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No-show at service prompts questions about rural ministry after Covid

21 January 2022

Richard Townend

All Saints’, Barmston, on Sunday

All Saints’, Barmston, on Sunday

A PRIEST who revealed on Twitter that no one had turned up for a communion service in a village church, on Sunday, won praise for his honesty from fellow clergy.

The Assistant Curate of Emmanuel Church, Bridlington, and Barmston with Fraisthorpe, in Yorkshire, the Revd Richard Townend, wrote on Twitter: “A sad start to the day. . . The table was set but nobody turned up for the service at the village church in our benefice. We are actually meeting as a PCC tomorrow to discuss its future.”

His post attracted hundreds of likes and comments, as he was posting under the national Twitter handle OurCofELike, which is taken over by a different person each week. Many people commented, including one who suggested that he should “maybe pray more”.

But the Precentor of Southwell Minster, Canon Richard Frith, responded: “Thanks for your honesty in tweeting this. Tough times for all of us. Solidarity and prayers.”

Mr Townend said that All Saints’, Barmston, had a regular congregation of about six people, and was struggling to find any church officers or PCC members. An old building, it was difficult to ventilate and was situated half a mile outside the village. Since Covid, the elderly congregation had been more reluctant to come out, as many were still shielding. Last Sunday was also a cold morning, he said, and one woman did turn up but did not feel comfortable going ahead on her own.

“Since Covid, some people have moved away, some have died, and people haven’t come back to church. This is a church that is struggling; so I wasn’t surprised, which was sad in itself.”

Six miles away, in Emmanuel Church, Bridlington, however, the picture is very different: it has a congregation that has increased since before Covid, with more children and more young families present. The congregation there had risen by about 15 per cent, he said.

Rural Ministries, the organisation that works with to equip rural parishes, said that there was a “mixed picture” of church attendance in rural areas. The charity’s director for Scotland and Northern England, Alistair Birkett, said: “There is a mixed picture north and south of the border. For some churches, the pandemic has accelerated what was going to happen anyway, over time.

“There is a lot of pressure on many clergy who are trying to keep a lot of balls in the air. Some places are lamenting as they realise what they cannot sustain any more.”

He said that he knew of one church in the Borders where just four people had turned up last Sunday, and the cleric was asking whether it was worth continuing.

“There are seeds of hope, however, and we would like all denominations to get behind them, rather than use the blunt instrument of church closure.”

Referring to John 12.24 (“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”), he said: “Sometimes, seeds have to fall and die for a new vision to emerge. But, if churches in the area are closed, who is going to nurture that seed to allow it to bear fruit?”

The diocese of Norwich has launched a Church Buildings Commission to look at the future of its 658 church buildings. One quarter of them are in communities with fewer than 150 people. The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, said: “The diocese of Norwich has an amazing selection of parish churches, each a treasure trove of memories for their local community — often architectural and aesthetic gems, as well as places of prayerful experience.

“While many churches are thriving, some don’t have the people or the financial resources to help maintain them. This means that there may be some tough decisions for this and future generations to make, as well as creative possibilities that we need to trial. I hope that the commission will seek innovative solutions, and build a consensus about the future.”

The commission will make recommendations for the future of the buildings, but will not make any final decisions.

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