AN URGENT review of parish structure - including the number of
churchwardens and other office-holders - is needed to release the
time and energy of clergy and lay people for mission in rural
areas, a report has recommended.
The report, Released for Mission: Growing the rural
Church, will be debated at General Synod next week.
Two-thirds of C of E churches are in rural areas, but fewer than
half the clergy serve in them. The vast majority of rural churches
are in multi-parish benefices or groupings. They are attracting
women clergy, but more than three-quarters of "higher-status" rural
posts are still held by men.
Recent research has suggested that single parishes are more
likely to experience growth than multi-parish benefices, the report
says. Less than one in five churches in rural areas is experiencing
growth - a figure matched by urban churches.
Clergy working in multi-church groups - some of whom have as
many as 11 or more churches to look after - report feelings of
exhaustion, as they rush to con- duct as many services in as many
churches as possible each Sunday. In extreme cases, clergy take
five or six services on a Sunday, leaving little time to get to
know their congregations or to reach out to the wider community,
the report says.
Sunday services and occasional offices, administrative tasks,
attending PCCs, and getting faculties for changes to churches take
up much of the clergy's time. Although none wanted to admit it
openly, the report notes that, "for many there was limited, if any,
time left for outreach, mission, or evangelism."
Regular Sunday worship in many multi-church groups is maintained
only through the generosity of retired clergy and committed lay
people. Many of these are already overstretched by the demands of
sitting on the PCC and attending other meetings.
In some parishes, if all the possible places on the PCC were
filled, they would outnumber the regular congregation.
But, the report says, despite the strain and pressures, it is
clear that congregations and communities are determined to keep
their church open, though this is frequently not acted upon.
"The presence of a sacred space was seen to be important. . .
But this desire did not necessarily translate into any actions that
would keep the buildings open. This included a reluctance to make
any changes, develop new initiatives, encourage more people to join
the congregation, or make the building more useful or financially
"There was a frequent lament that some congregations were stuck
in a rut and were not open to new ideas or approaches, but were
desperate for people to come to church to ensure the building
remained open and the familiar worship continued."
The recommendations in the report include getting parishes to
appoint an administrator to save clergy time; a review by the
Archbishops' Council of legal governance structures and the
requirements for parish officers; better training for clergy and
lay people in multi-parish groups to support mission, work with
children, and worship; and developing better partnerships with
Clergy should also be encouraged, through training, to develop a
"collegiate" style that would equip them to work with and grow lay
The report also calls for an urgent strategy to help with the
management of church buildings.
Dr Jill Hopkinson, the C of E's national rural officer, led the
research, which involved interviews with 47 clergy and lay people
from 35 rural church groupings in six dioceses.
She said: "The report shows that mission and growth are more
likely to flourish in rural multi-church groups where time and
space is enabled for it to take place, and where the ministry of
lay people is enabled and equipped.
"This research is a starting-point. It is not a simple solution
to all the problems of rural ministry. Further work urgently needs
to be done to continue to identify and share existing good practice
in all areas of the life of rural churches and to ensure that the
recommendations made in Released for Mission are
The Bishop of Knaresborough, the Rt Revd James Bell, heads the
rural-affairs group on the General Synod. He said that there was
much to celebrate in rural ministry, and that multi-church groups
could be "vanguards in rethinking mission and ministry for the
rural communities of England today", but that the challenges "must
not be underestimated".
"The traditional model of ministry cannot simply be stretched
ad infinitum, but must be rethought in a way that is
authentic to the place and people to whom the church is reaching
out. Growth is being realised, but much more remains to be