Rural Church – End times or change?

IMG_0386You may be wondering what has changed over the last four decades given the nature of my previous post on the church where I grew up….

The pews are mostly gone, replaced by chairs. This happened in the early 1990’s. The logic went thus – small church, small population, small amounts of money. We have to attract in money from outside. Fetes are hard work, and don’t produce enough. So let’s make a flexible performance space and hold concerts, deliberately aimed far wider than the parish. As far as I can tell (this was my last regular contact) this has worked a treat. I do hear from time time of people who know the church because they have been to concerts there.

The lighting has been changed, and the heating updated. Alleluia. It looks fab. It meant grants left right and centre for the work, and was a lot of work to do, but the benefits are still tangible years later. Well done for foresight!

The qualifying connection rules for weddings changed nationally, and the church promptly reached out as far as it could. It has a spectacular reception venue right next to it. Well done to the incumbent who has made huge efforts in this direction – and I love the photos of couples to be married each year, on the board at the back, so that we can pray for them. That’s a lovely way to connect the congregation with the Occasional Offices, something with which many churches struggle.

The hymn book has been updated (hurrah) and this happens about once a generation. You can see from the photo that this is not a church which lends itself to screens for worship!

So describing the congregation as “change resistant” is deeply unkind. Here are people who are very very conscious of their deep roots, and who want their church to be around for the next 1000 years.  You might not agree with their way, but I am glad of their efforts.


9 responses to “Rural Church – End times or change?

  1. Pingback: Rural Church – End Times? | Rev'd Claire·

  2. I dislike the name-calling element which has crept into our dis ours as a church, and the division into ‘in’ groups and also-rans. Having done quite a lot of cover in rural churches round here, I admire those who keep the churches in rural areas open and viable, it is Kingdom work, and like so many of the signs of the Kingdom Jesus mentioned, goes unremarked by those in power. What you describe here is visionary but it will never become a ‘scheme’ because it is completely tailored to its own context. Thank you for writing about it Claire.

  3. I suspect that I in my previous experience in a rural context, found some resistance to change. But with five parishes under his direct control and another 4 attached with a HFD Priest, there simply wasn’t the scope for a lot of updating or change – it simply was beyond his ability to muster the troops and resources across all five (nine) churches to achieve anything, but holding the fort. The new incumbent is in exactly the same position, but sadly, from the evidence of my own eyes and friends who remain in those parishes, he has in fact made some decisions which have caused people to take umbrage and either not cooperate or leave altogether.

    I don’t have any simple answer. The people in individual parishes, love their particular church and context and want them to remain open, but without the full attention of an incumbent, it’s proving well night impossible for all to change. The formation of friends groups has been a start, and on particular church among the five has an excellent friends group, who contribute hugely to the life of the church, these and an active group of bellringers (most from outside the parish) have kept it open and viable. But for how long. Both Church Wardens are in their eighties and want to hand on the baton, but there is no one yet, prepared to take it up.

    Despite the best efforts of the current congregations, which are dwindling, year on year, I can see some of the five being closed within the next five to ten years. Leaving some communities in isolation as the church might be their only venue for social activities, without travelling on rare public transport into the Cathedral.

    There has been an influx of newcomers into these parishes, but they are commuters, who’ve bought into the rural life style, but not necessarily into the Christian aspects too it. And having a City with a famous Cathedral within 6 miles drive, they go there by choice – because they can be anonymous, can even join a good social circle run by the friends and can even volunteer as guides – which might be preferable to the slog of being on a rural PCC or carrying out the time consuming and onerous responsibilities of church warden.

    Now, I’m in a single parish, with a proactive incumbent (who you’ve met) but with a village atmosphere. Well rooted in the community and pretty well supported. But even we, who are relatively successful and growing, were threatened with the loss of an incumbent and merger during the last vacancy. I know that I would fight tooth and nail against that here if it were threatened in the future. We as a parish need to demonstrate our viability and life as a parish to ensure that it doesn’t happen, or even that it should be suggested.

    But, we in common with other urban environments have deprivation in pockets and giving is a struggle for some. We seem able to raise funds for emergency charity appeals, but the urgency and need to actually keep the parish going doesn’t figure that high on some peoples agendas. We need a stewardship campaign urgently, but currently the diocesan stewardship appointment is vacant so, difficult to plan and get it off the ground without informed diocesan support.

    I’d love to see the pews taken out and a reconfiguration that allows wider use of the church building, albeit, it’s open 5 days a week with church sitters. Our Church Hall is the jewel in the crown and is widely used and can even host a wedding reception if people wan’t to miss the high costs of commercial receptions and provide their own catering and social arrangements. It isn’t licensed so alcohol being sold isn’t an option, but people can bring their own to use at a reception.

    I’m really keen on doing more, but most of that needs to wait until I complete my training, where in year three, there are options to target modules towards outreach and community work – this is where I see my future public ministry. Outside, rather than within, the church building. But with elements of public ministry as appropriate in the bigger picture.

    One thing that I see as positive is that our diocese has licensed a Reader as an incumbent. He lives in the vicarage with his family and visiting and retired clergy provide the sacraments and occasional offices when needed. That parish is thriving – an increasing numerically year on year. That mixed economy approach might be the boost that both urban and rural parishes need. I pray that it’s something that becomes more widespread – not to deprive Clergy of a living,but to offer incumbencies where Clergy are not affordable or can’t be a particular role. HFD Readers could well be a solution that will appeal further than just urban parishes.

    • I think my point is that this is a people’s church. Incumbents can help or hinder, but the timeframes people work to here are generation or decade, not short. Incumbents come and go. Some of that is part of being an ‘estate’ where the long view is necessary for future generations. Updating once a generation makes it never more than about 25 years behind.

  4. It’s also worth noting that the newest houses in the parish (A pair, semi detatched) are over a hundred years old. This is not a place of rapidly expanding housing stock. The population is constrained by the bedrooms available.

  5. I agree that change can take a generation. Even in our Urban area, land for housing is in desperately short supply and the planners are now shoe horning homes into totally inadequate space. The mix of new housing is heavily towards private developers building high quality(sic) apartments for the affluent. With a tiny percentage as social housing, leading to increased pressure on existing housing stock. Homelessness is an issue here, not just in central London. Our churches are currently discussing setting up a night shelter across the borough, as people are currently being given temporary accommodation as far away as Lincolnshire and one family were sent to Lancashire.

    The Church is a major influence in the work supplementing the reducing public services (austerity related cuts), with our local council having to find a further savings of 40 million, having already cut over the , 36 million. I’m aware that we’re no different to other areas of the South East, where the government precept has been cut much more than other area’s in the UK, some of which has been given increases, not cuts. The thing is that while national church leaders can afford to be critical of central government cuts, it’s much more difficult for local church leaders to be critical of local government cuts, which are directed from the Centre, without being seen as political or divisive and it would damage the community cohesion that we’re trying to build locally.

    There are now two food banks in the borough, with another due to open soon. So, while many are comfortably off, others, living alongside us are struggling, There doesn’t seem to be a wide support for the poor or deprived generally – people having swallowed the propaganda put out by Government about feckless, jobless, benefit cheats, and churned out endlessly by the right wing media. People in genuine need and demonized alongside the tiny minority who might be abusing the system.

    A local Baptist Church that run a soup and a roll service thrice weekly gets a lot of customers – many who many have that their only hot meal that day (or even that week). If the need didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be any takers for the service.

    How does the church speak into these situations? How do we use the campaigns by Church Action on Poverty to make it relevant to our situation? How do we reach out to our community with resources, when we’re just managing to survive ourselves. We are trying hard, but we can’t do it alone, we’re actively networking with other churches to do stuff together with number of initiatives being discussed with a Faith based Forum called ‘Transforming Bexley Borough’ with is an umbrella group formed to coordinate ecumenical work across the borough. Other faiths such as the Sikh Temple also have an outreach providing hot food to locals in need, so, we need to see how we can work together more with all with good intentions. The Church, if it’s to have a credible witness, can’t afford to remain behind it’s walls – it needs to be out in the middle of what’s going on as both witness and action for the good of all in the area, of whatever faith or background. We can’t afford to wait a generation. We need to be doing now.

    So, I’m not worrying about growth – to my mind, our actions will speak louder than words. If our witness is one of hope AND practical help, that will take care of that in the longer run.

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