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The writing is on the wall for fragile rural churches

by
20 November 2020

The pandemic has exacerbated the crisis, and action is needed urgently, say Andrew Village and Leslie Francis

WHEN we were designing the Coronavirus, Church and You survey, in collaboration with the Church Times, we had in mind Anne Lawson’s thesis of “fragile churches”, which was framed in a series of three papers published in Rural Theology.

Anne identified the five marks of fragile rural churches, each of which was presented as a serious source of anxiety and stress for rural clergy:

  • Financial pressure and anxiety about dwindling financial resources — some churches were about to run out of money;
  • inability to replace churchwardens and other officers and volunteers, or the fear of being unable to do so — some churches were running out of lay leaders;
  • lack of critical mass of children and volunteers to work with young people — some churches saw the need to plan for the next generation, but lacked the wherewithal;
  • lack of time to do new things and the relentless round of keeping the show on the road — some clergy were left to do more than was within their grasp; and
  • tiny congregations consisting of single figures with a rising age profile of 75-plus — some rural churches were simply running out of people.

 

WE SUSPECTED that the national lockdown and the lock-up of churches could only exacerbate the developing problem. So, we included two key items to test the fragile-church hypothesis in the series of items designed to assess perceptions of the impact of Covid-19 on church life: “Our church building will not be financially viable”; and “Key lay people will step down and be difficult to replace.”

Responses to our survey included 745 Church of England clergy who identified as being engaged in full-time parochial ministry: 265 located in rural parishes, 211 in town parishes, 182 in suburban parishes, and 87 in inner-city parishes.

This is what we learned from their replies. Asked whether the impact of Covid-19 would mean that their church buildings would not be financially viable, 34 per cent of clergy in rural parishes said that it would (compared with 20 per cent in parishes in towns, 18 per cent in suburban parishes, and 24 per cent in inner-city parishes). Asked whether key lay people would step down and be difficult to replace, 29 per cent of clergy in rural parishes answered yes (compared with 24 per cent in parishes in towns, 23 per cent in suburban parishes, and 20 per cent in inner-city parishes).

So, the writing is on the wall. These statistics show that the fragile-church hypothesis is well established in the countryside, but also experienced more widely by one in five clergy across the Church of England.

Too many parish churches are running out of money, running out of people, and now running out of time. Covid-19 has hastened the urgency with which the problem needs to be addressed. Perhaps now is the time to engineer a second Reformation in England’s green and pleasant land.

 

BUT, before the management model steps in to close these fragile churches, it is sensible to pause to reflect on how these churches may continue to speak to a new generation, and whether there is something fundamentally different between how churches work in society and how sects work in society.

At the last Reformation, the great abbeys were destroyed, and, today, children can gaze on those ancient ruins and ask questions about the world-view that such ruins recall. But, at the last Reformation, parish churches remained and, during the past 500 years, have nurtured a variety of responses. At times, these parish churches have thrived, and at times they have struggled. Throughout that period, sects have sprung up alongside the churches. They, too, faced good and bad times, but their fragility is witnessed by the closed chapels in so many rural communities

The new post Covid-19 Reformation may well decide that the time has come to abandon the parish churches and to find a sectarian future. This should offer a good short-term solution. What is so unfortunate, however, is that the lessons of history remind us that the Church at large survives largely because parish churches endlessly reinvent themselves as they resist pressures that would see them vanish with the morning mist.

 

The Revd Andrew Village is Professor of Practical and Empirical Theology, and Canon Leslie J. Francis is Visiting Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, both at York St John University.

A full report on the survey can be found at www.yorksj.ac.uk/coronavirus-church-and-you

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