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Angela Tilby: Rural-and-urban gap is widening

28 January 2022

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THE depth of anger expressed in recent responses to the so-called “Church Closers’ Charter” — the now infamous GS2222 (Comment, 1 October) — reflects a widening culture gap not only between diocese and parish, but also between urban and rural church life.

Senior clergy and diocesan administrators are not wicked people. But their judgements often reflect an unconscious bias towards the Church of the city and against the countryside. What gets them up in the morning is the hope of large and growing churches. A diocesan bishop, perhaps frustrated by his largely rural diocese, remarks frequently that, if people are prepared to drive to supermarkets, they should be prepared to drive into town to go to church.

Rural communities know that they are a target. They resent the often false assumption that small, struggling, rural churches are “failed” churches. It doesn’t help that the recently retired Appointments Secretary, Caroline Boddington, expected bishops to have significant experience of running a large church, or its equivalent.

Few rural parishes offer that opportunity. Clocking up a huge mileage trying to keep eight, ten, or 16 parishes on the road does not give the time or mental space to entertain episcopal dreams. Sometimes, almost no one turns up on a Sunday (News, 21 January). But that does not mean that the building, its history, and the pastoral care that is offered to all and any should be discounted.

The Church’s mindset in Lambeth Palace, Church House, and many dioceses does not easily include Dibley or Ambridge, in spite of the hold that the country parish still has on the public imagination. The Archbishop of Canterbury, to his credit, served in rural parishes. But he found it exhausting, and his default was always elsewhere; his wife had to remind him not to compare his lot with what was possible for HTB (News, 17 September 2021).

Alpha does not always go down well in the country; nor does Anglo-Catholicism. Country clergy cannot afford to be partisan. They don’t expect success, but those who survive dig in. They understand the link between church building, parsonage house, and person. The parson is a representative person, and attendance at worship is sometimes understood vicariously: “Say one for me.”

Timothy Jenkins, in Religion in English Everyday Life (Berghahn Books, 1999), describes the conflict caused when urbanites descend on country parishes and expect church to be what they are accustomed to. Often, their expectations clash with local people’s loyalty to the church building and lack of interest in courses on missionary discipleship.

Faith is not absent in the country, but it is played out in a different mode, with a different vocabulary, which urban Christians often don’t get. Jesus might get it, though, having spent nearly all of his ministry in rural Galilee. It is sad that our leaders would prefer not to “subsidise failure”, but to close small churches and take their cash rather than listen and, perhaps, learn something important.

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