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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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."