Church of England

The last chance to save our rural churches


There was a popular modern worship song that did the rounds a few years ago entitled ‘God of this City’. The chorus went:

For greater things have yet to come 
And greater things are still to be done in this City 
Greater thing have yet to come 
And greater things are still to be done in this City

It was never going to win any awards for its lyrics but it did seem to capture a moment of hope that resonated in some churches on both sides of the Atlantic. Worship that cries out our longings for God to move in power so often stirs my heart and spirit, but this song just turned me off and it was down to one thing. If I’m not living in a city, and I personally haven’t for a good while, I can’t sing these words with conviction. It’s fine for all those who are, but for the rest of us it all just sounds a bit too exclusive. Sure, I’m desperate to see God working in our cities, but also in our towns and villages too.

In the same way that we often complain that our politicians can’t see beyond the Westminster bubble, I sometimes get the impression that many high-profile church leaders have forgotten that beyond our suburbs, in the rural wilds, lie 65% of all Church of England churches and almost half of its members. We know that these churches are out there, but there’s little attention paid to them, especially when most of the exciting initiatives and events are going on in our big cities.

This is something that has bugged me, having grown up living in a village rectory in the West Country where there were plenty of sheep and cows but not so many people. The idea of attending a church that was actually warm and had a toilet was quite a novelty. Having finally escaped when I went to university, I was able to experience the other end of the spectrum too: large, vibrant churches bristling with people and resourced up to their eyeballs. These city churches have so much potential. They have the ability to reach thousands of people of all ages and from many different backgrounds, and when they get it right their ministries can potentially achieve great things on a large scale.

In contrast, a village church potentially only has a few hundred people on its doorstep. Most of its income will be used to pay for the minister (whom they will probably have to share with at least three other parishes) or preventing the roof from falling in. If a city church closes through lack of attendance, it’s not that difficult to find another a few streets away, even if it’s not the same denomination. In a village, if the church closes, a major focal point of the community is lost and quite often there will be no alternative unless you’re willing to jump into a car and regularly drive a fair distance to the next village or nearest town.

When he became Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby announced that his three key priorities would be prayer, reconciliation and evangelism. Since then it’s been heartening to see the Church of England beginning to focus on mission and church growth more seriously, having been largely in denial over the need to reverse its decline for so long. And so today’s meeting of the General Synod turns its attention to rural churches and will begin with a candid discussion about their future.

It’s very kind of everyone to have noticed that people might need to hear the gospel in a village as much as in the more vibrant parts of our country. With the majority of Methodist chapel doors now firmly closed, it’s pretty much only been the Church of England which has bothered with these non-urban communities. How many Pentecostal, New Frontiers or other denominations do we see laying down roots away from the bright city lights? Even the successful church planters such as HTB would rather establish a new congregation thousands of miles away in a different country than take a look at small towns outside of the M25. No one’s pretending this is glamorous stuff, but is God not interested in anywhere that doesn’t have a Costa or a Starbucks?

Perhaps village churches just aren’t worth the effort. This week the Synod was informed by John Spence, chairman of the Church’s finance committee:

We know that we have large numbers of parishes now with very small electoral rolls and with nobody on them below the age of 70. We know from what at least two diocesan bishops have said that in less than 10 years we will see a threat to the presence of church in communities across rural England.

Today’s discussion will centre around a new report,  Released for Mission, Growing the Rural Church, which presents a bleak picture. Rural clergy are spread so thinly between their parishes that they have little time to focus on anything other than the logistics of keeping their churches going. To compound matters, few have received any training on how to carry out such a role. It is only because of a heavy reliance on unpaid and retired clergy that the parish system has avoided disintegration already. Some congregations are decidedly reluctant to use anything but the Book of Common Prayer and show a lack of openness to any form of change. Children attending church are something of a rarity, and also many church buildings have become a huge drain on resources. In only a small number of parishes is there much happening that could be identified as outreach or mission, beyond regular Sunday worship.

It’s pretty obvious to anyone who has paid attention to these matters that many of these churches, to put it bluntly, are doomed. Any congregation that is aging and isn’t going out of its way to bring in new blood has no hope. Many will indeed be extinct in a decade.

The frustrating and saddening thing is that 30 years ago, as a child, I could see this happening. The rot had set in and it has continued to spread while those at the top have done little more than try to patch it up and leave it to someone else further down the line to deal with.

The Church of England’s website strap-line is to be “a Christian presence in every community”, but this ideal of being a church for everyone, seeking to offer worship, pastoral care and prophetic witness in every place, is hanging by a thread that is rapidly fraying. It is frankly unsustainable even with a massive injection of attention and resources. Only a genuine miracle will prevent the inevitable.

It shouldn’t have come to this, but here we are nonetheless. Desperate times call for, if not desperate measures, then certainly prompt action. If the CofE looks to implement strategies to remain present throughout England at the glacial speed it usually goes about its business, then by the time plans are in place it will be too late.

Justin Welby revisited his three key aims at Synod on Tuesday, reminding the Church of its duty to call Christians “to be those who worship and adore God in Christ, overflowing with the good news that we’ve received, making Christ known to all so that the good news is proclaimed effectively throughout the church”, and that the Church must work to encourage believers. “That change will not just happen,” he warned. “We can’t just hope for something magical to occur.”

This is hardly rocket science, but if churches are not willing to follow Jesus’ teaching, taking His good news into their communities and discipling those who respond, then there is little point expending energy looking to prop them up. There are, however, many rural churches that are doing wonderful things: running groups for the community; children’s work; seeker courses such as Alpha, and a new ‘Fresh Expression’ form of church. These churches do need support, and lots of it. Vicars need management-training to develop skills to manage multiple parishes effectively. Lay people need be enabled to take on leadership responsibility without restrictive rules hindering their participation. An injection of resources for some churches will be needed, especially when they do not have the numbers to fully fund projects and community initiatives. Church bureaucracy needs simplifying to reduce the burdens placed on clergy to free up time for missional activities (this process has already begun through Bishop Pete Broadbent’s Simplification Task Group). Opportunities for members of different churches to meet together to experience worship, discipleship and spiritual feeding need to increase through initiatives such as the Filling Stations that are spreading around the country.

The Church of England’s desire to be “a Christian presence in every community”, will require new approaches where congregations are on their last legs. Upkeep of buildings will be a major factor, and the concept of  ‘festival churches‘ proposed by Anna Norman-Walker, Canon Chancellor of Exeter Cathedral, offers a beneficial solution. These churches would have their upkeep paid for by the local community and in return the Church of England would guarantee a set number of services each year at festival times, including Christmas and Easter when congregations have traditionally swelled.

The situation is grim, but all is not lost. Many rural churches are still at the centre of their communities. Congregations may be small, but, proportionally, they will have a far higher percentage of locals attending than most city churches manage to draw. There is still plenty of goodwill towards these churches, even by those who never attend.

Radical action, prayer and thinking are urgently needed to rescue our rural churches. It will be challenging and require the biblical calling of churches and their members to override tradition. It will not be easy, but there really is no alternative, otherwise ‘God of this City’ might turn out to have had a prophetic element. That would be a profound and irreversible tragedy.