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How rural churches are fighting stereotypes of neglect and decline

29 March 2018

Talk of the rural Church often turns to shrinking congregations in crumbling buildings. But, as Tim Wyatt finds out, there are signs of new life


All Saints’, Tealby, part of the West Lindsey Churches Festival, in Lincolnshire, now in its 22nd year. About 10,000 people visit more than 100 participating churches every May

All Saints’, Tealby, part of the West Lindsey Churches Festival, in Lincolnshire, now in its 22nd year. About 10,000 people visit more than 100 ...

“IS THE Church of England dying in the countryside?” a recent Spectator podcast asked. Online remonstrations were swift — “Not on my watch!” one archdeacon posted on Twitter — but the episode slotted neatly into a wider narrative of decline, fed by some dramatic numbers.

The story has been told so often that it can almost be recited by heart: ever-declining congregations and handfuls of overworked clergy spread across multiple parishes, overseeing crumbling listed buildings that soak up endless amounts of time and money. Two-and-a-half years ago, the General Synod was told of churches where, “if all possible places on a PCC were filled, they could outnumber the regular worshipping congregation.”

Today, only 17 per cent of the men, women, and children of England live in the countryside, according to the Office for National Statistics, and yet two-thirds — 8394 in total — of C of E parishes, and more than 10,000 church buildings, are in rural areas, together with 42 per cent of the clergy, and 40 per cent of worshippers (measured in average weekly attendance). In recent months, significant sums of money have been invested in city-centre church-plants.


SCRATCH beneath the surface, how­ever, and an altogether more complex picture begins to emerge.

For a start, the slightly threadbare rural Church that we see today has, in truth, always looked a little stretched. Apart from the final few decades of the 19th century, the Church has not been able to allocate one priest per parish since the 1200s.

Analysis from the 2015 report Released for Mission: Growing the rural Church (News, 6 February 2015, Letters, 13 February 2015) found that the proportion of rural and urban churches that were growing was the same for both: 18 per cent. Indeed, a smaller proportion of rural parishes were shrinking, compared with their urban counterparts: 25 per cent and 29 per cent respectively. Because rural areas have six or seven times more buildings per head of population, they have much smaller congregations on average (three-quarters have fewer than 37 people; one quarter have fewer than ten), but church attendance per capita is about twice as high as in urban areas.

None of the more than a dozen people interviewed for this article disputed the notion that the rural Church faced serious challenges. But neither did anyone entertain the idea that it might collapse entirely — even looking ahead 20 or 30 years.

All insisted that they were optimistic about the future of faith in the countryside, although few believed that the Church of the future would look familiar. So, what are the signs of hope? Where are the churches that are not just surviving, but thriving? Which model of Church should dioceses and parishes adopt if they want to endure?


Retrenchment rejected

ONE option is that of retrenchment: widespread closure or mothballing of the village churches with smaller congregations, to concentrate resources on fewer but more viable congregations.

While many of those interviewed think that some church closures are inevitable, none believes that a retreat from the countryside is the answer.

“There are voices that say we should consolidate it all, but that has huge impacts,” Jerry Marshall, the chief executive of Germinate: The Arthur Rank Centre, the churches’ rural-resources centre, says. He points to research that suggests that, when a rural church is shut, many of the congregation do not simply hop in the car and move to the church in the next village, but stop worshipping altogether.

A Baptist minister, the Revd Simon Mattholie, who is chief executive of the ecumenical mission agency Rural Ministries, quotes the same research, and urges caution: “Maybe a festival church could be one of the answers, but it’s not the one fix which will work.”

Festival churches — churches that focus on the occasional offices and seasonal services rather than regular worship — were endorsed by the Church Buildings Review group in 2015, but the report also warned that these must be properly cared for: buildings in poor condition that appeared to be closed “may give the impression of decline, retreat, and failure” (News, 26 November 2015).

Some studies have suggested that amalgamating parishes into ever larger groups is detrimental to mission: From Anecdote to Evidence (News, 17 January 2014) hinted that “the more churches that were amalgamated, the greater the likelihood of numerical decline”.

But more focused research has questioned this finding, including a study published by the C of E’s Church Growth Research Programme (News, 5 August 2016). Factors associated with the growth of a particular parish included broader population changes, geographical location, the starting size of the congregation, and the number of clergy available. The number of churches within a benefice was not statistically significant, the authors argued.


DIOCESE OF CHELMSFORDThe Rural Adviser and Agricultural Chaplain for the diocese of Chelmsford, the Revd Janet Nicholls, feeds lambs. Several new initiatives support the agricultural life of the diocese, including the report Agricultural Festivals: Resources for churches, youth groups and schools

ANOTHER argument against closing or mothballing certain churches is that, in rural populations, communities often feel a strong attachment to their parish church, a place where their family may have been baptised, married, and buried for generations. Released for Mission points to “significant inward migration to rural areas” as possible evidence of the appeal of rural areas that promise “place and community”.

It is a point affirmed by the Church’s national rural officer, Dr Jill Hopkinson. The occasional offices are an excellent springboard for mission, she argues; so closing the churches where they take place would be “short-sighted”.

“We would give the message that God has gone away and is not present in the place any more,” she says. “I think that’s a really short-sighted and narrow strategy, and it is one that will not lead to growth.”

The Revd Sally Gaze, the former Team Rector in the Tas Valley Team Ministry in Norwich diocese, and the diocesan Fresh Expressions Facilitator, now Dean of Rural Mission Consultancy in the diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, rejects retrenchment and says that, even if it were attempted, it would take disproportionate amounts of time and effort to close churches on a large scale. “It’s very difficult for small churches to die; someone will always come along to keep it going.”

While headlines have been generated by the central-funding invest­ment in flagship city-centre church-plants, some of the Church Commissioners’ strategic-development grants have gone to projects that include plans to seek rural church growth. The secretary general of the Archbishops’ Council, William Nye, has issued a sharp rebuttal to the suggestion that funds have been diverted away from rural to suburban parishes (News, 18 November 2016).

Among the evidence was the £1 million awarded to the diocese of Exeter’s project Growing the Rural Church. Marian Carson, who manages the project, says that she would not support significantly changing the “footprint” of the C of E.

“This building is, in some places, the only public building left,” she points out. “People find that valuable, even if they don’t neces­sarily attend the church. We don’t change the footprint. The history in the stones is there.”

The Rector of St Laurence’s, Winslow, with Great Horwood and Addington, in Buckinghamshire, the Revd Andrew Lightbown, argues that, if the C of E formally abandoned its aspiration of being a “Christian presence in every community” through a programme of mass church closures, it could no longer claim to be a national Church. “If we retrench, [establishment] would just be a legality, not a living breathing thing. That would worry me profoundly.”

KEITH BLUNDYPrayer Walkers leave St Laurence’s, Pittington, near Durham, during the Bishop of Durham’s prayer walk of rural parishes, in 2015

Resourcing the group

IF SHUTTING half of the Church of England’s churches in the countryside and turning the rest into festival churches is not the answer, one idea that comes up repeatedly is the resource church (News, 3 February 2017).

Broadly speaking, the rural resource-church model seeks to use a larger, thriving church as the hub for a group of smaller churches, which can learn from, and share in, the wealth, personnel, staffing, and energy of the central congregation.

This is not a new concept. Mr Lightbown notes that his largest church, St Laurence’s, in the small market town of Winslow, was originally established as a minster of St Albans Abbey in the 1260s, specifically to serve the surrounding villages. “It’s recapturing something that was ancient wisdom,” he suggests.

Today, he has tried to re-establish the model by sharing the strengths of St Laurence’s — such as its strong choral tradition — with the two smaller churches that he also looks after. He has developed new liturgies and services, including the popular Pimms and Hymns, which can then be adopted by other parishes in his deanery which do not have the capacity to create such resources themselves.

In a similar vein, St Laurence’s has hosted a conference on music for smaller churches, in partnership with the Royal School of Church Music, and regularly organises larger “cathedral-style” themed choral evensongs — with guest preachers and processions — that to which everyone in the rural deanery is invited.

“It’s not a case of saying ‘We do church better than you,’ but ‘Come and share with us.’ We do get people in the villages that come and worship saying that it is really nice to worship in a large congregation: ‘It feeds me to go back to my own church.’”

ISTOCKStamford, in Lincolnshire, where the rural deanery included a seven-village group outside the town  

ANOTHER example is St George’s, Stamford, in the diocese of Lincoln. The Rector, Canon Martyn Taylor, oversees three services, of between 500 and 600 people in total, each Sunday. The rural deanery com­prises the four benefices of Stamford and a seven-village group on the east of the town.

“There’s a whole dynamic and organic relationship between market towns and villages,” he observes. People in the villages come into Stamford to visit the doctor, drop their children off at school, or go to the shops. Now, members of his congregations who live in these villages have begun, with the permis­sion of the incumbents, mid­week discipleship groups in their homes.

Over the longer term, Canon Taylor expects to “sow” some of his thriving congregation back into the village parishes where they live, to “use our riches to bless the Church”.

This is a goal shared with Canon Steve Simcox, who was appointed a mission enabler with a Bishop’s Mission Order across three rural deaneries in South Lincolnshire last September. Working with the clergy and their parishes, Canon Simcox hopes to help rebuild the vitality of some of the smaller churches, and to strengthen Christian witness in the villages and market towns, partly through the revival of midweek discipleship in these places.

A similar transformation is under way in the diocese of Norwich, centred on the market town of Aylsham, and led by the Priest-in-Charge of St Michael and All Angels, in the town centre, Canon Andrew Beane. In the five years since he arrived in Aylsham, his ministry has expanded from a single-parish benefice to encompass 15 churches and a team of four other clergy in full-time posts. He is also the rural dean of the two deaneries in this area.

CATHERINE BEANEThe service on Remembrance Sunday at St Michael and All Angels, Aylsham, in 2016. It now acts as the market-town hub church for a group of 14 surrounding village churches

“We try to avoid the phrase ‘minster model’, because it gives an emphasis on one particular church,” he says. “We talk about our ‘team of churches’. The idea is that we are stronger together.”

The team’s clergy have particular specialisms, and regularly move around from church to church in­­stead of being tied to one set of villages. St Michael’s resources the other 14 in several ways: it pays a disproportionate portion of the parish share to subsidise, in effect, the smaller parishes; and it also employs a shared administrator, who handles all the paperwork and fees for the occasional offices. (Already this year, there have been 44 funerals and six baptisms; and 40 weddings are booked.)

There is also a shared assistant curate who works across the team, who are working with the diocese on the appointment of a joint youth worker to lead on youth ministry, based in the local secondary school. The team is also working on a funding application with the Mer­cers’ Company for a youth and community worker to lead work in its parishes.

Besides carrying some of the financial and bureaucratic load for the smaller churches, the connection means that some of the dynamism of St Michael’s can inspire others.

One village parishioner happened to join in the monthly men’s breakfast at a pub in Aylsham, and was so struck by the idea that he went back home and set up his own version, which now welcomes 30 men every month.

“Suddenly, people think: ‘We could do this,’” Canon Beane says. “People have got permission to try new things.” He emphasises that none of the smaller churches will be closed, or stop having Sunday services, if there is a desire for that, regardless of how unviable they might have been previously.

Elaine McNicholas, a Reader in the Wellington and District Team Ministry, in the diocese of Bath & Wells, said that the team structure was essential to reinvigorate the 13 parishes that it contained. New initiatives could now be put on in the smaller villages, thanks to musicians and others from across the team who would help out when no local people were available.

“It’s just sharing with each other, and not being afraid to ask for help,” she says. “It’s been a journey. It’s been a lot of hard work, but it is such a blessing.”

THE FOUNTAIN OF LIFEMembers of the congregation from the Fountain of Life, a network church-plant in the diocese of Norwich, take part in a service among the trees

OTHER models of rural resource churches are also leading to growth. The Revd Stephen Mawditt is the Senior Minister of the Fountain of Life, a 20-year-old worshipping community in Norfolk. It began when the congregation of St Nicholas’s, Ashill, started a new service in the village community centre. Today, between 150 and 200 adults attend Sunday worship in a dedicated building, funded by the congregation; and the Fountain of Life has launched a string of “missional communities”, which meet in people’s homes in other villages around Norfolk.

The church also now runs a children’s ministry in 23 schools in the county; is a debt advice centre with Christians Against Poverty; and organises theological training for Christians from all corners of the diocese.

Those who want to do rural mission “need the support of a family around them to equip and train them and stop them getting burned out”, Mr Mawditt says. He sees his church as a mother ship for lay people who want to take up evangelism and discipleship in rural Norfolk, outside their parishes.

“I think that there is still an expectation that, somehow, the parochial system is going to suddenly burst into life, and . . . I think I’m not sure about that one,” he says. If boundary-crossing initiatives such as the Fountain of Life seem to be growing, the Church should invest in them, he says.

MOUNTAIN PILGRIMSMountain Pilgrims break for lunch during a walk in Wasdale, in Cumbria, last yearHALFWAY up a mountain in the Lake District, another alternative resource-church model is being built by the diocese of Carlisle. Mountain Pilgrims has grown from five Christians who enjoy hiking to a Fresh Expression of more than 130 people, who worship together through their shared love of the Cumbrian landscape.

As well as one flourishing congregation, Mountain Pilgrims has consciously tried to resource the rest of the county by setting up regular Lake District pilgrimages and walks, and helping churches to create their own Mountain Pilgrims groups.

“The notion of resource church in rural areas needs to be redefined,” the diocese’s ecumenical Fresh Expressions Enabler, Richard Passmore, says. “Mountain Pilgrims is really interesting as an alternative resource church, because it’s resourcing an interest group rather than a geographic area.”


Resisting renewal

IT IS clear that the resource-church model has an appeal. A one-day conference, organised by Dr Hopkinson, was held in Sheffield in November to discuss it in more detail, and this month the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, appointed Canon David Tomlinson as a Senior Resourcing Church Leader to spearhead a network in the diocese.

But, amid these encouraging signs, questions have also been raised about its viability. Both Canon Taylor in Stamford, and Mr Lightbown in Buckinghamshire, note that not every incumbent or parish will welcome offers of assist­ance from neighbouring churches.

“When St George’s was going through growth, people used to be very defensive about it,” Canon Taylor recalls. “There was real resistance to letting me do anything outside my parish; but the longer I have been here, the more people have trusted me.”

A “frequent lament” from clergy who contributed to Released for Mission was that 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 that the building remained open and the familiar worship continued”.

Partnership and teamwork rather than the “minster” terminology is important, Dr Hopkinson says. “It is not the resource church doing to the small church, but the two working together.”

Mrs Gaze also warns that any model that requires people to “commute” out of their rural community into a church elsewhere could hinder local mission.

ANDREW LIGHTBOWNThe Revd Andrew Lightbown, whose church, St Laurence’s, Winslow, shares its resources with smaller congregations in the locality

The Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Revd Richard Frith, who chairs the General Synod’s rural-affairs group, says that, while the market-town approach can be very successful, it has also been known to fail. In some areas, the peripheral villages have felt belittled and devalued by the central church, he reports. “I don’t pretend to know why; you would need a sociology degree. I just know I could give you examples of both.”

Simply grouping together small and struggling churches in one team ministry or multi-parish benefice is no solution at all, Mr Taylor and Mr Mawditt say. They believe that, without an existing thriving central-hub church to resource the smaller ones, the model cannot not work.

Canon Beane agrees: “One of the key things is that the model needs a centre, whether that’s a high school, a market town. . . What I’m afraid happens sometimes is lots of very tiny rural communities are just joined together when there is no sense of story behind it.”

Nena Harding, who is a PCC member of a small village church in a 14-parish rural team ministry in the diocese of Chelmsford, concurs. She says that, despite extensive amal­gamation with neighbouring villages, her congregation sees its Team Rector only once or twice a year, and the Team Vicar is largely too busy to help organise anything outside of Sunday services.


Enabling fresh expressions

IF THE resource-church model on the whole seeks to restructure exist­ing parishes to invest better in mission, rural Fresh Expressions take that a step further by working be­­yond the parochial network.

The Fountain of Life, in Norfolk, was an early pioneer, and Mr Mawditt praises the diocese of Norwich’s foresight and bravery in allowing him to set up a network church community outside the parish system as long as ago as 1996.

Mr Marshall, from Germinate, argues that fruitful and dynamic “fresh expressions” have been around for longer than many perceive: his own church was started in 1992, when he planted it in a hall in his village.

Before taking up her new post, Mrs Gaze was a team rector with six churches in one benefice; the largest congregation did not meet in any of these buildings, but instead acted as a “cell church”, meeting in people’s homes.

Fresh Expressions are springing up all over the mostly rural diocese of Carlisle, Mr Passmore says: he had counted at least 55 by the end of 2016, and a new one starts every month. He reports that it has not been difficult to persuade established congregations to consider rethinking their approach. “Most farmers are quite entrepreneurial; so that myth of the rural idyll where nothing changes is a bit of a myth. The rural isn’t a static landscape.”


As well as Mountain Pilgrims, his diocese now encompasses a worshipping community that meets in an old people’s home; “Maranatha Yoga”; and a Network Youth Church, which runs a web of cell churches for 1000 teenagers in every deanery. It has also employed a “BigReach innovator” to run an online evangelism project (News, 16 December 2016).

This month, some of these Fresh Expressions came together with the rest of the diocese to show that there was still life left in the countryside, at a weekend of evangelistic events, Moving Mountains (News, 16 March). A well as talks from a string of bishops and other ecumenical church leaders, the project included prayer sofas in railway stations, litter-picks, and comedy evenings in village halls. The culmination of the weekend was “Cumbria’s biggest ever Messy Church” at a heritage centre and cinema in Penrith.

Ms Harding explains how she persuaded her small and ageing congregation at St Andrew’s, Bul­mer, that they had to do more than wait for the villagers to cross the threshold of the church.

“If they are not comfortable in church, we need to take God to where they are comfortable,” she says. This meant starting occasional informal services in the village hall, with afternoon teas. Invitations were given to families of those who had been baptised or married in church recently, as well as new residents.

Even though most of those who attend still are not interested in attending Sunday services in the church, Ms Harding says that the events are well-attended, and have also led to significantly higher numbers for the annual carol service.


ANOTHER example of growth beyond the parish church comes from the Scottish Borders, in the parish of Hutton, Fishwick and Paxton — three villages where there are more sheep than people. It is home to Gateways, launched in 2011 by a Church of Scotland minister whose congregation, at the time, consisted of barely more than a dozen. After a year of steadily building relationships, a monthly meeting in a village hall, initially focused on children’s ministry, was started. Younger families who had never darkened the doors of the parish church began to attend, taking part in interactive services centred on arts and crafts, videos, and a shared meal.

A farmer and lay pioneer, Alastair Birkett, now leads Gateways, but did not originally attend the parish church that started the initiative. He believes in the concept of a “mixed economy” rather than Fresh Expressions’ aiming to supplant or bolster the older congregation.

“My role was not to get backsides on seats in the inherited parish church, but to gather a family together, with the blessing of the traditional church,” he says. Now, about 40 people — half of them under 18 — regularly attend.

A similar story has taken place in the Wellington Team Ministry, championed by Ms McNicholas. Recognising that the parish church in her village of Bathealton was preventing innovation and was, for many, an “alien environment”, she has “taken the church out into the village hall” to create Campfire Church, an informal Fresh Expression aimed at children.

The children who attend with their parents play games, do craft and other activities, and also make use of a prayer corner — none of which would be possible in the Victorian church in Bathealton, St Bartholomew’s.

DIOCESE OF EXETERChildren take part in a Messy Church service at Beaford, in Devon

“We called it Campfire Church because it’s setting people on fire for God. It’s also quite an edgy sort of name to attract the youngsters,” Ms McNicholas says. As many as 40 children now attend, just a few years after it began, and have enjoyed “walks of wonder” to explore God’s creation, music experiences, den-building, prayer evenings, and more.

“It’s just looking at ‘What can we do that’s fresh?’ You can link all of this into scripture: den-building is God as a shelter, or thanking God for creation.”


“A LOT of the models are about saying ‘Here’s a church: come to us,” Mr Birkett says. “We have said, what must come first is our theology, and then comes mission, looking at the context we are in and asking people what church might look like for them.”

He praises the Church of Scot­land minister the Revd Bill Landale for the courage to push the traditional congregation to think outside the box. “He said: ‘If it works, you can get the credit: if it fails, I will take the blame.’”

Mr Mattholie, from Rural Ministries, makes a similar point. Rural church leaders needed to give their congregations “permission to fail”, to free them from doing only what has always been done before.

As encouraging as these alternative churches are, most Fresh Expressions do not run in parallel with the parish church, but within it, Dr Hopkinson says. She argues that it is important not to throw the baby out with the bath water: after all, the parish church is not only where most of the volunteers who could run a fresh expression are: it is very often the only remaining open public building in a village.

ALISTAIR BIRKETTParticipants in the annual Palm Sunday processions, led by the Gateways fresh expression in the Scottish Borders

Bricks and mortar

TRANSFORMING rural church buildings from burdens to blessings is a pressing challenge, neatly elucidated by Mr Birkett, the farmer who leads Gateways in Scotland. His family-themed Fresh Expression could not meet in the parish church even if it had wanted to, since the church did not have a lavatory.

Roughly half the churches in the Released for Mission report were little used by community groups, which was attributed to “the lack of basic facilities such as a toilet, kitchen, or warm meeting space, and, in a couple of cases, the absence of running water”. In addition, 91 per cent of rural churches are listed buildings, compared with 63 per cent in suburban, and 55 per cent in urban, areas. This brings implications for adaptations and upkeep costs.

Rob Walrond, a farmer and rural adviser to the diocese of Bath & Wells, says that keeping the building going at all costs could drain the life out of a congregation. Reforms to simplify administration and bureaucracy involved would help to liberate parishes for mission, he says.

“Any PCC you speak to about their building — they tell you there are good things about them, but also we are weighed down by having to pay all the bills,” Bishop Frith admits. “But they are there; we have got them; so we make the best of them.”

Others believe that the past may hold the key to unlocking the potential of church buildings. Ms Carson, from the diocese of Exeter, points out that, when many medieval churches were built, the chancel was the sacred space, and the nave was used largely as a community hub for trade and meetings.

Part of her project is trying to return to this older concept of church. The target is to engage with about 100 rural churches over seven years, to “release existing church members to focus their time, money, and energy on growing in prayer and making new disciples”.

The annual report for the first year, published this month, lists eight pilot projects (encompassing dozens of churches): three are due to start this year, and five have expressed an interest. Churches are exploring champing (News, 31 March 2017) and social enter­prises, and have undertaken community consultations with hundreds of people. In the parish of Yarnscombe, in Devon, a group of people have formed the Yarnscombe Church Rescue Group, joining the PCC “specifically to support repairs and improvements to the building so it can provide a better space for both worship and community events”.

This community-engagement work is mirrored elsewhere. Mr Marshall, the chief executive of Germinate, gives the example of St Peter’s, Peterchurch, in Herefordshire, where a reordering of the building has turned the nave into a library, café, and general-purpose community centre, while the chancel is retained for worship.

THE HUB AT ST PETER’S CENTREThe café at St Peter’s, Peterchurch, in Herefordshire, where the nave has been turned into a multi-purpose community hub, which includes a library

The Archdeacon of Sarum, the Ven. Alan Jeans, reels off a list of the different ways in which church buildings in his diocese — most of which are listed — are being used: repair workshops, cafés, pop-up shops, and memory clinics for people with dementia.

The corollary of returning church buildings to use by the whole village is encouraging non-churchgoers to become more involved in their upkeep. Mrs Gaze and others speak of the importance of drawing those outside the worshipping community into feeling a sense of ownership in their church building. This not only makes it easier to reach the previously unchurched, but also shares out the burden of fund-raising, submitting planning applications, and organising repairs.

This is the vision of the government-commissioned Taylor review, which explored the sustainability of the Church’s buildings, and called for a “cultural shift” whereby communities would contribute increasingly to their upkeep (News, 22 December). It envisages more churches’ becoming “vibrant hubs at the centre of their wider communities”. But questions about the viability of implementation have already been voiced: one rural priest warned of “an unrealistic expecta­tion on churches and clergy to use their buildings in ways that there is simply no demand for” (Letters, 5 January).


Lay leadership

IF CRUMBLING and empty buildings are one half of the rural-church stereotype, the other is ever fewer priests looking after ever more parishes. Multi-church groups often have between three and nine churches, and larger groups of churches — 11 or more — are increasingly common. In the diocese of Hereford, there are, on average, seven churches per benefice, compared with just 1.2 in London diocese.

Released for Mission explains how the Sheffield Formula resulted in a “considerable reduction” in the num­bers of clergy working in rural areas during the 1970s and ’80s. It is not unusual for clergy to travel tens of miles between churches. The report notes “serious tensions” for clergy and lay leaders under pressure to operate on a parish basis — to build relationships and provide regular worship — while making churches work together to create a “critical mass” for activities and events. For many clergy there was “limited, if any, time left for outreach, mission, or evangelism”.

ST LAURENCE, WINSLOWAn all-age eucharist at St Laurence’s, Winslow

The 2015 report of the Church Buildings Review Group speaks of “a good deal of anecdotal evidence that it is difficult to attract clergy to serve in rural communities, where they will have responsibility for several church buildings with small congregations”.

People interviewed for this feature emphasised that changing the way in which clergy and laypeople worked together in the countryside, sometimes radically, was essential to safeguarding the rural Church’s future.

One common idea was that priests should become enablers of mission rather than its primary practitioners. Through a ministry of oversight, the clergy could train and coach non-ordained parishioners to take responsibility for evangelism, pastoral care, and worship in their communities. It is an important strand of the Renewal and Reform agenda, encapsulated in the report Setting God’s People Free (News, 27 January 2017).

One of the fiercest proponents of this sea-change is Mr Marshall, who says that the “number-one challenge” is how to “move towards a more collaborative shared ministry”.

Ms McNicholas has recently been given direct oversight of four parishes in the Wellington and District Team Ministry, which encompasses 13 churches in total and only three stipendiary clergy. But, rather than a dispiriting prospect, the lay-led reorganisation was “reallyexciting”, she says. Having lived in her village, Bathealton, for more than 30 years, she has known many of those to whom she ministers their entire lives. This opens up far more opportunities for mission than would be available to a stipendiary priest who could be present only sporadically. “I know these people. They speak to me. You have to respond to that,” she says.

ASHLEY TAYLORAll Saints’, Nettleham, during the West Lindsey Churches Festival, in Lincolnshire, now in its 22nd year. About 10,000 people visit more than 100 participating churches every May

While there was some slight resistance from some in the parish to being given a lay rather than an ordained minister, almost two years into this ministry Ms McNicholas says that the investment of a full-time minister in the village is starting to pay off.

And the future across her team and the wider rural Church is only going to become less clericalised, she predicts. “We are going back to the first-century Church. It’s definitely going to become laity-led.”

Mr Walrond, also from the diocese of Bath & Wells, agrees. He argues that “the most important thing” that the rural clergy can do is to become facilitators. “I work half-time for the Church, and I’m also a farmer. I’m in the real world a bit more than some clergy are. We must shift the focus away from just the clergy, and look at the whole of God’s people,” he says.

Mr Mattholie, from Rural Ministries, is also in favour of the proposal. When he preached recently at the commissioning service of a youth worker at one rural church, he decided instead to commission the entire congregation.

He warns, however, against forcing lay people through the same training and “sausage factories” as priests, which, he fears, would merely recreate another kind of hierarchical structure.

This was also a concern expressed by Ms Carson, from the diocese of Exeter. Her project is looking at making lay positions, such as that of churchwarden, less onerous, with the aim of encouraging members of the laity to take them on. Archdeacon Jeans reports that similar efforts are under way in Salisbury diocese, such as simplifying bureaucracy and merging PCCs to create more space and energy for lay mission.

Released for Mission warns that the mission of lay people, while “essential”, is “often hampered by small numbers of volunteers, and the absence of suitable support and training”. But Ms Carson maintains that it is critical not to create new modes of centralised training for a new generation of active lay people.

ALAMYA stained-glass window in St Laurence’s, Winslow, depicts the Last SupperTHERE are some things that a lay person is not allowed to do by the Church of England, no matter how well-trained or inspired: most notably, preside at the eucharist. Lay people are, however, licensed in some dioceses to officiate at services of “communion by extension in public worship”. Here, elements consecrated at a previous celebration are distrib­uted according to authorised liturgy. Last year, Mr Lightbown hosted a conference on the subject, attended by 17 people from across the deanery.

He uses communion by extension “sparingly”, and as a way of helping those who are discerning a vocation. In the rush to reduce clericalism and push lay mission to the fore, priests must not become reduced to doing only what is unique to their voca­tion, he cautions. After all, no one is ordained to be nothing more than a “sacramental technician”.

Bishop Frith argues that the empowerment of the laity must go forward, not because of diminishing clergy numbers, but because it is the right thing to do, and a biblical model. One of the obstacles is the mindset of the laity, he says. Even in his diocese of Hereford, where the policy has been to encourage lay ministry for decades, there remains “a culture of dependence on clergy”.

Mr Marshall echoes this concern: “The biggest challenge is the cultural shift towards getting communities to recognise that their clergyperson might not visit them when they get sick it could be a lay leader instead.”

But Ms Harding, of St Andrew’s, Bulmer, says that squeezing more out of the laity is not a sustainable solution for her locale. Aged 69, she is one of the youngest members of her congregation, and the others are too old, realistically, to take on more leadership posts.

“It’s really hard to ask them to do more than they are already. Those who can, already are, and those who can’t, can’t. We haven’t even got a churchwarden. We are only surviving by everybody doing a bit extra again. There’s only so long we are all going to last.”

ISTOCKThe Lake District, whose mountains and hills inspired the hikers who began the Mountain Pilgrims fresh expression

Ecumenical working

FOR many interviewees, at least part of the answer to the rural-growth challenge is ecumenism. The diocese which has perhaps driven this the furthest forward is Carlisle, which has adopted a strategy, “God For All”, with the URC, Methodist Church, and the Salvation Army, to become an “ecumenical county”. Testimony about its impact was given during the recent General Synod debate on closer communion with the Methodist Church, by Canon Cameron Butland, the Bishop’s Chaplain (Synod, 16 Febru­ary). It had been “incredible”, he said; work with children and young people was growing “colossally”.

The diocese is now subdivided into mission communities rather than parishes, which include non-Anglican congregations where possible. Another recipient of strategic development funding, it is currently working on a £2.08-million three-year project to establish 35 to 40 mission com­munities across Cumbria, in par­tnership with other denominations. The aim is that each of these communities has at least one new fresh expression of Church, resulting in 1500 new churchgoers. A target of a ten-per-cent increase in church attendance overall has been set (News, 21 October 2016).

Very few of the villages in Cum­bria actually include competing churches from different denominations, but, in a “post-Christendom” world, the C of E no longer has an automatic claim on people’s worship, argues Mr Pass­more, the ecumenical Fresh Expressions Enabler for the county.

Mr Mattholie agrees. His charity, which had traditionally worked only with independent Evangelical churches, has now turned into a non-denominational outfit. Many villages were monuments to “schismatic theology”, he says, with two, three, or four different churches. “All the community looking at all these different churches sees a bunch of Christians who can’t get on together.”

Most non-churchgoers in rural areas, in his experience, “couldn’t give a toss” about the minute differences over “the depth of water in baptism” which had caused church splits.

DIOCESE OF EXETERChildren take part in a Messy Church service at Beaford, in Devon

But he is not starry-eyed about a new wave of ecumenism springing up simply out of necessity. One of the independent Evangelical chapels administered by Rural Ministries was recently shut down and sold off, because the thriving church in the village happened to be the Anglican one, and it made no sense to compete rather than join together.

“Those who were part of the congregation loved the idea,” he explains. But others in the independent Evangelical world were less pleased: “I have never received such difficult emails or letters. Everything, including my salvation, was questioned.

“We just need to grow a pair. We need to take the step, and say we are going to be the first to do this. It’s not going to happen naturally for a long, long time. It needs the attitude of sacrifice.”

In the Cumbrian village of Bootle, a chapel owned by Rural Ministries raised money for a youth worker, but decided to employ the worker jointly, in partnership with the C of E school and church. Not only did this ensure that the whole village was involved in the youth worker’s ministry: it also drew the two congregations together, and they now share services two weeks in three when there is no Anglican priest available.

Yet simply clubbing together with denominations represented near by is not a universal remedy for the rural Church’s problems, Bishop Frith warns. In his diocese, there is no longer a significant Methodist or URC presence. The fact that his Anglican parishes are, on the whole, the only place in the Herefordshire countryside for Christians to gather to worship has not, in itself, prevented decline.


KEITH MINDHAMThe Bishops of Dunwich (left) and St Edmundsbury & Ipswich on an 11-day pilgrimage in the diocese last year, meeting farmers and villagers along the way    

Existing for others

ALMOST everyone interviewed believes that the rural Church thrives when it looks outwards and is committed to meeting the needs of people who do not yet attend a church. Research by the Church Urban Fund suggests that churches are able to provide just as many activities to address social need in rural locations as they are in urban locations.

“The rural Church needs to be deeply integrated into its own communities,” Dr Hopkinson says. “To find out how they can work in partnership to serve the needs of the community.”

This was the model used by Mr Birkett when he was starting his Gateways Fresh Expression in the Scottish Borders. “We don’t control the agenda, and we have to be far more incarnational in our approach,” Mr Mattholie says. “We want to go into a community and say ‘What is God already doing here? What might mission and church look like?’”

Ms Carson agrees, and says that it is vital that rural communities believe that their churches would serve them with “no strings attached”, regardless of whether they actually come along on Sundays.

Mr Passmore, from the diocese of Carlisle, says that he always urges people who are looking to start a Fresh Expression not to begin with a fixed sense of what to do. “We don’t start by having a particular model of church in mind, but by listening to the people, and seeing what emerges,” he says. “You put that with a bit of imagination, and good stuff happens.”

In Mr Walrond’s diocese, the harvest service gives him hope for the future. Five farms will host children from 40 primary schools next month, to learn about growing crops, try out some freshly reaped food, and then experience a taste of harvest worship this autumn.

Using agricultural themes, such as harvest and creation, is an excellent way to connect with the community outside the church walls, he says. “It’s an agrarian text, the Bible. I think that’s a big advantage for the rural Church. Celebrating creation, and valuing and respecting food; being at the forefront of environ­mental concerns.”

JOHN FLEETWOOD A Mountain Pilgrim on a walk in Cumbria

THREE years ago, John Spence, a member of the Archbishops’ Council, told the General Synod that the C of E, particularly in rural areas, was standing on a “burning platform” (News, 13 February 2015). “In less than ten years, we could see a threat to the presence of the Church in communities across rural England,” he warned.

If this is the case, those working in the rural Church clearly have not yet got the memo. There was striking uniformity among those interviewed for this feature: all remained bullish that Christianity would not die out in the countryside in their lifetimes, let alone by 2025.

Whether it was market-town resource churches, Messy Church, grass-roots ecumenism, Fresh Expressions, a revitalised laity, or innovative use of buildings, enough growth was taking place to assure those at the coalface that the Church would remain.

Clearly, countryside parishes will never be the same as their urban counterparts, because they serve a much smaller and more dispersed population. But this does not mean that they are doomed to dwindle and die.

“Our favourite expression is ‘A satsuma is not a failed orange,’” Mr Marshall says. “Rural churches are different.”

Only time will tell if this confidence is misplaced; but it cannot be denied that there are, at the very least, green shoots of recovery taking hold across the countryside in England, and beyond.

Listen to Tim Wyatt talk about his research into rural Churches on the Church Times Podcast

Jerry Marshall has now retired as chief executive of Germinate: Arthur Rank Centre. The Revd Claire Maxim, Rector of Ludgershall and Fabestown in Salisbury diocese, takes up the post on Easter Wednesday.

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