FOR the past 30 years, there has been a steady migration from urban to rural areas. After the 1991 census, geographers coined the term “counter-urbanisation cascade” to describe this movement. Two significant reasons for their move were that migrants wanted to enjoy the natural beauty of rural areas, and also to be part of smaller and more identifiable communities. The rural idyll is alive and well.
The pandemic has ignited a greater interest in rural life: anecdotal evidence suggests that more people are migrating from urban areas. In addition to the two reasons given above, concern for personal health and well-being is luring people into the countryside. All three indicate people’s thirst for a lifestyle that provides more fulfilling relationships with others, with the environment, and within themselves.
Some are moving to suburbs or countryside within easy commuting distance of their workplaces. Others are moving further afield to remoter rural areas, seeking a complete change in lifestyle. The popularity of the television programme Escape to the Country is an indicator of this trend. Whatever the final outcome, there can be little doubt that the counter-urbanisation cascade will continue, and may well accelerate.
I identify five opportunities and challenges that such demographic changes and evolving holiday habits pose to rural churches, as well as to dioceses and central church bodies whose policies and funding have an impact on the whole Church of England.
THE first challenge is recognising that each rural area is distinctive. Central church bodies tend to view rural churches through urban or suburban lenses. This is to the detriment not only of the life and mission of rural churches, but also, paradoxically, to that of urban and suburban churches.
People move to and holiday in rural areas in search of a life that is different from urban living. If such differences are not recognised by the wider Church, and reflected in its strategies, then the imagination and countercultural insights to be found in rural ministry will be missed, and the rural church viewed as eccentric and irrelevant.
Alienated and misunderstood, relationships are strained as rural churches question the central Church’s relevance. It was worrying to read in a recent review of the Church’s Mission and Pastoral Measure (GS Misc 1312) that some of those interviewed argued that “the interests of the parish are not the interests of the diocese.” As the management guru Peter Drucker warns, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Second, one example of the failure to take account of rural distinctiveness is in the way a church’s viability is assessed by attendance numbers. While the latter are not unimportant, they cannot be the primary arbiter in rural areas. Of primary significance is not Sunday attendance, but, rather, whether the majority in the community regard the local church as theirs.
Again, relationships — in this instance, between church and community — are paramount. When the clock needs repairing or the roof needs refurbishing, it may well be the person who rarely attends who generously offers finance for “their” church. One of the Church of England’s glories is its care for all in the parish. At a time when less emphasis is being placed on this aspect of the Church’s nature, rural churches are well placed to remind the wider Church of this priority and to show creative ways of modelling it.
THIRD, one challenge that the relationship with the community poses to rural churches is to ensure that the community voice is heard in church decision-making. The PCC alone does not always hear the outside voice, and not all villagers will want to spend time on PCCs. Many villages have found ways of ensuring that there is good communication, but, if it is an issue, then a regular gathering with community members will be vital.
Fourth, rural churches, in contrast with their urban sisters, are usually surrounded by churchyards, many of which remain open for interments. This deepens the sense of community by embodying the often unarticulated reality that “community” consists of relationships with the past, as well as with the present and the future.
Furthermore, a churchyard in the centre of a village provides a visible reminder that, in the midst of life, we are in death, and that a realistic acknowledgement of death and its rituals are required for a healthy understanding of life.
Used creatively, this geographic configuration of a village is a springboard for some profound discussions about life and flourishing for which there is currently a deep thirst. Furthermore, trauma for the future was stored up during the pandemic when many were unable to be with dying loved ones, and few were able to grieve after their deaths at funerals. The visibility of village churchyards will help deal with this trauma.
Finally, as the wider Church makes difficult decisions about resources and deployment, it is imperative that the impact of Covid, the counter-urbanisation cascade, and the potential in rural parishes are taken into account. Society’s cultural tectonic plates are moving. Courageous and imaginative decision-making is required. Will the Church in rural areas be sufficiently resourced to point to the God who is the source of all?
The Rt Revd Dr Brian Castle is an assistant bishop in Bath & Wells diocese. He lives in Exmoor.