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Times are tough in rural areas

28 September 2018

In a difficult agricultural year, the Church has a clear calling, says John Thomson


IT IS Harvest Thanksgiving time, and what a tough agricultural year it’s been. A long, cold, and wet winter delayed the start of the agricultural year, and the long, hot summer has reduced crop yield, stopped the grass growing, and forced farmers to use winter feed early.

Some fruit farms, admittedly, have had increased yields. Anxieties about Brexit and rural life remain, however. The Agriculture Bill, published on 12 September, speaks of an agricultural transition period up to 2027 and future government payment for public goods. It makes a commitment to high animal-welfare standards. The Government is also piloting a two-year scheme to enable 2500 workers from outside the EU to come to Britain for up to six months to work, which will help the horticulture industry.

The relationship between food security and environmental care remains contested, however. The viability of modest-sized family farms — and even some upland farms — looks more precarious, and large landowners will see their land-based subsidy income drop. Added to this is the demographic time-bomb of the isolated rural elderly, as public services have diminished and care costs are significantly higher than in urban areas.

Furthermore, if there is to be a sustainable future in many rural areas, it is vital that high-speed broadband and mobile coverage improve, along with road and transport systems, and employment prospects.

IN ALL of this, the calling of the rural Church is, put simply, to continue being the church. This means staying put (St John’s theme of abiding); staying seen (St Matthew’s theme of Immanuel as God-with-us); staying sacred (this is what sacrament is all about); staying with (Jesus the Good Shepherd); and staying engaged (mission).

Staying put: social-media ministry and rural ministry seek to abide with people when it is not possible to be with them in the flesh. Abiding speaks of resilience, stability, and trustworthiness. Open churches and small rural church schools signal God-with-us at grass-roots level.

In 2014, for example, it looked as if St Peter and St Paul, Scrayingham, in North Yorkshire, might close. After a lively meeting with residents, a self-supporting minister made a commitment to working with villagers to keep the building open, celebrate festivals, establish a Friends Group, and develop the historic link with the Saxons and the railwayman George Hudson. The church remains precarious, but it still abides.

Staying seen: staffing is a huge challenge for rural churches in the north of England. In the country as a whole, 71 per cent of livings are multi-parish or multi-church, and most of them are rural. But this does not mean that staying seen is a dream. For example, rural Anglican churches around Easingwold, to the north of York, are in a mission partnership. Clergy are cross-licensed around the deanery, while teams of lay and ordained teams are focused on renewing, communicating, and living their faith as visible signs of the Church in their communities.

Staying sacred: church buildings straddle the rural landscape and have a sacramental and symbolic power, because they sign the presence of God in creation, and in the history of these communities. For rural people, place and buildings matter. They help to narrate the landscape as God’s. This is a key reason why we must keep churches open, especially in rural areas.

Churches such as the Gilbertine Priory, in Old Malton, and the much smaller Pilgrimage of Grace church, All Saints’, Aughton, near Selby, both exhibit this. It is also why the 2017 Taylor Review: Sustainability of English churches and cathedrals was so welcome (News, 22 December 2017).

Staying with: rural life has changed massively over the past 50 years. Farmers are more isolated; suicide rates are higher; and the elderly and poor struggle to access services. Yorkshire Churches Rural Business Support has responded to these challenges by re-staffing agricultural marts (markets) in Yorkshire with chaplains, who are the public Christian face that farmers recognise at market each week; and by partnering with the Arthur Rank Centre to see how rural churches can respond to rural isolation. The Mart Chaplaincy Project also enables the rural church to work with the farming charities Farming Community Network, the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, and the Addington Fund, as they support an agricultural community under pressure.

Staying engaged: because 70 per cent of rural inhabitants are first-generation rural, older osmotic ways of bringing about the growth of the Church are no longer sufficient. To reach this changing rural population, the diocese of York has piloted a Bishop’s Mission Order (BMO) in a rural benefice. The remarkable outcome, after 18 months, is that the regular weekly attendance rate has doubled across the BMO to 140; the footfall at Christmas, in a benefice of 2200, was about 1000; and the age profile is much wider.

It is early days, but the BMO gives us confidence that turnaround and apt engagement with all rural people can bring about change. Furthermore, the Arthur Rank Centre’s Germinate Leadership programme is making a difference among rural incumbents as imagination, good practice, and mutual support enable these ministers to embrace their distinctive rural calling. We are also encouraging rural churches to use rural festivals with their religious origins to engage new and old rural residents.

THIS year has, indeed, been a challenging one for rural people. Next year looks to be even more so. In the midst of this, we, the rural Church in Yorkshire, continue to keep faith with our calling: to stay put, stay seen, stay sacred, stay with, and stay engaged.

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

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