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Rural churches are open and here to stay

13 April 2018

Mission matters in the countryside — and the Church’s efforts can have a greater impact there than in the city, argues John Thomson

THE Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, has done a wonderful job in raising the profile of inner urban and outer estates across the country, and asking whether they matter to society and to the Church, particularly to the Church of England (News, 11 August 2017).

The same is needed for the rural Church, given its geographic footprint, its disproportionate impact relative to congregational sizes, its rootedness in a changing rural scene, and the need to re-imagine its future mission, ministry support, and financial viability.

The report Released for Mission: Growing the rural Church, published in 2015, was a step-changer (News, 6 February 2015). I am delighted that my former colleague, the Bishop of Hereford, Rt Revd Richard Frith, is working with the C of E’s National Rural Officer, Dr Jill Hopkinson, and other members of the General Synod’s Rural Affairs Group, with others across the country, to ensure that rural mission is kept on the radar.

The article on the rural Church published in last month’s Church Times (Features, 29 March) told many good-news stories. These need to be stitched into a narrative of hope for the rural Church, and my plea is for the General Synod to have a serious debate on rural mission at least once in its five-year life, with an update or review each year.

We also need to recover a theology of fragility which recognises that God’s way in scripture and tradition emerges through fragility, whether in the earliest foundational stories of Israel, the Exodus and Wilderness traditions, the prophetic and monarchical narratives, or the Babylonian Exile and its consequences, as well as the mission of Jesus and the Early Church. Fragility and faith rather than strength and predictability are core to our faith.


DURING the past three years, as the Archbishop of York’s Ambassador for Rural Life and Faith in the diocese of York, I have been listening to people who live in, work in, and support the rural areas, including the churches. Their message is simple: “We’re here, we’re still open, we’re here for the long term!”

Yet rural life also feels increasingly fragile as Brexit raises questions about trade, labour, and subsidy impacts for the agricultural sector; as relative population size, age, and density puts increasing pressure on services; as house prices drive out the young and poor; as ignorance of rural matters among urban people seems to be growing; and as broadband access continues to limit business penetration.

Having said this, it can be surprising news to many that the agri-food business contributes £112 billion to the UK economy, and 3.5 million jobs, even though only 1.5 per cent of the population work directly in agriculture, of whom 25 per cent live in poverty. Yet, representing only 17.5 per cent of the population, rural residents can seem relatively powerless compared with their urban cousins. Furthermore, since 70 per cent of rural residents are incomers of varying sorts, rural life itself is a contested area of conflicting ideas about why and what are rural matters.

Since 78 per cent of the parishes in the diocese of York are rural, we believe that rural mission matters and has disproportionate impact. We have 221 parishes with populations of fewer than 1000. The average attendance rate in these parishes is 5.2 per cent. In our urban parishes of 10,000 or more, the average attendance rate is 1.2 per cent.

Recent church initiatives in Yorkshire, furthermore, demonstrate fresh energy for rural mission. These include the youth-outreach project Bus Stop (busstop.org.uk), led by Emily Finch; an energetic Rural Bishop’s Mission Order; and the reintroduction of chaplaincy in the Yorkshire Auction Marts by Yorkshire Churches Rural Business Support to assist the agricultural community.

From 2015 to 2016, the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, undertook a pilgrimage around his diocese (News, 27 May 2016). He returned convinced that every church could and should be open each Sunday as a place of prayer, led by lay as well as ordained ministers. He is now exploring how this can happen. Rural festivals are also emerging as a key mission focus for rural churches, enabling them to work with their communities to explore faith through Harvest, Plough Sunday, Rogation, etc., and thereby ensure that every rural church is truly a festival church.


IN THE rural areas of the Archdeaconry of York we have also begun to explore mission partnerships across and within deaneries as ways of sharing resources, people, and ideas. Mission partnerships also allow for training and placements in rural contexts, besides enabling new initiatives to be trialled, such as Pioneer Ministry, Fresh Expressions, a Rural Bishops Mission Order, and chaplaincy to church schools.

As our diocesan strategy emerges, our resource church will work with these partnerships in collaborative, attentive, and supportive ways that respect the contextual character of rural mission. Such local action has been given a boost by recent diocesan investments over the past two years in Leading Your Church into Growth and in Developing our Deaneries.

Through these we have seen renewed energy and imagination emerging in deaneries and rural parishes/benefices, as lay and clergy leadership teams have been formed to lead in mission. Indeed, if WiFi facilities become standard across our church buildings, it will be fascinating to see what imaginative ways of sharing in worship and mission become possible in rural areas.

As part of our support for rural mission, the diocese of York is hosting an open conference on Saturday 28 April, “Resourcing Mission: Growing the rural Church”, at Norton College, Norton, in North Yorkshire. Bishop James Jones, who lives in rural North Yorkshire, will give a keynote address, which will be followed by workshops on topics which include the celebration of local rural festivals, chaplaincy in rural communities, leadership teams in multi-church parishes, rural-urban partnerships, and rural schools. Dr Hopkinson will give the concluding address.

If you agree with me that “rural matters”, and would like to be part of this event, visit www.dioceseofyork.org.uk/released4mission2018 and sign up.


Dr John Thomson is the Bishop of Selby and the Archbishop of York’s Ambassador for Rural Life and Faith in York diocese.

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