THE Church needs a senior cleric to act as a “digital supremo” for rural congregations, who is alert to online trends and developing the benefits of new technology discovered during lockdowns, a new report, Rural Churches Response to Covid 19, suggests. It also proposes that the Church establish a framework to train and support its members in the use of technology in worship, prayer, and discipleship.
The report, published last month by the ecumenical Yorkshire Churches Rural Business Support group, drew on work carried out by York University on worship during lockdown, and a similar project by York archdiocese. It also conducted interviews with more than 20 individuals. It examines what might be the “new normal” for rural communities in Yorkshire after the pandemic.
The advent of remote access though social media such as Facebook and Zoom has made the worshipping experience “better than it has ever been”, its author, the Revd Richard Battersby, said. He is an assistant curate of the Rural Ainsty benefice, which covers five churches and seven villages in a 20 square-mile patch west of York. “On a Sunday morning, there is no chance I could do a service in each village; there is just not enough time,” he said. “But now people can engage each Sunday at the same time. Technology has opened up a new mission field especially for rural churches.
“The problem in rural ministry is distance, ministering over a large area to many small communities. I am not saying we shouldn’t be a physical church — we should be — but, at the same time, we can be present in many communities at the same time. On a Sunday morning you can’t be in five different churches, but you can be in people’s homes.
“What we see now is a church that can be both virtual and physical. You can have an extended ‘front room’ in one church building, where 30 or 40 people can gather, but also where another 80 or 90 can gather via Zoom or Facebook.”
The report also suggests an examination of how to bridge funding gaps caused by changes to how people “give”; and an “at-risk” rural church register, to support churches that are suffering “significant demise” because of the pandemic. “I find it completely ironic that there is a church-at-risk register for buildings, but not for actual communities,” Mr Battersby said.
He acknowledges that there might be some resistance to going digital, but, in his experience, congregations have come to embrace it. “There is an opinion: ‘If it’s not physical, it’s not worth it,’ but I think when we say things like that we are denying God’s Holy Spirit.
“I have no notion of physical boundaries. I was in prayers this morning with six or seven people on Zoom, and the Spirit was evidentially there. Virtual worship is not second best; for some people it is first best. It has changed some people’s lives: physically, they could not attend church, now they can.
“We have assumed that technology is too difficult, and that has led us to not doing things. I didn’t know that I could buy a £300 box which meant that we could get a good Wi-Fi signal into small medieval rural churches, some of which don’t have electricity.”
He spoke of the use of IT by older people: “The first few months were a bit tricky — we had to have someone telling them which button to press — but, once they had mastered the technology, the joy was there; they are there, week in, week out, now. Technology is not a barrier in their minds.”
Copies of the report Rural Churches Response to Covid 19 can be obtained from Mr Battersby by email at email@example.com.