The Corona Crisis might be the final wave in a long and powerful tide that will sweep the rural church away. The pandemic has precipitated crisis in church incomes and, as with many other area of life the has hastened action on unpalatable and unpopular decisions long avoided.Diocesan authorities console with a vision of ‘celebration’ or ‘festival’ churches, which will hold ‘significant’ worship events: Christmas, Mothering Sunday, Easter, harvest, Remembrance. Parishioners are reassured that they can hold weddings and funerals – and other ‘life’ events.This idea of a league table of parishes has been around the Church of England for the past seven or so years but is gaining traction everywhere.
It all very plausible – the best of both worlds: save so much wasted effort in maintain the village church as open daily and weekly but open it when people are more likely to come. it will deal with problem of small congregations and keep morale up – and cur costs. This vision is a mirage, a chimera of delusion. Do not be fooled: this is the closure of the village church. The heart beat will stop, a vital rhythm will be broken, the tide of faith with be swept away by a tidal wave of bureaucratic, secular minded rationalisation. Heaven ( or more accurately Hell) knows what will rush in to fill the vacuum left behind in the other forty- six weeks of the year.
Arrest the breath of weekly worship and the body will perish. This scheme to shed the burden of the rural church is founded on a widespread misunderstanding of how the church works in small communities, and depressingly dull theological and spiritual insights into the nature of the Church and the way the Holy Spirit works.
I am afraid it is the case that the vast majority of clergy circulating the corridors of church offices with their lap top bags have very little, or nil, experience of living, being and ministering in small communities in rural settings. Anecdotes abound of Archdeacons who talk about ‘small parishes, small numbers,’Church House looks at a map and sees empty fields – it never sees the houses and homes, it sees population numbers in a parish – 200, 300, 500 and they never see distinct, vibrant and active communities. There is in indubitably an urban and suburban mindset in the Church of England that will kill off the life and mission of the rural church. This perspective understands the church in a largely congregational way: parishioners equal ‘those who go to church’, ‘those who are on the electoral role’. The parishioners, that is to say , those who live in the parish, do not count. It is a self -regarding recipe for decline.
The parish being the church, the diocesan officers look at the number of people who regularly attend church: three, four, ten ( on a good Sunday), and then they ask the question -‘how can this be justified, how can this be sustainable? Then, of course, there is the burden of the medieval church: how can this be kept in a safe state. Now is the time to ‘rationalise.’ Given falling clergy numbers it is inevitable that clergy will be placed in ‘significant’ communities; urban, suburban and market towns. Stipendiary clergy will be a rare breed across swathes of rural England. This will leave vacant clergy housing which can be sold to fund the relaunch of ministry and mission. It has an irresistible logic to it. But is all founded on a fundamental misunderstandings.
Let me make a contrary case. Although I am not in stipendiary ministry anymore I was from 1984 until 2018 ministering in small rural communities; for sixteen years I served as Rural Dean in one of the most rural areas of Lincolnshire which had in 2000 thirty two parishes serving a population of just over five thousand.
First,consider the buildings. Experience shows that the wider community care more for the building than they do for anything else! Even the smallest hamlets have managed to source tens of thousands to bring rural churches to a standard of repair not seen for centuries ( read any history of the rural church in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century England). These restoration and repair projects often find energy and expertise outside the usual church congregations. These campaigns rely on some interface between church and community; but that is not usually difficult to establish. There is also an array of organisations and professionals who exist to help these projects happen.All rural parishes now exist in multi -parish benefices, across these benefices a resevoir of experience and a network of contacts build up that comes into play to help address problems with the buildings. The buildings provide more opportunities for engagement with communities than any other aspect of church life. Only the most negative mindset sees them as a crushing burden.
Secondly, small numbers are not a problem: in fact, they can be a blessing. Jesus did say ‘when two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am among them’ (Matthew 18:20) He never said twenty or thirty. Numbers do not make prayer or sacraments valid. God does not withhold His grace because the church isn’t full of people. Small numbers do require a sensitive and imaginative approach to worship, but the Liturgy works for many or for few because it is the worship of the whole church. In the 1890’s Bishop Edward King [ Bishop of Lincoln 1985 -1910] railed against clergy who would not celebrate the Eucharist for three for four people. He pointed out that the whole company of heaven are present in the Eucharist and that it is a celebration and partaking ‘ in the mystical body of Christ, which is the blessed company of all faithful people’ ( Prayer Book order for Holy Communion). I can only speak personally but I never ever felt in the whole of my ministry that the church wasn’t full of ‘ presence’. The buildings themselves are a testimony to a ‘great cloud of witnesses who surround us on every side ‘ ( Hebrews 12: 1) To proclaim in the Creed ‘ we believe in one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’ is to believe that by ‘ we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of Christ, which is the blessed company of all faithful people ( Book of Common Prayer Order for Holy Communion.) In looking and experiencing the worship of the few with the eye of faith it looks very different to the numbers in a church register as counted up for the Annual Returns.
Thirdly, the church is not the clergy! An obvious point but one forgotten too often in opening up the possibilities of the rural church. It is not necessary to train up a. whole team of people to support and supplement ordained ministry ( as first envisaged by the Tiller Report in the early 1980’s). Anyone who is Baptised is a Christian minister. There is absolutely nothing to prevent three or two or half a dozen people gathering in church on Sunday or Holy Day and offering up the life of their community in prayer and thanksgiving. They could use any of the forms of prayer available to them from the various forms of Daily Prayer to the Litany our simply praying together through a list of concerns. Prayer transforms communities and those who pray. We need more prayer in every community. There is, of course, huge benefits in training lay people for various ministries and experience has shown what a blessing they are, but this not deskill everybody else or silence to call for every Christian to care and pray. Neither should the traditional role of the Churchwarden as the person required to ensure regularity of worship be forgotten. It is very straightforward for churchwarden to organise Morning Prayer on a Sunday, or any other day and lead – the Prayer Book describes how it should be done! There has always been an element of the vicarious in the ministry and prayer of the church in a community. The few worship and pray for those, and of behalf of those who don’t. This is one small way of laying down our lives for our friends.
Fourthly, worship is a witness. Is there anything more moving and a more powerful witness than a village church with the lights on and the bell tolling for Evening Prayer on a winter’s night, with a few cars parked on the lane, all for the purpose of prayer? Is there anything more unworthy of Christ than a church always locked, dark and unused for weeks on end? The people who live in these communities know what I mean ( I hope). It has always struck me as a self evident fact that no one can attend a service that doesn’t exist, and one can’t invite anyone to a service that never happens. On many occasions I have asked the newly bereaved to come to church on a Sunday knowing that there will only be a few people there – who they probably know, and by whom they will be welcomed and supported. When there is a need for prayer for anyone in the community they can be told that they and their needs will be remembered in church ; and sometime they might come. Worship is mission – to make it happen people come out of their homes and by their walking down the lane or by their car parked by the church gate witness to the call of Christ in their life.
Finally, let us not be overcome by the ‘gods of this passing age’, let us not have our village churches bow down to Mammon, or be shuttered by fear of being dubbed as ‘failing’ or ‘ non-viable’. We believe in the Lord of life, we are, to quote St Augustine ‘ an Easter People and our song is Alleluia! ‘ With God’s help His people will be in church every Sunday in every village to proclaim ‘ ‘The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!Alleluia!’