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It's all about who owns the church

by
29 April 2016

Nowadays, it must be the congregation, says Anthony Russell

 

Resourcing Rural Ministry: Practical insights for small mission

Simon Martin

Jill Hopkinson, editor

BRF £8.99

(978-0-85746-262-6)

Church Times Bookshop £8.10

 

MULTI-AUTHOR books have their difficulties, but this is a book that will be widely appreciated and much read in rural parishes. The book was conceived and largely written by Simon Martin of the Arthur Rank Centre (the Church’s presence at the centre of the farming and countryside world). Unfortunately, Simon became seriously ill before the completion of this book, and it was prepared for publication by Jill Hopkinson and other authors.

In the wake of Faith in the City (1985), the attention of the churches turned to rural matters, not least because of the animal-health problems of the 1980s. Faith in the Countryside (1990) seemed for a time to be the high watermark of the Church’s concern with the countryside and its rural parishes. But in recent years there has been a steady flow of books on rural matters, among which this book now takes its place.

Books on the rural Church tend to fall into two categories: first, those that are essentially local histories, but which generalise about the state of affairs in the countryside; second, those about how to minister in rural areas which are full of accounts of how to confront the steady decline in rural church life.

This book contains little historical analysis of the development of rural parishes, but is full of accounts of pioneering work and how this has been achieved. Those in need of help as they seek to deal with the complexities of church life in rural communities should turn to this book, which is full of examples of “what to do” and “how to do it”, many of them drawn from the Arthur Rank Centre’s publication Country Parish.

There are chapters on discipleship and nurture; mission in the rural context; rural fresh expressions; worship in small churches; and the use and adaptation of historic church buildings.

For generations, the central issue in rural parishes has been who “owns” the church, “not in the sense of legal tenure but in the sense of who makes the rules, determines the programme and the general direction and feel of that church”. There have been historic struggles between patrons, clergy, and churchwardens. But today many parishes have witnessed ownership struggles between the old resident community and recent arrivals who bring a different understanding of the nature of the church.

Such differences have to be reconciled, because, according to Martin, a successful rural church must be run by its congregation. While it used to be considered that the role of the laity was to help the clergy do what was essentially their job, Martin and his co-authors make it clear that the rural church will only thrive if it is run by the laity, and the role of the very few rural clergy is to encourage and equip the laity to do this job.

In one church, a member of the congregation wrote on the wall “This is my church.” This book makes clear that unless the laity, in every sense, own and take responsibility for the local church, it will die. Many will recognise the truth of this statement in the contemporary countryside.

 

The Rt Revd Dr Anthony Russell is a former Bishop of Ely and President of the Royal Agricultural Society of England.

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