Can we save rural churches from closure?

Can we save rural churches from closure?
Summary
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
investigates.

This is a paper by Jessica Sellick, Rose Regeneration for the Rural Services Network:
http://www.rsnonline.org.uk/analysis/can-we-save-rural-churches-from-closure
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
faith groups.
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.

Jessica is a researcher/project manager at Rose Regeneration; an economic development business working with communities, Government and business to help them achieve their full potential. She has undertaken a mid-term evaluation of a Wellbeing Service, which aims to reduce hospital admissions and the need for long term residential care by putting in place a community package of support (e.g. equipment, adaptations, TeleCare) and recently completed a European project on ‘social value’. Jessica’s public services work includes research for Defra on alternative service delivery and local level rural proofing. In her spare time, Jessica volunteers for a farming charity. She can be contacted by email jessica.sellick@roseregeneration.co.uk or telephone 01522 521211. Website: www.roseregeneration.co.uk Twitter: @RoseRegen
Alan Spedding, 08 December 2015
RuSource briefings provide concise information on current farming and rural issues for rural professionals. They are circulated weekly by email and produced by Alan Spedding in association with the Arthur Rank Centre, the national focus for the rural church. Previous briefings can be accessed on the Arthur Rank Centre website at
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© Alan Spedding 2015. This briefing may be reproduced or transmitted in its entirety free of charge. Where extracts are used, their source must be acknowledged. RuSource briefings may not be reproduced in any publication or offered for sale without the prior permission of the copyright holder.

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