Talking (non)sense about rural mission

ImageWhen we lived in Poole, and the kids were small, we loved to ride on the Swanage Railway. Its steam and diesel locomotives, run by volunteers, gently haul visitors from the busyness of the seafront to the drama of Corfe Castle, still standing defiant against the destruction wrought by Cromwell after the Civil War. But the most fascinating thing about the line is how it came to be. It was recommended for closure by Beeching, and was due to shut in 1967, but passionate local protests delayed the decision for a further four years. Passenger services final ceased in January 1972—and the preservation society was formed four months later. It was only three years after the track was lifted that the rails were put down again.

It illustrates something significant about the Beeching process. Although Beeching’s cuts (proposed in 1963 as the Reshaping of British Railways) were seen (by him and others) as ‘cuts of the surgeon’s knife’, most would now see many of the cuts as a big mistake which should be reversed. Indeed, the list of lines cut shows that at least one was re-opened within a year—presumably at some cost. The BBC documentary two years ago, marking 50 years since Beeching’s report, demonstrated that much of his analysis was based on ignorance and misunderstanding; the men visiting stations and measuring efficiency often didn’t understand how the lines worked. As a result, whilst there was clearly a problem of inefficiency to be addressed, Beeching was offering the wrong solution because, as an outsider, he didn’t really understand the dynamics of what he was working with. The changes isolated many rural areas and accelerated car usage.

So Beeching was poorly researched, based on ignorance, and made the wrong recommendations which were expensive to reverse since, though an outsider, he thought he knew better than those at the coalface. Appropriate, then, for Giles Fraser to look to Beeching in his ‘solution’ to the challenge of rural mission. One rural minister offered a wonderful satirical response in the form of a letter to the parish magazine:

I was tidying the churchyard last week when a strange priest arrived.

However I have to stress I did not know he was a priest. From his open-necked shirt I assumed he was an accountant on “Dress-down Friday” at his office, nipped out from Banbury to eat his sandwiches. It was only from his posh accent and insistence that he alone was right about everything that I realised he was in fact Giles Fraser.

Mr Fraser – I cannot bring myself to call him “Fr Giles” or “Reverend” as he does not wear a dog collar – was on an expedition to find out what a rural church was. He told me that St Leodegarius was unnecessary, that it was too empty, that our rainbow banners were too insistent upon their association with Noah’s Ark, and that our church is a glorified rural bus stop and should be run by the council. I pointed out to him that our (Conservative) council had no desire to run a toilet-less 800-year-old building with a leaking roof in a small village, and he seemed to foam at the mouth.

He then asked why we did not have a Wednesday group for Sikh single mothers; where he could get a Starbucks; and where the nearest Tube station is. I told him because there are no Sikhs for miles around; Banbury; and That London. He shuddered and went off to revere a photograph of Jeremy Corbyn to settle his nerves. Then he bought a postcard of the church and went over the stile into Leys Meadow. I last saw him being chased by a flock of sheep, screaming “the country demons have come to get me!”

He’s not hoping to be the curate, is he?

It raises the question: is there any area of ministry where it is helpful for someone to offer simplistic solutions to a problem they don’t understand, especially where the aim appears to be not much more than grabbing headlines? I suppose we might put up with this from a journalist, but why would anyone in ministry think this was of any help at all?

There are some sobering and challenging facts to bear in mind about rural ministry in the Church of England. In terms of clergy deployment, there are more clergy in rural areas per head of population than there are in urban areas—in some dioceses, nearly twice as many. (You can find all the details in Statistics for Ministry.) Church attendance is also consistently higher in rural areas than urban as a percentage of the population. It is easier to see church growth in small congregations than in larger, so in many ways rural ministry offers a better model for mission than large, urban congregations do. And yet, the universal felt experience of those in rural ministry (which includes neither me nor Giles Fraser) is of being over-stretched and under-resourced, not least because we count numbers in buildings and measure miles we have travelled. The problems of buildings and their maintenance, and multi-parish benefices and their meetings, are well known. Tiffer Robinson, who is in rural ministry in Suffolk, offers this response to Fraser (also posted on Archbishop Cranmer):

2071132463The 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 millenia 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 4 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.

My final observation: If (as someone claimed on Twitter today) ‘evangelicals all agree with Giles’ then I wonder if we have become too urban, too pragmatic—and too lacking in self-awareness. I cannot recall an evangelical colleague who, as part of mission strategy, has not given a good deal of time and energy to thinking about the building that the church meets in. And if ‘place’ matters to people in an urban context, how much more does it matter in the countryside.

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14 thoughts on “Talking (non)sense about rural mission”

  1. I agree with you, closing churches in small communities is not the answer. Creating large minster churches is also an unhelpful model. However, there is something that brings the best of these two together. Teams of clergy working together so the focus is on Ministry being collaborative but Mission locally focused. Our Team which (an experiment) supports 12 Churches and has 3.5 full time clergy there is a small market town at the center but this give a focus rather than a central control. The Team live in their communities but are available to support across the area. Some Churches have services every week other only a few times a year. People can always find a service and there is always an array of different styles. You don’t have to travel more than a few miles or you can still walk to your local church. What is making our team work is that a larger Church has embraced the wider community and smaller churches have seen the advantage of working together. Our Mission Statement is Discovering God, affirming uniqueness and celebrating interdependence. We may not have the answer but what we are doing is ensuring that clergy are not left unsupported, that churches are not closed, that we work together and model the body of Christ and all it’s wonderful richness and diversity. Andrew

  2. I applaud the discussion here – the situation for many churches be they city, town or rural is challenging. I suspect that a one size fits all answer is unlikely. I do, however, feel that what Giles’ piece calls us to do is take a strategic view of what we are doing with our buildings and I would add our clergy and other resources. The historical model of the C of E does not, in my opinion, do this.

    Looking at comments thus far. The Beeching reference taps into a whole heap of stuff doesn’t it? But, stating it was done badly – does remind me of numerous PCC meetings, “we tried that in 19xx and it didn’t work then”. The closed church that I live next to was (a) built in the wrong place in the first place (b) possibly built for the wrong reason (the factory owners wanting the big church for themselves rather than to share it with the workers) and (c) made less and less geographically relevant due to proximity to other churches and changes in the local population. Yes, it could still have a use but the maintenance alone means other community building would be better. This story could be true of some rural churches too; buildings that were vanity projects of the Lord of the Manor or churches where the rural population they were built for has moved and changed in nature.

    I also live near to our town’s main Catholic church. They have closed two satellite churches in the town (congregations < 30) and retain two ‘mass centre’ in strategic locations; they are in numerical terms the most successful church in town. Yes, Methodist and URC colleagues have seen the opposite from similar, for different reasons tactics, but, I wonder if that is because they, and the C of E, cultivate a sense of belonging focussed on Priest and Place rather than the Person of Christ – I will not comment of the locus of belonging in the RC Church.

    Clearly, there will always be those that want to keep all our buildings going. I do wonder if the Steam preservation societies (Paul touches on these) would probably agree that keeping the line and kit going is not sensible in lots of ways. Perhaps we are called to be sacrificial in keeping buildings going but we do run this risk in some places of becoming an ecclesiastical preservation society rather than the living Church of God.

    I do hope and pray that we can start to look creatively at what is to be Church. Can rural ministers do the work of holding people together and creating community that Tiffer Robinson writes of without the pressure of maintaining aging, hard to look after buildings that in some cases are challenging to use for wider community use?

    For me the answer does lie in collaborative working – that is a “minster model” which is not hierarchical but supportive. Could we develop places where we come together, touching places, where we develop and sustain diverse and dispersed communities of disciples – some in old beautiful buildings, some in community halls, and some in peoples’ homes. All this held together in a shared love of Jesus and a desire to see the Kingdom of God at work.

  3. Five thoughts that may be relevant, at least in provoking others to bring their views:

    1. In1993 inThe Myth of the Empty Church (updated and revised as The ‘Empty’ Church Revisited in 2003) Robin Gill provided the historical data needed to prove that, far from not having enough churches, Britain has had too many churches for some time. The Victorian denominations, fuelled by a competitive, imperialistic spirit and a lack of realistic planning, over-supplied the land with churches that were in most cases never full. By 1901, in many areas, there were more available seats on pews in churches and chapels than there were members of the population! Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, whose policy was to ensure that their buildings were 70% full on Sunday morning even if this meant resisting local demand for more local worship centres, Anglicans and other Protestants almost never closed any of these over-supplied buildings. The legacy of this policy is ‘empty’ churches which tend to be a financial drain on resources, exhaust the constantly-moving priests, and become collections of disillusioned, nostalgic, sad people, off-putting to outsiders. ‘Empty’ churches can appear to offer conclusive evidence of the decline of religious belief: if 7 of us are worshipping in a church that could hold 250, our ancestors must have believed much more than we do and Christian faith is a thing of the past.

    2. Moreover, some church buildings are pushing small congregations beyond their ability to cope. I genuinely fear for the health of some local churchwardens.

    3. However, just closing churches is a recipe for disaster – when a church is closed by fiat, people don’t travel to the one they’ve been told they should join, they stay at home. This may not be the case with Roman Catholics, but it’s how it works with anglicans and other Protestants.

    4. So what do we do? One option is Church Merger – a proper longterm conversation between two local churches, with everyone part of the decision-making process, that may end up with one of the buildings being used more than the other, but both used sometimes. It would include key objects from churches being relocated, and ideally not decide WHICH church will be most used until after general agreement on the principle of merger has been achieved. There’s a Grove Book on church merger that might help.

    5. And another option, where a building is viable but priestly leadership is thinly spread, is local ministry. When visitors do come into a church with vibrant local ministry, even if there are few in the congregation they don’t leave depressed, but interested to see active participation. One such church is near here – weekly priestly ministry is not feasible, but the small (20 approx congregation) are keeping worship alive anyway. When the bishop met with the congregation, someone asked who was allowed to lead worship – his answer was “anyone I say can do it, anyone the churchwardens say can do it and anyone the Area Dean says can do it”. I’ve been in my present (largely rural) deanery 10 years – there were 24 Public Ministers (mostly paid clergy) then, now there are (I think) 87 – a lot less paid clergy, but lots of licensed lay ministers, authorised preachers, pastoral assistants, and all sorts. People like me – the remaining incumbents – work in teams, supporting the local ministers, and have a role more like that of Titus or Paul than that of a classic “Vicar”, and I for one am glad of it.

  4. What a fascinating discussion, & comparing church closures with Beeching is quite enlightening. I have lived and been a minister in villages since 1976. The railway in our village was closed because BR removed the trains that were used daily by those going to work. Trains later in the day were not well supported. So the obvious answer was to say it is not viable.

    Rural churches have similar problems
    1) Service times are normally planned on the availability of clergy. So services are laid on at inconvenient times for ordinary people. Answer – let us have more lay led services. The clergy are here partly to help and encourage people to do it themselves.

    2) Churches do not have to be shut. They can be used during the week for the benefit of the community. Three of the churches in the benefice where I now live have weekly coffee, with bring & buys, raffle etc. The Episcopal church in US has discovered that chaotic coffee results in growing congregations!

    3) Fifth Sundays often mean ONE service in ONE of the churches. Total congregations on that day result in a severe reduction in the number of worshippers. This sort of thing that will probably happen if we close our village churches & try to get people to go elsewhere. Christians, like much cheap wine, do not travel well!

    4) Occasional worshippers in particular expect to go to their own village church. If we are concerned with attracting people to worship and become followers of Jesus, we need to face the fact that those on the fringe or outside our normal Christian community will not go elsewhere. Major festivals (some of which are not in the original church calendars such as Harvest, & Remembrance Sunday) need to be local. Major Christian Festivals such as Pentecost & even Easter are now largely ignored by the population.

    5) Closing a church creates the impression that we are giving up. I am constantly surprised by the generosity of non regular worshippers in keeping the church open. A closed church results in a feeling of bereavement and has the disastrous effect of creating the impression that God has deserted them. Very bad theology I know, but that is how communities feel. The basis of our faith is supposed to be Emmanuel – God is with us!

    Jimmy Hamilton-Brown

  5. How few people would have to turn up each Sunday before we do close them? Twenty years ago we’d say ten. How many weeks in a row with no parishioners before we close the door?

  6. It’s interesting that a few Psephizo posts ago (‘What does it take to grow’) Richard Chartres’ lecture touched on the closing down of church buildings in his London diocese. He was very clear about his reluctance to let this happen; he had to face down the people with lack of vision, lack of hope and lack of imagination whose instinct was to withdraw and, presumably, manage decline. As Ian notes with the Beeching cuts, this lack of foresight and imagination is a national disease and certainly not confined to the CofE. Interestingly (long after Beeching) the argument for closing the Settle to Carlisle railway was based on an over inflated prediction of the cost of restoring the Ribblehead viaduct and, surprisingly, it was Michael Portillo who allowed a committed group of people to prove that the line was viable – very much against the spirit of the government at that time!

    My own instinct, living in a fairly rural situation, is that buildings absolutely do matter: they are a visible sign of Christians’ presence, of Christian commitment to local witness, where Christians as a group may be found, and where a welcome still exists, where people can contemplate the eternal without embarrassment. They still have an important role in the great life events of local families, many of whom might, if asked, show considerable interest in contributing to their maintenance. Do our physical homes have no call on our hearts – places of shelter and sanctuary which we share and enjoy with those whom we most dearly love? Of course they do, and so it should be with our church buildings.

    As far as the reality of the cost of maintaining the buildings is concerned it would be interesting to discover the true average annual cost simply to keep the masonry, roof, windows and doors in good order (all other costs depend on how the building is used). My guess is that it is far less than one might imagine, but that the costs don’t come annually, they come in eye-watering chunks over the decades, for which money is not regularly laid aside. To re point a tower or steeple with all the necessary scaffolding is very expensive but equally infrequently required.

    However, the thought of Giles Fraser cycling down our pothole strewn country lanes with a rucksack full of dynamite on his back does have a certain appeal…

  7. An excellent reply.
    The church I attend has on average 7 in the congregation and 5 in the choir. We share a priest with 2 other parishes. The parish we serve is 2 miles away from the 11th century church which sits next to a mini stately home surrounded by farmland. In years gone by children would walk to the church down the lanes. These days this doesn’t happen. The music is way better than one would expect with sung Eucharist every week and regular anthems. We also regularly sing BCP communion. The tiny congregation, who are nearly all on the PCC, work hard to keep the building in good condition, yes. It is a small but beautiful church with a 15th century painted screen and a 13th century double piscina as well as a William Morris window. But we also pay our full parish share and have a tiny ministry team looking at mission. Being very rural Harvest is a major event closely followed by Remembrance, Christmas and Easter. At these services our little church congregation grows.
    If our church closed these country people would not go to a church in a town. They would stop going at all.

  8. I would just like to make a short comment, all evangelicals do not agree with Mr Fraser, I am one and certainly disagree. I live in rural SW France and attend various churches including Anglican, it may not be my first choice, but boy am I glad they are there. My only other observation in this, is the lack of what is God’s plan, how much time was spent in prayer, deep meaningful meditative prayer seeking His guidance. I would suggest that Mr Fraser goes back to square one, because once a Church building has gone it has gone and yet more sheep are lost, and there is no longer a Shepard to search for them.

  9. Fraser’s a revolutionary, tearing things down is his daily bread. He likes the clean simplicity of his socialist ideals, not the messy reality of rural ministry, and especially not its long-term investment. Fraser’s too impatient for all that. Like the 17th century Levelers he appears to model himself after, he wants Jerusalem, now.

    I agree with Ian on this. Destroying community buildings is no answer.

  10. Ian,
    I’ve read the Telegraph account of Beeching’s swingeing cuts, but I’m a bit dubious about the appropriateness of the analogy.

    The Telegraph article to which this post is linked explains why Beeching’s measures were unpopular:

    ‘While it was true that many cross-country and branch lines were slow and lightly trafficked, their closure forced people to buy cars, especially as replacement bus services – known by the seedy-sounding term “bustitution” – were poor or non-existent, and as hire-purchase schemes allowed fledgling motorists to take to Mr Marples’s roads in ever increasing numbers on the “never-never”. ‘
    In other words, people didn’t so much resent the closures as they protested against the distinct lack of a dependable, efficient and economical alternative. The statistics on car ownership bear this out: ‘The proportion of households in Great Britain which did not have access to a car fell from 38% in 1985/86, to 30% in 1995/97, and to 25% in 2005. It has remained at this level up to 2010.’
    Those proportions must have been even lower for rural areas.

    Well, in the case of rural churches, there are viable alternatives. Instead of the pulpit being the preserve of the clergy, a fast-track scheme for lay leadership could provide ministry support that is complementary to the efforts of overstretched clergy. We do the same with our justices of the peace, who require no formal qualifications, but must be of unimpeachable character.

    Another viable alternative is for wealthy well-attended urban churches to abandon their unbridled ambition for numerical growth in order to adopt a rural church. They could start by offering to fix However, this would also involve abandoning the ‘subsiding decline’ and ‘tax on growth’ mindset that permeates the phrasing of the GS1978 Task Group Report.

    Now, I’d be the first to admit that these analogies have their limitations. For instance, the primary purpose of parish churches is not to fulfil short-term transactions, but to serve as the relational hubs within the communities that they serve.

    Perhaps those thriving churches which resent subsidising decline so much could listen to St. Paul’s appeal for the Corinthian church to support their Macedonian counterparts:

    ‘And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.’

    Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” (2 Cor 7:10 – 15)

    That’s a far more biblical and a far cry from Giles Fraser’s penchant for iconoclasm.

  11. Thanks for this Ian, it is bang on. As someone with a heart for rural ministry and mission, I am very encouraged to read your response. Whilst there is much to be done, I don’t have to feel like I am flogging a dead horse!

  12. I had read Giles Fraser’s original article before this blog and replies appeared – my take was that Giles was wanting to face reality. Perhaps most of the rural churches will close soon, so why not close them now…

    There is so much more that I could say from my local (rural) experience, but perhaps I can highlight a recent report from the Churches Trust for Cumbria, available via Carlisle Diocese at While this report focuses on churches as buildings, there are other bits of data in it that make for ‘interesting’ reading.

    Here are a few choice quotes (Cumbria is very rural in parts and has about 650 church buildings):
    – less than 7% of persons attending church are aged 18 years or younger [you’d expect 25% to match the general population]
    – only 10 churches [out of 650 remember, covering a whole county] report an average weekly Sunday attendance of more than 20 children or young people every week
    – 62% of churches state that amongst this age group [children or young people] they have only one or none attending on a Sunday
    – of those attending a church with worship once a week, 51% of the congregation are more than 70 years old
    – the average congregation in Cumbria is 20 or less, declining in size when services are less frequent than
    once a week.

    Our nearest large CofE church recently did some research on how to cope with its growth. One possibility was to follow HTB’s lead in expanding into neighbouring parishes (with permission!). Their research suggested was that this was easiest with a host church that was ‘dead’ (under 10 in the congregation, and ‘dead’ was the word they used) rather than ‘dying’ (under 25 in the congregation, and again ‘dying’ was the word they used).

    One part of a previous blog article ( about the Diocese of London that particularly caught my attention was the quote:
    “There is only one vital distinction which transcends the differences between different strands of churchmanship and that is the distinction between dead church and living church.”

    The Cumbria report details the reality that we face.


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