Friday 22 February 2013

A “Future” of Rural Ministry

I want to offer something of a polemic and a dream and a pondering.

For some months I’ve been reflecting on a ministry issue that in my place of work is a huge issue - I’ve been trying to find the words to express my thoughts about this issue, and I think I’ve reached the appropriate place to be able to lay some words down.
From the outset, I must stress that I work in a single parish church: a single parish church with a multi-congregational Sunday model. (8am, 9:30am, 10:45am, 6pm, 7:15pm). While the object of my reflection is mainly related to the working of rural churches and multi parish benefices there is some overlap with particular aspects of this thought process.
Nantwich, where I minister, is a market town with an ever-increasing population, (roughly 20,000). It’s a single-parish town with a whopping great big old church in the middle. To the south, to the west, to the north, there are various benefices, etc (to the east there is Crewe). And all these churches are part of Nantwich Deanery. The joke goes that Nantwich St. Mary’s is the “cathedral of south Cheshire”.

Heading out into the rural villages we find one incumbent looking after up to three or four churches (which isn’t a rarity - in fact I recently saw a post advertised in a different diocese for a team rector for more than 12 churches! - to be supported by a retired clergy and a reader).
There is a constant struggle to pay for the exquisite but costly inherited church buildings, and there is a great set of challenges facing the ordained staff, with new churches being attached to benefices, with some posts turning from full-time to part-time.
I want to draw attention to two thoughts.

The first is about the number of services (and this is easily related to our church in Nantwich too). At chapter, in IME events, with general discussions with clergy I hear of incumbents and curates, rectors and vicars, who have an 8:00am service at St. Blah’s and a 9:30am service at St. Blurgh’s 5 miles away. Some even have an 11:00am at St. Flurp’s 7 miles further down the road.
Community is difficult to build, rural communities need the presence and being of a priest, not just the attendance and doing of a priest.

The story I’ve heard which saddens me most is the rural minister who has no chance to stay behind after the service for tea and coffee because they need to rush off to the next church and next service.
When that happens we’ve got it all wrong. All that happens in that instance is that we “service” our services. We don’t serve our communities. But with expectations of a parish Eucharist at each church, with expectations of what to get on a Sunday at morning at church. Something has to give in a minister’s time, and inevitably it’s the tea and coffee.

We couldn’t possibly disrupt the pattern of worship. Sure, we could change service times, or wow, crazy, have services on other suitable days, (rural communities, commuters and farmers, issues of when and where - I KNOW!).
But actually, I wonder, whether the most profound and prophetic thing we could do is to sack-off some of the service.

60 minutes of worship and 5 minutes of fellowship does not a church make.
How about: 35 minutes of worship and 30 minutes of fellowship.

Oh, but the liturgy! Oh, but the expectations! Oh, but the way we do things!
Without building a community around the act of worship, all we have is a stand-alone act of worship and that worshiping “community” will die.

That is the eventual outcome: certainly it may be slow, and take decades even, but the church will die in those places, unless the enacting of community is a priority, maybe even as much of a priority, or in some cases, more of a priority than the worship.
Certainly, the church is not the social services, but it is a social ethic. (Hauerwas and co). Thought must be given to this.

And this is the issue that affects the multi-congregational model too, if I have anything to do with the 10:45 service, I won’t get chance to stay behind and have coffee after the 9:30 service.
The second thought to share, is that perhaps we have too many churches in rural locations. Certainly, as I have outlined, community is essential, and people become very attached to their geographic community, and actually, no one ever wants to close a church, and remove the worshipping centre from a geographic situation.

But we need to widen our understandings of geographic community and hold them in tension with the challenges we face.
And yet, I meet many clergy in rural ministry who are stretched. Some have churches that were built by landowners many hundreds of years ago, and who kindly bequeathed the churches back to the Church of England, perhaps as finances or faith dictated.

Too much of a ministers time might be spent “servicing” the needs and expectations of communities, without ever engaging in creative and enriching mission.
I see a “future” in which a completely rural deanery will have a model by which there is one active church (like an abbey or minster), staffed by a minister who leads and organises worship and creative mission (perhaps with a pioneer minister [they exist] whose role might be to creatively engage with the local communities) and (depending on the size and population of the area) one or two (maybe even lots more) Occasional Office Priests who take the funerals (and perhaps baptisms and weddings) from the geographic area that makes up the deanery. (I am using deanary to frame this discussion, but it needn’t be a deanery).

Either the worshipping church is used for these services, or indeed, maybe in a busy area, there might be another parish church that becomes the “Funeral Chapel”.
The costs of the buildings are reduced.

The effectiveness of the ministers is increased.
Sadly the current pattern of worshipping community is also lost (but looking at some of the attendance trends: if the current model stays the same, this may happen naturally in a short-time anyway - and in many places is already happening, and has happened).

We need the mental, emotional and spiritual space to engage communities by mission.
Yes the occasional offices are mission -I do not deny it. Looking at the five marks of mission this is obvious, - serving, baptising, but I wonder whether we place too much emphasis on them as our unwritten evangelistic policy.

Yes, we all know people who regularly started to come to church as a response to occasional office ministry. I’d like to see some stats, but I wonder if the number who come to church and stay at church is hugely significant.
This new way of doing church stills wouldn’t necessarily stop this happening (though it might be a different minister leading the “Sunday service” so the personal connection might be lost).

But what it would do, is challenge us to think creatively about mission and not just rely on the occasional offices.
This carries with it pastoral costs, but these might need to be borne.

These words are just the ramblings of a thought in process. Which is the wonder of blogging.

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