When 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):
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 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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