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For rural churches to thrive, bold thinking is needed

by
26 November 2020

Hanging tenaciously to the familiar may hasten their demise, says Richard Jackson

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PROFESSORS Andrew Village and Leslie Francis rightly drew our attention recently to the issues facing some rural churches (Comment, 20 November).

Hereford diocese has one church building for every 820 people. We are acutely aware of declining numbers and the burdens that these place on clergy and lay leaders. It is not uncommon for clergy to be looking after fewer than 2000 people, but with seven or eight church buildings and a 30-minute drive between them.

The Covid-19 crisis has, however, revealed a huge reservoir of creative energy and passion in the rural Church. Rural churches are a very diverse group. The boundary between church and the wider community is very fuzzy. They are integral to their community’s identity. The buildings generate great passion, not just in those who worship there regularly.

The solutions to these challenges will be as diverse as the communities themselves. Solutions are beginning to emerge as a whole diocese works together in partnership. The destination will be a very different Church, but change is more likely to be fruitful if it is evolutionary and consultative rather than imposed from the top down.

 

SEVERAL principles seem clear. First, people’s energy for engagement dissipates the further you go from the parish centre. People are committed to their parish, but less so to their benefice — less, still, to the deanery — and the “diocese” is often regarded as a disembodied tax-collecting authority based in Church House.

Second, the local church will remain the place in which mission and pastoral care is generated and sustained.

Third, diverse leadership is the key to growth and health.

We need a new partnership to develop in church governance at every level. It seems crazy that churches within a few miles of each other are all struggling to find safeguarding officers, churchwardens, and treasurers.

Benefice councils are a significant help with this. Greater involvement at a deanery level can be encouraged by reducing governance functions to a bare minimum, and opening up synod meetings to a wider constituency, discussing and acting on matters of missional interest.

Reimagining deanery chapters as a more monastic, mutually supportive community combats something of the loneliness of parochial ministry. In some cases, a radical reimagining of deanery function allows a degree of specialisation: clergy can play to their strengths across a wider area, which is especially important now that schools are our missional focus with children.

 

THE recognition of the local church as the centre of a diocese means that we will seek to focus our resources there: running very tight ships at the diocesan office; reducing non-parochial clerical posts if possible; sharing advisory posts with parish responsibility; and always asking the question of central activities “How does this help frontline ministry?” Diocesan advisory committees and chancellors must have a clear bias to missional engagement, and less to aesthetics.

Ultimately, some buildings will need to close. We recognise the pain of that. Government should play a part in heritage preservation in areas where the buildings are no longer needed. But closed buildings that have not been repurposed are still the responsibility of the diocesan board of finance. Few can afford that.

The best way to preserve a building is to have a vibrant worshipping community. Evidence shows that focal ministry is one of the keys to this. We need to facilitate greater numbers of clergy — stipendiary, part-time, self-supporting — and licensed lay ministers. Bishops will need to be entrepreneurial, experimental, and permission-giving, often linking to ecumenical partners, with whom close working will be essential.

The desire to preserve what we have is commendable, but, paradoxically, hanging tenaciously to the familiar can accelerate its demise. These inevitable changes must be about helping more people to discover Jesus, not institutional survival. Falling numbers are the fundamental problem. But bear in mind, just before the Wesleyan revival of the 18th century, there were only 20 communicants in St Paul’s Cathedral on Christmas Day. Prayer does make a difference.

 

The Rt Revd Richard Jackson is the Bishop of Hereford.

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