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The country: not for escapists

06 November 2020

Much is heard about urban ministry, but what of ministry in rural communities, asks Pat Ashworth

Stuart Bridewell

A Land Rover decorated for a drive-in Harvest Festival

A Land Rover decorated for a drive-in Harvest Festival

THE countryside is a living, breathing, place, and rural ministry is as broad as it is long, says the Revd Claire Maxim, CEO of the Arthur Rank Centre, an independent ecumenical charity that seeks to help rural communities in the UK to flourish by inspiring, encouraging, and equipping churches.

There are 10,000 rural churches, constituting two-thirds of C of E buildings. Coastal rural is very different from uplands rural, moorland doesn’t look like rich farming country in the Fens, and, while there are, indeed, village residents whose surnames go back 400 years, and whose “fathers’ fathers’ fathers” lived there, Ms Maxim says, the rural population has always been mobile.

Now, the rich variety of people living in rural areas embraces growing numbers of commuters; people who have downsized and others who have upsized; residents in social housing; and, of course, the agricultural community working the land: “a small percentage of the population with a huge impact on what we see around us”.

Vocation is about a calling to the place and the people in that place, she reflects. “I see such a diversity of giftings and talents and personalities. I think if you are the kind of person who thrives in the middle of a very large crowd, then you are probably not going to be happy; if most of your energy comes from being part of a bustling London street, then it’s not going to work.

“We have our extroverts, introverts, detail people, big-picture people, people who are pastorally and sacramentally very aware. There is, thank God, a huge range.”

Dr Jill Hopkinson was the Church of England’s National Rural Officer for 14 years. She is now tutor in rural ministry at the Sarum Centre for Formation in Ministry. Its bespoke Rural Ministry Pathway was established in 2017, and remains unique. For Dr Hopkinson, who grew up in the countryside and has a background in ecology and agricultural science, it represents another step on the journey of her own vocation as a lay person in this field.

The course was born out of Rural Hope, the diocese of Salisbury’s project with the Strategic Development Fund to envision and enable mission and ministry in rural communities. It is a part-time, blended learning course in a church training context, and students tend to be mature: they are likely, although not exclusively, to be in their thirties, and with young families. The first cohort finished this summer; there is a total cohort of 28 over the three years of training, and the 15 new starters on the course this year far exceeded the target of six.

“We aim to train lay and ordained people for ministry that is collaborative, resilient to the rigours of rural multi-church groups, and adaptable for the shape of the rural church in the future, whatever that might be,” she says.

“These objectives are very similar to those training for ministry on the standard pathway, and, whilst this is undoubtedly the case, the important difference comes through the understanding of rural contexts, application of and reflection on knowledge and experience gained in training, and recognising that rural churches in multi-church groups operate on a very different model to that of a gathered, programme-led congregation.

“Increasingly, it will be very important for people who are working in a rural context to understand the nuances of the tiniest community and congregation, and those of a market town.”

Claire Maxim St James’s, Walton D’Eivile, in Warwickshire: the rural church where the Arthur Rank Centre CEO, the Revd Claire Maxim, went to church as a child

Rural ministry presents particular challenges in multi-parish benefices where lay or ordained ministers are often working across more than one community. That immediately means multiplication of all the legal, financial, and safeguarding responsibilities: not one, but several churchwardens; not one, but multiple annual parochial church meetings.

“Some benefices are very good at working together in these respects, some not,” Dr Hopkinson acknowledges. “And, because rural ministry is about visibility and presence, particularly by the priest, it can be very challenging how to be visibly present in more than two or three communities. Every congregation member has to be visibly engaged in the whole of community life as far as possible. That means partnership with our congregations, encouraging them to make the link with whatever they do every day of the week.”

Students look at core material through a rural lens. “Those who come on the rural pathway often have a lifetime experience to offer of living and worshipping in a rural community, and so we’re not trying to fill empty vessels — we are working with knowledge and experience that is already present, and a heart to want to share the gospel,” Dr Hopkinson says.

“So, for me, it’s about encouraging and enabling that enthusiasm; about trying to facilitate learning as good principles around mission, like listening, listening, listening, and praying, praying, praying. It’s about helping people relate their learning: they are placed in rural churches, so what’s going on in it, and how do you explain it? How would you apply it, and would it work?

“We have good-quality theological reflection on what they already know and their experiences, and we also make good use of the really great practitioners that are in the area who can talk about and share some of their experiences — including things that have not worked, have failed, and are really important to learn from.

“Rural ministry is not an easy place to be. It is not an idyll. It’s hard, but it can be very rewarding; so it’s about trying to share and enable resilience, knowing that, as an LLM [Reader] or priest or deacon, you cannot do it all yourself: you have to work and collaborate with others, lay and ordained. That is really important.”

The rewards, she suggests, are “knowing and being known; having the privilege of being intimately involved in community. To walk with people; being able to live out the gospel in word and in deed, and having the opportunity to get involved in a way that those in larger places are not able to be.

“And being in touch with the realities of the season; being in touch with the natural world. My own spirituality is hugely engaged with the living world, and I think we have more opportunity to link with that, in initiatives like Forest Church, for example.”

The Arthur Rank Centre, where the C of E’s present National Rural Officer, the Revd Dr Mark Betson, is based, has a rural ministry course that Ms Maxim describes as something of an orientation course for those who don’t know very much about rural living — those, in particular, who have moved from a suburban culture into something rural, and find that there are some things that just don’t function the way they expected them to.

“There are many parallels between inner-city urban and rural, because you get such juxtapositions of rich and poor side by side, such diversity of theology, that you don’t see in suburban life so much,” Ms Maxim suggests. “There’s something about how we have to be church in rural places, because people can’t necessarily travel to find the church they like.

“So you tend not to find the extreme wings of the Church of England: it suits people much better who are happier in the middle. Labels mean less out here, because we are here for everybody. That’s the difference: that sense in the rural communities that the church is genuinely there for everyone.

“I keep hearing about the death of the parish system, and I fully understand that, in some towns and cities, it just doesn’t work. But, out here, it still holds huge value for people. They know where they [are] and where their church is.” The demographic varies widely: those villages with a primary school can be representative of the national average; others present fewer opportunities to work regularly with the same children.

For those with a calling for rural ministry, she suggests, “the practical challenges of multi-church benefices, transport, broadband, and mobile will still matter enormously to what you do and how you do it; but you perhaps see them more as the weft and weave of everyday life than a challenge to be overcome.”

The nature of evangelism, too, may be different: “less about inviting people to Alpha — though that, of course, happens — and more about trying to help other people tell their stories in a way that people want to hear,” Ms Maxim says. “One of the things about rural communities is that everyone is known to one another. It’s an attraction being part of a community, but you also have to be very careful about what you preach.

“Because people know us. I think there is a much greater opportunity in seeing how people live their lives, but, equally, it can take rural people a long time to speak to the deeply personal, the things that are very close to their hearts.”



‘The vast creative canvas’

THE Revd Adrian Burholt is curate in the Wellsprings Benefice: the parishes of Bulkington, Potterne, Poulshot, Seend and Worton and Marston, in the diocese of Salisbury.

Stuart BridewellThe Revd Adrian Burholt leads the drive-in harvest-festival service

Mr Burholt came from the world of business, and trained for ordination at Sarum College, although not on the Rural Pathway. He had vaguely imagined ending up in a town, and was rather nonplussed when the Bishop invited him to consider Wellsprings.

His misconceptions included freezing-cold churches and a monotonous diet of BCP. But he has found his vocation in rural ministry, and rejoices at what he describes as “the vast creative canvas — potentially bigger than you would have in a relatively established urban church”.

The five churches range from a small, quiet, almost monastic building that “lends itself beautifully to Celtic-style worship” to the big, ornate, “slightly theatrical one” for celebrations.

“And we have access to village greens and fields and barns and all sorts of spaces,” he exults, describing a drive-in harvest festival last month as “one of the craziest things I’ve ever done in my life.” Set-up was on the wettest day on record; torrential rain persisted, but the service went ahead, and was broadcast over Zoom and on local radio.

“We were soaked to the skin, and do you know what? We played a couple of NFU videos, with farmers talking about harvest and how difficult things had been this year. And standing in that atrocious weather, the farmer’s wife said, ‘This is more authentic and real because this is what we have to work with.’ It’s not The Darling Buds of May every day. We have to struggle along together.”

The Kingdom stories can be brought alive in these spaces, in a way that is grounded and not too churchy, he reflects. While some of the church buildings have no lavatories, no running water, and no Wifi, creative technology and the ready engagement of the community is connecting and enabling.

Stuart BridewellThe Revd Adrian Burholt with his training incumbent, the Revd Ali Bridewell, experiencing the weather at the drive-in harvest festival

Far from being monotonous, the BCP has proved to be an important part of the pattern of worship and foundation, “and other stuff fits around it. Like a tapestry where you don’t just have one colour thread running through it.” He prays tribute to the leadership and to his Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Ali Bridewell, who always gives him “permission to try”.

Any misconceptions that a rural community might be resistant to change were also banished when a planning session with the church family, about which areas of church life to develop, identified outreach as the priority, above heritage or developing worship styles. “There’s a lot of counter-intuitive stuff happening; a real heart for mission,” he says.

”I shouldn’t be surprised by that. Churches round here were often the instigators of the community support around Covid-19, though they didn’t make a big noise about it. We want people to know God, and there are so many creative ways of helping them to do that.”

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