but for service," he said. There needed to be more partnership with other groups in each community.

Multi-parish benefices did not work if all that was done was to "put parishes together and say to a priest 'Run a bit faster'"; but they could work if the community was allowed to shape its own reorganisation. The concept of the "parson" (the person whom people saw as living out the gospel, and embodying authority and leadership, but not necessarily ordained) needed to be rediscovered.

The Archdeacon of Buckingham, the Ven. Karen Gorham (Oxford), said that the report was a realistic picture of the rural Church, and she referred to some large multi-parish benefices in her archdeaconry, where a single priest had to attend seven PCCs and co-ordinate 14 churchwardens.

"There is very little capacity to develop mission and ministry. Yet our rural clergy and lay leaders can be found chatting quite naturally about faith in the pub or shop." She urged the Synod to free these committed people to be who God wanted them to be.

The Ven. Christine Hardman (Southwark) told the Synod about her daughter's home church: four parishes had recently been merged in a single-parish benefice on Salisbury Plain. During a long two-and-a-half-year vacancy, the church had struggled, but it had now been turned around by its new incumbent, who said the new structure was vital. "It's absolutely wonderful, and I hope that when parishes come together they will not automatically use the default of a multi-parish benefice. In some instances, there will be a good alternative."

The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of the importance of relationship in rural ministry over the significance of structures. "It is emphatically something that cannot be clericalised. If it is to work at all, it must be because it is community reaching community." He said that the Church could not carry on trying to do more with a lot less. "It will be a disaster if we take the same approach we have already taken: the clergy will be worn out to little effect. There has to be a radical rethink."

This was, however, an opportunity for the Church, although it was urgent: if the issue was handled well, churches would grow and bless their communities. He also encouraged the Church to work hard on resolving the issues around buildings, which could be either a blessing or a great difficulty. "Central help in dealing with that is what can transform what can feel like a burden to something that can be a huge help to the community."

Anne Martin (Guildford) said that the report gave a clear assessment of the rural Church. She drew attention to one of the five points in the report: the facilitation of creative ecumenical partnerships; and she said that she was saddened by the lack of focus on ecumenism. The report was focused on resourcing the C of E in rural areas rather than the flourishing of all the Christian churches. "We can achieve so much more together, and that is essential in much more rural areas. . . I hope that when resourcing the future is considered, thought is given to how joint funding can work."

Dr Christopher Angus (Carlisle) said that the diocese of Carlisle was working on a strategy for growth. "What started as an Anglican strategy quickly became an ecumenical strategy." He said that the Methodists, United Reformed Church, and Anglicans were working together. "The pattern we are adopting is to adopt mission communities. They can take different forms, and each will be led by an ordained minister from one of the partner denominations," supported by a team of lay and ordained ministers.

The strategy "was not enthusiastically received" in the diocesan synod more than a year ago: "the people were not ready for the strategy, and the strategy was not ready for the people."

A year later, after additional consultation and preparation, "we are in a very different position," he said. "Some of the misunderstandings that had come up" had been resolved, and the synod "now enthusiastically supports the strategy".

Canon Dagmar Winter (Newcastle) said that there was "clear convergence" between this report and the reports of the various task groups. She welcomed a commitment from the Bishop of Willesden for the Simplification Group to meet representatives of the rural Church, to discover areas where the task group could assist.

The Statistics for Mission forms submitted by her parish produced "some quite strange results" for Christmas services. Some churches showed no attendance in some years, because they all came together for a major benefice-wide service. In rural areas, people "know where the church is", and valued the "caring, pastoral daily office".

Canon Tony Walker (Southwell & Nottingham), Team Rector of one of the largest multi-parish benefices in the country, with 27 parishes covering 20 square miles, recently appointed a new staff member: a Reader to serve five parishes. She would, in effect, act as the incumbent of those parishes.

"This raises a question about her continuing ministerial education," Canon Walker said. "She has not done any curacy training, let alone multi-parish ministry training." They were "having to devise a training package from scratch".

Her appointment meant that others would be called on to lead services of holy communion, and so "Angela's presence in our team will bring about greater collaboration than if a clergyperson had been appointed to that post."

Anne Foreman (Exeter) recalled previous reports that had lacked impact. She thought that this one would be different because of its links to the task groups. Although it painted a picture that she recognised, she was left thinking, "I want more." It did not touch on the "shades of difference" that existed, and she hoped that more work would be done on that variety.

She also hoped for an acknowledgement that deprivation was dispersed. There could be asset-rich people who were very cash-poor. Suicide rates among farmers were among the highest of any group.

The Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, spoke of the rural-life adviser in the diocese as an "extraordinary resource", who encouraged him to vote for the report. He sometimes went unannounced to farm gates to see how farmers were doing. The impact of floods had left a scar on farms in Somerset. The report was "excellent". He was confident that the Synod would give it overwhelming support, but wanted people to do more than "take note". There were nine recommendations to be implemented.

The Revd Ruth Hind (Ripon) was a rural incumbent who welcomed the report: it was having "a really positive effect on the morale of the rural Church". She sometimes found that the natural inclination to centralise and create uniformity through joint services was at odds with needs of local mission.

She hoped that people would take reluctance to travel seriously. It was also important not to suggest that the part played by the laity was to fill vicar-shaped gaps. Very large multi-parish benefices were unmanageable.

Having lay ministers should not be seen as a means of freeing clergy time, and was not a recipe for bigger benefices. At a national level, they had to say that lay ministry was not second best.

Jack Shelley (Exeter) spoke of doing plenty of lay training in the deanery. More than 40 people had completed Christianity Explored, and other training in pastoral care. He wanted to talk now about "eucharistic deprivation". He would like the rural-affairs group to look at how to allow more people to administer communion by extension. There was also an "oddity of a split" at the communion table at ecumenical churches.

Tim Allen (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) suggested that the rural Church had been "all too often under-looked and under-valued" by the Synod, even though fully 40 per cent of the Church of England's weekly attendance took place in rural communities. He sensed that there was a "rough reforming ride ahead" for the whole Church.

Unless attention was paid to multi-parish benefices, the danger was that they would weaken and die, the Church "abandoning the thinly populated countryside and consolidating in towns".

A consequence of the shortage of clergy and money had been the "unrestrained growth of ever larger benefices", resulting in too many cases in "over-stretched and over- stressed" priests who had been trained for the traditional ministry of one priest, one parish. They found themselves rushing between congregations on a Sunday morning "without the opportunity to connect deeply with any. If we carry on like this, continued decline even to the point of extinction is all too likely."

He set out three areas for change: first, the clergy needed to be trained in how to lead and inspire teams of lay people and retired clergy. Second, lay people required high-quality training, leadership, and support. Third, he supported the proposed work on simplification.

Mary Durlacher (Chelmsford) referred to the "great resistance" to change which could be encountered. The clergy must be trained to have confidence in the gospel so that they might not be "cowed by resistance", and recognise that "the gospel can be, is, an offence."

Her own church had been down to 12 people. Then a new incumbent preached the "bad news" that came before the "good news". Ten of the 12 left, but the church was now 150-strong. "The days of expecting people to come to church are over. We have to first go to the people outside the camp with the good news of Christ, and recognise that coming to church is quite far down the line for discipleship, as is giving."

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