Can we save rural churches from closure?
In recent weeks, media coverage has described rural clergy as ‘close to drowning’ under the pressure
of maintaining medieval buildings with dwindling congregations. With the Church of England carrying
out a series of reviews and consultations as part of its ‘reform and renewal’ programme – will we see
rural churches closing or are rural communities ready and able to give their support? Jessica Sellick
This is a paper by Jessica Sellick, Rose Regeneration for the Rural Services Network:
In January 2015 the Church of England published ‘growing the rural church’. This revealed how 65%
of all Church of England churches (10,199) and 66% of parishes (8,394) are in rural areas.
Of these churches, 70.1% are now “multi-church groups”, maintaining the Church of England’s
commitment to have ‘a presence in every community’ at a time of reduced funding and ordained
clergy. While 29% of urban parishes are declining, only 25% of rural ones are.
As well as setting out hard facts and figures, the research contains the voices of clergy and lay
people: painting a picture of the challenges, optimism, faithfulness and innovation in rural multi-church
Here the role of parish churches is not merely places of prayer but at the heart of local communities,
affirming local identities and giving people a sense of place and belonging.
Yet clergy are struggling to find ways to ‘give rural’ the time it needs amid smaller and scattered
populations, bureaucracy and several buildings to look after across their patch.
So how can we prevent rural churches from closing and make them thriving hubs for rural
communities? I offer three points.
Firstly, clergy and rural communities need to work together. ‘Growing the rural church’ suggests
changes to training are need for clergy and laity alike so as to negotiate a better balance between
what is familiar and what is possible.
For clergy this means not arriving in the countryside ‘to do rural ministry’ but embedding yourself into the life and heartbeat of rural communities – going along to social activities and local facilities (e.g.pub, shop) to talk to residents.
In 2013 Professor Linda Woodhead from Lancaster University and YouGov carried out an online survey of 1,500 Anglican clergy. 83% of those surveyed saw the parish system as important; and a high percentage conveyed their strong commitment to God and to a generous system of universal welfare.
Also in 2013, Ivan Annibal and I produced a slide pack on poverty and emerging issues in the countryside which we used to talk to ordinands to try to encourage them to move into rural posts. Most recently, the Arthur Rank Centre published ‘Resourcing Rural Ministry’ which contains lots of ideas and case studies.
For rural communities it means stepping up to the mark by getting involved in activities and being willing to do things (e.g. coffee morning with hymns, messy church, tea time church, use of social media etc. as well as traditional services).
For while churches are places for prayer and worship, ‘fringe’ members of the congregation (i.e., those that may not attend every Sunday but come to events such as Harvest, at Christmas) need to be supported to come and participate at other times.
This not only helps clergy work out when, where and how they support all members of the parish (amid having several churches on their patch) but also means clergy and parishioners can come together to develop a shared vision for growth and work on implementing this together.
Secondly, we need to think more innovatively and imaginatively about how we use and maintain church buildings.
In October 2015, the Church Buildings Review Group published its report on the stewardship of church buildings. 78% of the Church of England’s 15,700 churches are listed. Over 57% of churches are in rural areas and 91% of these are listed.
The Church of England is responsible for around 45% of Grade 1 listed buildings and almost three-quarters of these are in rural areas. Yet one in four rural parishes has fewer than ten regular worshipers and collectively £160 million is spent on maintaining parish buildings.
The report contains proposals to
(a) secure more financial support for listed buildings for the long term,
(b) change the law to create some specific new flexibilities for parishes and dioceses,
(c) incorporate building reviews into mission and ministry planning,
(d) enable individual dioceses to have a bigger role in seeking a use for closed buildings,
(e) establish a single church buildings team at Church House, and
(f) create a new Church Building Commission for England.
For me, the report brings out the significance of place and how the diocese, at a local level, has responsibility for strategic planning and developing new place-based initiatives. Indeed, there are numerous and imaginative examples of how church buildings have been adapted to community use, breathing new life into them.
The Building Review Group report, for example, suggests ‘Festival Churches’ as an alternative means of maintaining a church with almost no congregation without closing it completely. This new category of parish church means the building is used only for important celebrations and/or occasional weddings or funerals and is being piloted in some dioceses.
The interior of St Maurice Church in Horkstow (North Lincolnshire) has been transformed with surplus pews and stalls removed to create an open flexible space which can be used by the community.
Interpretation boards have been produced setting out the history of the church and village and a programme of evening events held to encourage local people to use the church (with at least 30 people at each event).
There are several examples in Cumbria where churches are providing a venue for the post office, delivery of public services and meeting place for charities and voluntary and community sector organisations.
In Norfolk, WiSpire (majority owned by the Diocese of Norwich) is using parish churches to provide better broadband services to the whole of the county not just the populated areas.
Finally, all of these reports reveal how churches can be burdens, blessings and assets for rural communities.
For Professor Woodhead, the answer is not only in better clergy and boosting congregations it is also about giving equal attention to entry-points into society, “those places where the rubber of Christianity meets the road of real life: in homes, playgroups, schools and other places where children are socialised” and I would add the places where people work (offices, farms, factories and so on).
As the Church of England continues its Reform and Renewal programme and with Christmas approaching (and many of us attending services) what more can we do to celebrate our churches all year round and keep them open?
The proposals contained in the Church Buildings Review Group are open for consultation until Friday 29 January 2016. Read more
Apparently giving people food without asking for any payment is a breach of their human rights. But for those who have no food and no money a foodbank is often the answer for a short term crisis solution. But what about a longer term fix? I was given an opportunity to visit “Community Shop” in Goldthorpe near Barnsley in Yorkshire, a one time coal town. It looks like any other shop from the outside with windows covered in information so the inside isn’t visible. Entry is by a swipe card just like for a hotel bedroom and the cards are only issues to a maximum of 750 people at any one time and to qualify you must be on a means tested benefit.
This is the next step on the ladder to financial recovery after foodbank – paying for food but not at the full price. Surplus food is bought from manufacturers and supermarkets, all still in date but available simply because of over-production. Normally disposal would cost the manufacturer or supermarket but Community shop will pay them 10% of the shelf price so the food isn’t destroyed. The supermarket then sells it to its customers for 30% of the shelf price which means they get heavily discounted food but the 20% covers the supermarket costs. They stock 800 lines covering all the main shopping items except alcohol and tobacco. Partner supermarkets include Asda and Waitrose as well as M&S.
There are currently two “Community Shops”, the other being situated in South Norwood, London. They receive logistical support from “Company Shop” which operates discount priced shopping outlets for employees of large companies.
But here’s the big difference between these two supermarkets and the others on the High Street. During the 6 month membership customers undertake a programme which includes cookery and nutrition and a dedicated fortnight getting ready for a guaranteed interview with a potential employer. One of the staff is a chef who provides meals for those on the courses often inviting them to help. The kitchen and cafe is airy and well kitted out all of which honours the clients.
It is a real place of hope.
Will we see more? I hope so.
Mark Ward LLM
If you are sitting comfortably I will begin, for this morning I may be a little longer than I usually am. And that’s my subject – time. Does it rule your life? Do you get up at a set time, have your lunch at a set time my grandma did, lunch at 12, tea at 4, go to bed at a set time? Are you always on time, hours early or that person that sneaks in every week at precisely 5 minutes late? Do you keep your clocks 5 minutes early to avoid being late? Do you have a calendar that you write all the events in your life in or a diary you carry with you. Of course keeping up with everything is now very simple. I haven’t worn a watch for years except for the fake $10 Rolex I wear with my dinner jacket when I need to dress to impress but which loses 10 minutes in every hour. I carry my time around with me on my phone as well as my diary although since Gary arrived I have also used a calendar as a back-up for church matters which he kindly supplies although more often than not I forget to update it or I put something so cryptic I can’t remember what it signifies and I end up emailing or texting him for a translation.
Some of you know that we have a caravan on the east coast which my parents originally owned. My mother filled it with clocks and every time we used it the first thing I did was to collect them all up and put them in a cupboard because quite honestly I didn’t want to be ruled by regulated time when I was relaxing. That’s not to say I don’t like clocks, I love them and we have three I particularly cherish, one which was my father’s, he had very few possessions that were his alone, he had owned the clock before he was married. It sits in our conservatory unwound but a reminder. We also have a cuckoo clock which hangs in the hall which I wind every morning and depending on the weather it gains or losses in equal measure and has to be hung at an angle otherwise it stops. The cuckoo remains off until the grandchildren arrive when we spend every half hour dashing to see the cuckoo appear, and we have a grandfather clock which belonged to my grandparents and was made in Sleaford, where they lived by Nathaniel Shaw. It always loses despite attempts to alter the regulator. And there is a similar clock in the cottage we use in Pembrokeshire which I wind as soon as I arrive because the tick relaxes me. As you might have guessed these clocks mean rather more to me than their function which in all three cases is somewhat wanting.
I wonder who it was that decide we needed to chop the cycle of day and night into 24 equal parts and then chop those into 60 equal parts and those again into 60 equal parts which of course we now chop into hundredths and thousandths. Why did it become important for us to identify certain parts of the day, and why did we decide that the hour and the half hour would signify the start times of many events in our life rather than just doing them when it pleased us?
Well we couldn’t live our lives without measuring time now could we? How would we know to be at the station at the time the train is supposed to be there even though usually it isn’t? How could we all congregate here or in a cinema so we could all watch the film or start the service at the same time, how could the family meet around the table to eat food together at the point it is ready?
But is time something much bigger than knowing when something is happening?
Many faiths believe that time is cyclical, that it consists of a series of repeating ages. In our tradition of Judaic Christianity we believe in linear time from the creation of the earth to the end of time. Of course we have no idea when that will be, it could be later today, in which case I hope it is after the Strictly results because I want to know who has been evicted, or of course it could be millennia away.
When Jesus was on earth telling the time was rather simpler. In the Gospel we are given the fig tree to consider. People only needed to look at the fig tree to know what season it was, in bud, spring, in full leaf, summer, ripe fruit, autumn and then looking dead during winter. They knew when to plant by reference to the activity of plants and the position of the sun in the sky.
Jesus appears to suggest that when he returns the weather will be turned on its head, the seas will roar and strange things will happen to the sun, moon and stars.
So maybe despite the recent rainy spell I will get to see Strictly this evening as the sun seems to still be where it should be in the sky.
Jesus talks about time simply in terms of being ready. He doesn’t say to us, you are ok as long as you write “prepare for the end of time” in your calendar for 5th June 2023, he says, you have to be constantly ready because I’m not going to tell you when I’m coming back. Being able to measure time isn’t going to help you, you need to be ready now.
Well we do measure time to give our lives order, and today is New Year’s Day so Happy New Year. No my calendar isn’t a month out, today is the first day of our new Christian Year, Advent Sunday, Advent translated from the Latin meaning “coming”. The next 4 weeks are about preparing ourselves for the coming of the Lord, the birth of the Saviour of the World. At Advent and in Lent we prepare, we prepare for life and we prepare for death and new life in the cross and resurrection. These are times which we limit by the calendar so we know when they begin and end but in reality they are just passages of space for us to get ready. It’s a shame that in this coming season we have allowed ourselves to be overcome by the hype of Christmas, the adverts that began several weeks ago, the cards that have been in the shops since September and even in in the hallowed space of Winchester Cathedral Close the Christmas Market was open last week with incessant piped carols already playing, maybe I’m being cynical but is the Cathedral cashing in on our materialist approach allowing it to overshadow the very festival it stands to celebrate? Why do we attach so much more time and effort to getting ready for a massive outpouring of excess than we do to be in a place to meet Jesus when he comes, either symbolically at Christmas as a baby or for that second time he tells us will happen? Verse 34 of the Gospel “Don’t let yourselves become occupied with too much feasting and drinking and with the worries of this life”.
I know many will view my actions as bah-humbug, as evidenced by my Christmas headwear, but when everyone starts decorating the office with baubles and bits of tinsel I always refuse to join in, not just because I’m a killjoy, but because for the next four weeks we need to focus on getting ready, being in the right place and not being distracted. It’s a time to reflect, a time to take stock and see who we really are and whether we are coming up short in the eyes of God.
I am very privileged to be able to spend quite a bit of time with Bishop Jonathan because we sit on several committees together and over the years we have become firm friends. Jonathan has a very elastic attitude to time, so much so we have started to tell him everything begins half an hour before it really does so he will only be a bit late, but it is because he is more concerned about what happens in the time he has, than the time itself that makes him the godly man he is. Several weeks ago now I wasn’t very well and he found out. His diary is madness personified, it is always packed, but somehow he found out I was ill and the next morning the doorbell rang and there he was. I remember saying to him, “surely you should be somewhere else” and he said to me “brother” this is where I need to be”. He spent far too long chatting to me seemingly completely unworried about all the other things he should have been doing. He had brought a book with him called “Living The Jesus Prayer” by Irma Zaleski. It is only 63 pages long and many of them are only half full as it has 62 very short chapters. I don’t think he will mind me telling you that he told me that he finds prayer really hard – two minutes in and he is thinking about tomorrow, next week, getting the car serviced, anything but what he is supposed to be doing. He firmly believes that much of our private prayer time should be listening not talking, so he has this simple mantra. First he stays quiet for just a few moments and the he says “Come Holy Spirit, Come Holy Spirit, Come Holy Spirit” and after another short pause he starts to use the Jesus prayer which is simply “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me, a sinner, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me, a sinner,” which he repeats over and over until his mind is clear of all the distractions. Zaleski has one chapter about meeting God alone and she says this, we say “have mercy on me” not “on us” because we have to make our own individual peace with God, find our own relationship with Christ, meet him face to face. No one can do it for us. Somebody can bring us to Jesus but we must meet him ourselves” or in a popular saying – “you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”, it’s up to the horse to make the final move, and so it is for us.
I have been using the Jesus prayer since that day and it works for me. I printed it and put it on the key fob of my car keys but within a day or so I’d remembered it by heart. So, this advent I simply ask you this – are you prepared? If the idea of the Jesus prayer appeals to you as a way to stop and move out of our time to spend time with God, and if you’d like to not only use it but think a bit around it I have put 10 copies of the book on the coffee bar, please feel free to take one. If you are no 11 onwards you can get it for around £5 on Amazon or Abebooks.
I’m going to finish with a short extract from the chapter “desire for the presence of God” which goes like this, and this is the author speaking:
I once heard a story about an old parishioner of St Jean Vianney (the Cure of Ars) who used to spend a lot of time alone in church. St Jean became curious about him and asked him one day, “Why do you spend so much time sitting in church? What do you think about?” The old man answered, “Oh I just look at Him, He looks at me, and we are happy together.”
This wonderful story illustrates two important points about contemplative prayer: it is not complicated, but is a simple way of being in the presence of God; and we do not have to go to the desert or enter a monastery to experience it. We can practise it anywhere, at any time. But most of us, like the Russian Pilgrim, need help and encouragement to begin. We need to find a path of prayer, a simple way of experiencing the presence of God and remaining in it. It can be for us a means of entering the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. As Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity has said, “Heaven is God and God is in my heart”.
Living the Jesus Prayer, Practising the prayer of the heart. Irma Zaleski. Canterbury Press, Norwich edition printed 2011
Mark Ward, LLM
As a benefice we support the work of the Trussell Trust which overseas the activities of over 420 foodbanks in the U.K. including Ringwood foodbank which has a distribution centre in Fordingbridge. We have a shopping trolley in St Mary’s Fordingbridge and a box in St Boniface, Woodgreen where we leave donations of non-perishable food which is used to provide emergency support to local individuals and families in difficulty supplying a 3 day pack which will make 9 meals.
As part of its income generation Trussell Trust has a recycling business based in Salisbury which supports 14 community shops which recycle clothing, household goods and furniture, sending worn out items to be recycled and re-selling other items through the shops at very discounted prices. All local people can volunteer irrespective of age, disability or other life crisis. The shops also act as a place of safety and a listening ear.
Some items of furniture are put through the workshop to repair or modernise them. This work is undertaken by volunteers learning practical skills.
To donate furniture, clothing household goods and electrical items please visit 13/15 Market Square Ringwood. Larger items of furniture can be collected by ringing 01722 580180 and asking for the recycling team. They accept white goods which we can renovate and sell but please enquire before booking a pick-up. Beds, sofas etc without a fire label cannot be accepted as it is not legal for the charity to pass them on to anyone.
For more information about Trussell Trust visit www.trusselltrust.org