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Angela Tilby: Synod must stop the axe from falling on rural churches

01 October 2021


IF THE Church of England’s bureaucrats are hoping to slip an innocent-sounding revision to a 2011 Measure through a recently elected General Synod, they may now be having second thoughts. The Church has extended the consultation period for GS 2222, a set of draft proposals to speed up the process by which dioceses can sack clergy, sell parsonages, and close churches (News, 16 July).

It has been dubbed in The Spectator a “Church Closers’ Charter,” because it enables dioceses to write off “failed” churches, regardless of the views of the communities that they serve. It is assumed that local clergy will support the diocese in wielding the axe. Many churches will be lost, but the axe will probably fall most heavily on poorer, rural parishes.

These are the least regarded and least understood by those who currently run the Church. The country church, with its churchyard, serves as a container of local tradition, memory, and hope — values that are easily discounted by those who judge success in terms of the readiness of individuals to talk about Jesus. (As a symptom of what is wrong with GS 2222, the change of a church’s name is regarded as a minor matter.)

Rural churches are not generally places that run Alpha courses (though some do). They do not regard ten people in church on Sunday as a failure, as there may be only a hundred houses near by. Their income-yielding glebe lands were appropriated by the dioceses (without compensation) in 1978. They are not usually eligible for Strategic Development Funding.

They face challenges raising parish share and attracting priests because ordinands tend to come from urban centres and expect to return to buzzy places where they can pursue the kind of career outlined by the Archbishops’ Secretary for Appointments: a progression in responsibility showing evidence of measurable impact all the way to the prize job. You get no brownie points for labouring away in the countryside. And rural clergy often have to cope with a backbreaking administrative load: seven, ten, 13 churches, let alone pastoral care. Many are distant from friends and family, and endure sheer, grinding loneliness.

Rural churches are not the only ones threatened by the proposed Measure. But their mass closure will change the landscape of England for ever. In small country communities, it could extinguish any remaining trust in the C of E. However much we have been psyched up for this change (repeat mantra: “the Church is not the building”), it is a big step towards forgetting who we are. The parish is, as Oliver Rackham observed, “the smallest unit of spiritual and secular geography”, the primary sign of the Church’s care for the whole nation. If this matters to new Synod members, they should read up on GS 2222, press for it to be withdrawn, and, if and when it comes to the Synod, vote it down.

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