Defending the rural church: Delusional or Essential?

In a guest post, rural minister and General Synod member Tiffer Robinson writes:

“Rural churches have experienced falling congregations for decades” or so says the Guardian article about the Church of England proposals to remove the need for weekly Sunday services. The Church in the countryside is seen as being in the last stages, the death rattle louder than the dulcet tones of a handful of elderly people singing in a cold damp church in Orbiston Parva. This is what is in the background of this proposal from the Simplification group, to work toward finding a solution to the problem of rural churches. “We simply have too many buildings” I have heard from bishops and laity alike.

And yet, I think the statistics show a different story. The Released for Mission rural ministry report from early 2015 showed that just as many rural churches had grown and declined over the previous decade as urban churches. The same report says that around 40% of worshippers in the Church of England are attending rural churches, which serve only 17% of the general population. I think that bears repeating: over a third of all bums on pews in the Church of England live in these tiny villages, twice the attendance per head of the urban church. What’s more, if you rank all the dioceses by the proportion of the population attending church, it’s the rural dioceses at the top. The one exception is Lincoln, which had a long term strategy of reducing clergy numbers and putting more and more churches together, a strategy they have since reversed. Would that all dioceses would learn from their mistake!

Now why do I say this? Because there is a tendency, and worryingly quite a top down tendency, to want to follow the people, who are of course in the cities and towns. Even with a 50% increase in ordinations, as hoped for, we will only just replace the baby boomers who are all retiring. So if cuts need to be made, we should cut from the countryside, and focus on the population centers. After all, we spend nearly 5 times more per head on ministry to rural people than we do for urban estates. How can we justify that? Are we, as Bishop Philip North has said, a Church that has taken a preferential option for the rich?

But this is a bizarre way of looking at the way the Church pays for ministry. There isn’t a central pot that gets spread around; the vast majority of ministry is paid for by the churches who receive it. Of course rural clergy have smaller populations to serve, that’s just sheer logistics, but not only do these small struggling churches pay for that, but they often subsidise ministry in the urban estates as well (as well they should!). To put it in terms that someone with a “mini-MBA” might understand, if you had a network of retail outlets, and some were more expensive to run but also made more profit, why on earth would you start shutting them down? Of course you wouldn’t. And it’s worth remembering that poverty isn’t only an urban phenomenon, it’s just more hidden in rural areas. Most of those who have come to faith or started attending our churches in my time here are from working class backgrounds, and some live on or below the poverty line.

Synod will be looking soon at changes to the canons to allow churches to forgo the current requirement to have morning and evening prayer and Holy Communion in every parish church every Sunday. The canons already have an exception built into them, Canon B14A, specifically mentioning benefices with more than one parish church, that they can organise the worship of the churches however they see fit as long as the bishop is happy. Synod has already given initial approval to the suggestion that there be some churches which are allowed to cease having regular worship and to become “Festival churches”.

I have mixed feelings about this. Yes, I want churches that are facing closure to have other options, but I don’t want churches to be pressured into ceasing regular worship because of lack of clergy or funds. The four rural churches I serve still have weekly worship, and we have lay ministers who between them take around half the services. We are blessed to have around 100 in our pews on an average Sunday, but only because we keep our church buildings open for worship.

2071132463Yes, we have to fund ministry to urban areas and deprived estates. So here is a plea to those involved in strategy and decision-making in the church: please keep the rural church strong, so that we can continue to partner with our brothers and sisters in our mission to the whole of England, and beyond.

“As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Corinthians 12: 20-22)

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20 thoughts on “Defending the rural church: Delusional or Essential?”

  1. I don’t recognise this idea of the rural churches subsidising urban ones. In our Rural deanery we receive a subsidy of £40,000 from the diocese. We have far too many churches in the countryside. Tiffer conveniently overlooks the fact that every village has a church because when they were built there were no motorcars. The way we are spread is simply not fit for purpose and it needs an overhaul.

    • Now we have cars a village shouldn’t have a church? That’s an odd logic. It’s still a community.

      I find it strange when people argue that technology creates imperatives to make life worse for people. Technology is supposed to be about progress and making life better. If the existence of the motorcar implies that we should close village churches then it’s a very odd kind of progress.

    • I have experience of Messy Church leadership in both an urban setting (village of 200 with small church school) and in a city centre (small city, large Anglican church). The contrast was huge – and the village’s Messy Church seemed to be so much better.
      In a village, especially with the relationships built up round a school, newcomers to Messy Church would know most of the regular attenders and most of the leaders. In a city, as a new leader I knew no-one – none of the other leaders and none of the attenders (whether new or regular). The contrast was huge.
      The significance of the regular, routine, even mundane, connections that are built up by worshipping where you live is great. You could even call it ‘incarnational’ And this is lost if you drive out of the village to a town or city somewhere else. It may be better for you as an individual, but the missional opportunities are lost.
      The sadness when the village’s Messy Church was forced to close was huge. The reason? Many of the regular church members resented the outward-looking emphasis.

    • Thank you for this comment – yes you are right that I am oversimplifying, and I sadly don’t have the stats to back up that comment outside of my own diocese, though anecdotally it appears to be the picture across the board. I’d agree with Will Jones that the invention of cars, which has after all now been around for a while, doesn’t invalidate the stats that I have presented in the blog post. People have been able to drive for a while now, but it seems that when it comes to church they, by and large, haven’t.

  2. Great post, Tiffer (hi, by the way).

    Completely agree, as DAC secretary in Coventry I find myself constantly trying to make these kinds of points to any who will listen. There are some very strange ideas going round about the way the CofE is funded and the costs of rural ministry, and a general ignorance about the relative strength of the rural church. I hadn’t realised about Lincoln and its misguided strategy; that’s very helpful to know.

    Another myth is that the cost of upkeep of rural churches falls entirely on the small congregations or on central church funds. This wholly overlooks the huge amounts of grant, lottery and government money that goes into maintaining our listed rural churches (and almost all of them are listed). Of course churches still have to find quite a bit of money to maintain their building, but they are by no means on their own. Meanwhile, very little to do with buildings is funded by the institutional church above the parish level, so the supposed saving that would be made by closing rural churches is as far as I can see very small. While (as you point out) the costs in terms of lost revenue would be much larger. And that’s just the financial argument!

    There are of course many rural churches struggling to maintain a congregation large enough (and young enough) to keep it going, so short of revival, or at least more effective mission, some will have to close. But I don’t see a need for any kind of strategic Dr Beeching style programme, as though there is some big pot of church money that could usefully be redirected to the currently favoured urban mission. The townies are eyeing up a non-existent pot of gold.

  3. Thanks Tiffer – that’s a really helpful post, which those of us in less rural situations need to hear. Before coming to semi-suburban Cambridgeshire, I served four rural parishes in Norfolk, with five medieval buildings (and six churchyards…) The proportion of the population regularly attending Sunday worship was higher than I have now – we didn’t have a service in every church every Sunday, but people were used to it and knew when and where to turn up. My present single church is fairly full of both people and life, and is seen as ‘successful’ by the diocese (and me, most of the time!). And yet, in missional terms, it is no more ‘successful’ than the five rural churches in my former benefice. We need to be really careful that we do not effectively rip the heart out of rural communities – the church is often the only remaining public building in the parish – simply because we lack the imagination to envision ways of being church that no longer rely on the fantasy of the parish priest in every community. George Herbert has a lot to answer for in this regard – he was ordained for less than four years before his death at the age of 39, serving all his time in one tiny parish, yet his ‘Country Parson’ has been hugely influential in the English understanding of ministry in the rural church to this day. I wonder how he might have revised his opinions and advice if he had had a longer ministry, or lived in our time.

    • I forgot to say, Herbert lived 400 years ago. Might as well have been on Mars for all the relevance he has today. (In my humble opinion!)

  4. You can read about Tiffer’s work as a curate at
    The usual suspects related to vibrant church life are there – personal invitation, good children’s work and the opportunity for deeper growth. However, many rural churches (and urban ones too, probably) reject this type of approach – and I suspect it is these that need to be closed, while the living churches are supported.

  5. As a member of a group of churches that is (at least compared to the C of E) new to the christian scene, I can tell you that their focus is predominantly in urban areas. Given that this isn’t an isolated example of where denominations are focusing their resources, then there could be an argument that if all churches only focus on urban areas then they will all be chasing the same people. As such there is almost little point in doing so as there would be so many churches competing for the same people.

    Conversely, in rural communities it could well be that the only church is the local C of E church and so it has a much larger (in terms of percentage of population) congregation as it is the only church ministering to that area. It is also the only church that is likely to be able to easily reach those who live there.

    Therefore, it is likely that any church that focuses on reaching rural people could well see much better results, as everyone else is focused on the urban areas.

    • Yes this is one point I couldn’t quite squeeze into the article – urban areas tend to be far better catered for in terms of other denominations. In rural areas, although some will drive to nearby gathered churches, by and large the Anglicans are the last ones left.

  6. Excellent article. In spite of the reducing clergy numbers, the rural church maintains such a precious ministry throughout the country.

  7. Interesting responses here.
    Another great change I see in “my” parishes (and corroborated by colleagues) is the fact that congregation members no longer attend every week. I might have a pool of 40 “regulars” but on any given day it’s unlikely I’ll see more than 25 of them.
    It’s also worth mentioning I think that the origin of the story was a mis-quote of the Bishop of Wilsden. What I’ve seen reported is that churches should stop holding services on a Sunday. What the Bishop actually said was that the requirement in Canon Law that each church should have morning and evening services each Sunday should be considered for repeal. He suggests this because it’s impractical (and has been for a long time) because of the reduction in the number of people available to lead services (one parish priest serving multi-parish benefices, let alone who might attend twice a day. That’s very different from what was reported as a attention grabbing headline.

    • Thanks Alan – I hope I haven’t perpetuated the media’s misunderstanding of the subject, though obviously I am responding to them in their misunderstanding. There’s no suggestion that Pete or the simplification group are driving the charge to retreat from the countryside (and some would argue that there is no such move, though I would disagree with them). I have noted that it could be read like that is what I am saying, so I may change the wording in the first paragraph to reflect that.

  8. This issue is a circle very difficult to square and I have two opposite observations from my time both as a rural rector and a town vicar.

    The church’s mission requires, in my opinion, a worshipping community in every physical community. It doesn’t need to be a church and it doesn’t need to be a stipendiary priest but it does need a local leader/president.
    The pot luck rota of different services at different places in multi parish benefices is a flawed approach. I inherited such an approach in a 4 church benfice in Norfolk, and only the hard core knew where to go when. When we arranged to have a service in every church at the same time every week our congregations doubled immediately.

    However, my rural colleagues often point out that they are more effective than town churches at community penetration e.g. they claim 25% church attendance in their small villages compared to 1 or 2% in the towns. However they neglect to take account of the different proportion of resources in rural ministry compared to towns – e.g. 1 stipendiary minister to 1,300 population in villages and 1 to 9,000 in towns. I suspect if towns had the same density of clergy as rural parishes, much better statistics could be achieved.

    Let’s not pit rural against town – each model has its own strengths and weaknesses, But we do need to respect each other and face harsh truths in both contexts.

    • Martin, that’s really helpful. In some ways it would be good to treat these as two distinct areas of ministry. However, I am not sure that is going to be possible, because of the challenge of declining clergy numbers.

      Dioceses are going to have to make some hard decisions about which clergy posts they recruit to—unless they simply decide to let the ‘market’ decide.

      If you are being brutally mathematical about it, the question to ask would be: in which context do we see the greatest number of disciples per clergy person?

  9. There is good Christian logic in continuing to staff the rural parish as generously as we possibly can.The problem is that staffing is always thought of in terms of full-time paid clergy. The country parishes could be easily ministered to by SSMs and Readers, so that every parish could still have its parson to pray and care for an entire community in that uniquely personal way.. What is wrong with that?
    The Church is still obsessed with the careers of its full-time career clergy. Maybe that model is now out of date.
    I looked after a very rural parish of 250 people for three years and in that time my ministry cost nothing, but we paid the diocese nearly £5000 in quota each year.

    • Sorry for not seeing your response before.

      I agree that, where it is available, voluntary ministry from LLMs and SSMs can be key in a rural community – I have one parish where a reader was considered “the vicar” there for several decades, which is great. The problem is that such voluntary ministry cannot be relied upon when making strategic decisions about who gets what clergy etc because SSMs and LLMs and readers move on, retire, become ill, begin having to care for family. A benefice near me went from a full time stipendiary to a half time post because there were several SSMs, but they all retired or moved away, and then one of them applied for the post, and so ended up looking after a full time benefice with much less support.

  10. Another big problem, is recruiting clergy for the rural church in the first place. Many do not see it as a fulfilling place for ministry but somewhere to wind down as they head for retirement, but rural ministry has plenty of challenges and opportunities to offer. The rural church has not had a prominent voice in the past so perhaps this debate is helpful in opening up the conversation.

  11. Tiiffer – thank you for a very helpful post. I moved in the summer from a rural team where one church in particular saw growth as a result of engagement with its school and community and all churches gained from working together.
    I now lead a rural and semi rural team where one of the challenges will be developing a point of presence in a housing estate when the church in the “old” part of the village closed 5 years ago. The legacy of pain from this makes the situation more complex. Thankfully the Rectory is on the new estate which gives us a base.


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