THE Governing Body voted to appoint rural-life advisers in every diocese, after a debate that explored the parlous state of Welsh countryside communities.
The discussion was introduced by Canon Eileen Davies, rural adviser for the diocese of St Davids, who began by noting that the Church was often the only institution which still had open public buildings in many small rural villages. These communities were struggling, she reported: people were isolated, were battling ill-health and loneliness, had very poor transport links, no infrastructure for businesses, and no shops or pubs for social interaction and to create jobs. More and more young people from the countryside were moving to towns and cities to find work.
“The backbone of the countryside is agriculture,” she said. “But, now, this is the industry that has the highest rate of suicides.” Farmers who were working long hours, often alone without anyone to share the burden, were feeling lonely and isolated, and some were ending their lives as a result.
How should the Church respond to this crisis? she asked. Could it simply, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, walk by those suffering on the other side of the road?
Rural advisers were one answer: they ensured that churches were open not just on Sundays but every day of the week. They visited markets and showgrounds, offered their expertise and information to incumbents, and could offer support and practical advice to farmers.
The Bishop of St Davids, the Rt Revd Joanna Penberthy, said that she had spent years of her ministry in rural benefices, and, as a result, had no hesitation in asking the Governing Body to affirm the part played by the rural Church. “Our countryside is beautiful, but the harsh realities of farming life can be brutal,” she said.
It was important, however, that the Governing Body was clear what affirming the motion would really mean: supporting the part played by the local church building, which was still a focus for prayer, worship, and service, passing on the gospel from one generation to the next. But they cost money. Was the Church ready to commit itself to the funding required to make this kind of affirmation real and practical?
Second, the presence of the Church in rural life was made possible by the ministers. If the Church could not afford to continue paying for stipendiary ministers, then passing the motion would not mean much, Bishop Penberthy warned. “In passing this motion, GB is asking the RB and standing committee to do their best to ensure the financial and strategic decisions they make undergird and support rural communities.”
Rural-life advisers were an important part of the Church’s presence in the countryside, and it was vital that they were given dedicated time to develop this, Bishop Penberthy said. Simply giving an already overworked cleric another title was not going to make a difference if he or she did not also have the time, money, and resources to make it “come to life”.
Terri Hatfield (St Davids) said that, although she was not from a farming background, she could not miss the struggle felt by many in agriculture through her work in tax, where she had lots of farming clients. Many were living on the breadline, unable and unwilling to move away from their isolated, difficult lives on the farms, she said. Many farmers were elderly and in poor health, and the Church was perhaps the only place remaining to support them. And those Christians who lived in towns could still support the rural community in the food that they bought. Just as many in the Church look for Fairtrade products to assist poor producers overseas, so we should also ensure that our purchase of British goods best helps struggling farmers.
The Revd Justin Davies (Swansea & Brecon) welcomed the report, but cautioned against being too downhearted. Rural ministry was still “exciting”, he said. The Church should move beyond simply offering support, and instead campaign, speaking out on the social problems in the countryside and “banging some desks about what needs to be done”.
Tim Llewelyn (St Davids) said that, in a past life, he had been responsible for closures of bank branches in small villages. The Church should aim to inform people like him who made these decisions to come up with solutions together, to problems facing rural communities, he suggested.
The Revd Naomi Starkey (Bangor) said that she was not sure about rural-life advisers: in her diocese, nearly every cleric served an area at least partly rural, and was already deeply involved in that kind of ministry. She also made a plea for nuance in the debate: some farmers were not poor and depressed, but happy and prosperous, and also sold their local, sustainable, Welsh produce to large supermarkets, not just small farm shops.
The Revd Dean Roberts (Monmouth) thanked Bishop Penberthy for fleshing out exactly what the motion meant should the Governing Body vote for it. He described how a Roman Catholic diocese had used some scrubland that it owned in the countryside to create a brand new parish, with affordable housing, a new church, and a community centre; and of a colleague in England who bought a bus with money from a church closure to provide his rural community with transport to the shops and church on a Sunday.
Elizabeth Thomas (St Davids) said that it was important to note that paying more attention to problems of rural communities did not mean denying that there were not also issues to address in towns and cities. She also cautioned against calls to close rural churches because of tiny congregations: the Church in Wales should remain in rural areas, where the parish church could be the most important building in the village. In her own small village, the chapel congregation decided to gift its building to the village and instead join forces with her church.
Canon Dylan Williams (Bangor) said that he was enthusiastically in favour of the motion, but asked whether the Church in Wales still needed to close more rural churches. “The funding is simply not there to support and sustain every single church, mile by mile. We have to have the conversation about what we mean by local.”
The Revd Dr Stephen Wigley (ecumenical representative) said that what the Governing Body was saying reflected the experience of the Methodist Church. It was important not to lose sight of the ecumenical dimension when it came to rural ministry. He also reminded the Church in Wales that many in small villages belonged to other denominations and had chosen to partner with the Anglicans because their own tradition was no longer present where they lived. “If you’re looking to making the best use of your resources, we have to make the best of resources we all share, so we can hold this all together.”
Robert Wilkinson (St Davids) asked the Governing Body not to get sidetracked by focusing on small-scale farmers markets in its efforts to support Welsh farming. The second part of the motion called for each diocese to develop a rural strategy, and he urged that this should feature prominently efforts to reform agricultural regulations and banking services. “Any strategy we develop needs to not only look at the farming community, but also needs to turn round and look at the national assembly — possibly as far as Westminster.”
Jonathan Hughes (Swansea & Brecon) said that a lack of affordable housing was one of the most fundamental issues facing rural areas.
Canon Patrick Thomas (St Davids) also spoke in support of the motion, but warned members not to imagine the countryside as an unchanging idyll. “The countryside is a very complicated place these days; that’s why it’s so important that the Church is here.”
Dan Priddy (co-opted) noted the Church was committed to being a Fairtrade Church, and asked whether it could make the same commitment to buying locally, avoiding produce grown far away using environmentally damaging techniques.
The Archdeacon of St Asaph, the Ven. Andy Grimwood (St Asaph), emphasised the need to keep local churches in rural areas open. Did the Church need a province-wide strategy for church growth in the countryside, he asked. Communicating the good news needed consciously different strategies in rural areas compared to urban.
The Revd Adam Pawley (St Asaph) welcomed the motion, but said that it could have been proposed by any organisation, not just a Church. “What contribution can the Church make which is distinctive? What do we have? The good news of Jesus Christ: a message of hope.” Perhaps the rural-life advisers should also be rural-life evangelists.
The Archbishop of Wales, the Most Revd John Davies, quoted Pope Francis’s warnings against the Church’s becoming involved in good works in the community for their own sake, without the good news of the resurrection underpinning them.
The following motion was passed:
That the Governing Body:
(i) affirm the role of the local church in supporting rural communities;
(ii) request each diocese to:
(a) appoint a Rural Life Adviser, with dedicated time to carry out the role;
(b) develop a strategy for constructive engagement with rural communities.