This is a guest post by Rev Tiffer Robinson – A Church of England Priest responsible for four rural parishes in Suffolk. He is also a newly elected member of the General Synod. Tiffer tweets at@tifferrobinson
The Church in the countryside is in a crisis. Expensive cold medieval buildings with a handful of elderly worshippers sitting on uncomfortable pews Sunday by Sunday, sharing a priest with half a county. But Giles Fraser has a solution: Close all the churches! Well, not all of them. Keep the odd one open every 20 villages, and put a couple of priests in. The minster model, he calls it – it worked over a millennia ago, why not now?
Well, no. I’m sorry Giles, and the steady trickle of urbanites who have commended you for being “brave” and “bold”. If you had bothered to ask any of us who, you know, do the rural ministry thing for a living, we could have pointed out that we’ve sort of thought of that. And here’s the reasons it’s just, well, daft.
Firstly, that isn’t the minster model. The minster model is about larger church centres resourcing the mission and ministry in every surrounding community. Which usually involves some form of ecclesiastical building. What you are proposing is just having big churches around and encouraging people to go to them. We already have that. In most rural communities a town or suburban church is only a short drive away, and some choose to make the journey for consistency of worship, or for better music, or simply not to make up a tenth of the congregation. But the vast majority don’t, and wouldn’t. As others have said, the methodists tried this, the baptists tried this, the post office has tried this, and it hasn’t worked. Why would it work for Anglicans, who have a far greater sense of incarnational parochial ministry, where it has failed (catastrophically) for everyone else?
Secondly, no one wants our buildings. The state aren’t going to take them on. The various organisations that from time to time buy important redundant churches are maxed out, and don’t want the average village church anyway. What would happen to most of these buildings were we to follow this route is that they would fall to the diocese to maintain and make safe. This would then increase costs for every extant parish in the area – I’m not so sure urban churches will willingly fund the maintenance of St Agathas in the marshes, which was previously being cared for by a PCC and supportive village community. Private ownership has its own problems – I know plenty of churches left to rot in villages where the developer ran out of money, or fell foul of listing regs, and the community have a very visible reminder that the Church of England is crumbling before their eyes. When I have gone to village events in such places to represent the Church I am asked what I am doing there: “we don’t have a church anymore”. In terms of mission, it’s the worst thing you could do.
Thirdly, and more importantly, we aren’t just a club with too many buildings, but we are a Church. Indeed, we are the Church of England. We don’t just pack up and leave. Whether you understand the role of the local church as a placeholder for the gospel, or as a place where the sacraments are celebrated, churches are important for the communities they serve. And rural villages are a place where the parish system still works. Where people do want to get to know their neighbours. Where it’s important that the local vicar knows who you are, whether you come to church or not. Where 10 people on a Sunday morning represents a regular opportunity for the lonely to meet their neighbours and support one another. And on that note – where rural ministry is properly resourced and wisely managed the proportion of the population in Church on a Sunday is often significantly higher than at Elephant and Castle. The four churches I minister in have a combined a population of 2000, and we have 80-100 men, women and children in church every Sunday. I know of churches where a third of the village attend a monthly songs of praise. Where the Christmas carol service is attended by more people than actually live in the parish. Close these churches, and that ends, overnight. We’ve seen it happen.
There are plenty of challenges facing the rural church, and clergy deployment is a real problem, and in many dioceses finances are dire. But there are those of us who are at the coalface, who are discussing and experimenting and growing the kingdom of God in these places, with these people. Maybe just give us a ring the next time you decide to undo all of our hard work with a soundbite.