I’ve been thinking a lot about rural ministry recently. OK, I seldom don’t think about rural ministry. I was at the first (but not the last) Germinate conference a couple of weeks ago. All their emphasis on rural was on multi parish Benefices. And they are right. Except that my patch is undeniably rural. And one parish. Undeniably. Really undeniably? Let’s check the definition of rural…..
Yes. There’s the issue. There isn’t a decent definition of rural. And I’m inclined to argue that rural is a state of mind. One of my previous parishes would have been appalled, utterly appalled, to have been described as suburban. It was inhabited by people with lots of money who had moved out of the city. It had pavements, streetlights, and huge houses at the end of gated drives. The attitude of the people was entirely suburban. (Go on, define that.)
Here, we are not on mains gas. At least, not on my side of the railway. We have flats as well as houses, the community is large enough that we can find the skills we need within the parish boundaries. You name it, someone here can do it. And we always know what the weather is doing, because here it affects us. We are a community in which people walk. We have pavements, streetlights (here and there) and allotments. We have drug dealers, prostitution, immigration. We are a mile long and three streets wide, of inner city problems with added weather and isolation.
We have the very-nearly-chocolate-box thatched cottages…but they are so very green and dank. We have the regular bus service, with queues at each stop. We have the world’s smallest and cutest English Heritage site, with the information board burned out by vandals. We specialise in petty vandalism and domestic violence. The safeguarding training I went through at school majored not on sexual abuse but on neglect born of poverty, and on the emotional abuse which may follow.
We don’t have Travellors, just people who arrived here and camped a few decades back, and who built houses. We don’t have army….just about everyone who lives here has an army connection and some of them are serving.
We do have bewilderingly intertwined families and clans. We do have neighbours who know no-one in the village. We do have people who hate it being called a village because after several hundred years’ gap it regained Town status a few years back. We have people who’ve moved here because it’s cheaper than the surrounding, prettier, villages; people who arrived here and never left; people who have been placed here by the council.
How big? About 4,500-5,000 people. We are a very small market town – or we would be if the market hadn’t ‘failed to thrive’. We have our Post office, primary school, butcher, couple of small supermarkets, several hairdressers and a tattoo artist who is doing well enough to rent a shop.
Are we rural? Yes. Fields and woods all around, never more than one and a half roads from open countryside. But more than that, community. Once you are plugged into the networks, you are in. And once you are in, that’s that. You are assimilated. A newcomer, but assimilated. As Rector, I’m lucky – there was a place for me to step into, and I only wish I could access the race memory of rectors here because there are times it would be useful. The families and networks matter. The isolation matters (bus fares cost, and buses are tricky of those with several small children or limited mobility). The weather is of importance – it dictates how much coal or wood is burned, how often we need oil deliveries, whether our coats and boots are adequate, whether our food grows or not. If I ask someone to give me an idea for a walk it will start at my door.
The trouble is that no-one expects urban to be uniform. Urban includes the town centre, the high rise estate, the canal side development, the underpass community. Different, cheek by jowl. But rural is full of difference too.