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Lift burden off rural clergy, C of E study recommends

06 February 2015


Big issues: the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, selling copies of the Big Issue in the North, part of the magazine's Big Sell campaigning week for homeless people. The Bishop has just received a doctorate from Warwick University for his research thesis on the rural Church

Big issues: the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, selling copies of the Big Issue in the North, part of the magazine's Big Sell campaigning wee...

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 sustainable.

"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 other churches.

Clergy should also be encouraged, through training, to develop a "collegiate" style that would equip them to work with and grow lay ministry.

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 implemented quickly."

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 done."

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