I love the rural church. Yes I love the the ‘one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ in its entirety (or at least I aspire to do so!) after all, as Pope Francis has recently written, those who share in the sacraments of the Church must have a ‘passionate love for the Church,’ but the rural church will always have a special place in my heart?
Because I came to faith in the rural church and have been, largely, formed in the rural church.
I was baptized, as an adult in a small village church, I was married in an even smaller village church, I have served as a Church Warden in a village church, I felt God’s call to ordination in a village church and I have served my curacy in a rural deanery.
My children were baptized in village churches and, all of our family funerals have taken place in…………yes, village churches. The rural church has simply always been there for us, the Lightbown family. And for that I am grateful.
For sure the rural church faces significant challenges. It is possibly every parish priests worst nightmare to walk into a medieval building to find out that cracks have suddenly appeared in the chancel, or what used to pass for a heating system has just packed in for good and that a vast amount of money needs to be raised from an already generous congregation to generate yet more funds.
And, of course the rural church is resource poor in other ways, often, for example, being highly dependent on just one organist, pianist or guitarist to provide a musical lead in worship.
But, the miracle of the rural church is that it has, despite limited financial, liturgical and musical resources impacted so many people over the centuries. It will continue to do so.
The rural church knows what it means to offer its meager resources to God for his blessing. Isn’t there a famous Gospel Story that describes what can be achieved when a few small scraps are offered to Jesus for his use?
Yet despite its success the rural church is frequently regarded as the Church of England’s ‘problem-child.’ In fact it is regarded both as a problem, to be fixed, and as a child that needs to grow up. But it is neither a problem or a child.
I would go further and encourage the leadership of the church to regard the rural church as leading the way in what it means to be church in the 21st century. Let’s look at some of the enduring strengths of the rural church, starting with mission.
The Jesuit theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles suggested six ‘models of the church’: church as institution, community, herald, school of discipleship, sacrament and, servant. I suggest that the rural church scores particularly highly as community and servant. The protestant writer Tim Keller also stresses the importance of church as servant-in-community.
The sense of community and the ability to act as a servant is, in large part, developed through its commitment to deepening the faith of its members (school of discipleship) and its sacramental life. The rural church thrives because of its commitment to worship. In many communities a great deal of flexibility and imagination is required to ensure that meaningful worship takes place on a frequent basis.
The rural church can be an effective and visible community because it is deeply embedded in the ‘secular parish.’ Those who worship in village churches tend to live in those self same villages! Strange I know, but true! If you live and worship in a rural, or village church, your commitment to your faith, and the manner in which you practice your faith are highly visible.
The prophet Jeremiah (29, 7) instructed the Jews in exile to ‘seek the peace and prosperity of the place to which I have carried you…..pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers you too will prosper.’ I suspect that the majority of rural parishioners (and clergy) are deeply committed to the peace and prosperity of the villages in which they live. Let us not belittle such prayerful commitment. And, lets not pretend that the wider community don’t know that they are cared for and prayed for by the church, because they do. In fact they frequently ask for the support of the church in times of crisis.
Finally, I would like to make a special plea for the church building. I do get irritated when the ‘urbanites’ suggest a mass closing down of rural churches. Please don’t think that I am wishing away the problems of buildings that are ludicrously expensive to maintain in small communities – I’m not – but I would want to suggest that the building is a ‘living icon,’ pointing beyond itself.
The building often tells the story of the community, its past and its present. The Church building is also, frequently, the only public space left in the community. It is a building which exists for all and may be used by all.
I never cease to be surprised by the ‘causal footfall’ that enters our rural churches; ordinary people seeking a moment or two of peace, or looking to experience a sense of transcendence, or perhaps even to meet with God.
Selling off churches would eradicate stories, deprive folk of the chance of meeting God and, place everything in private hands and subject to the vagaries of the market. Surely this should be avoided?
So there you have it, my rationale for ‘loving’ the rural church and regarding it as leading the way in mission:
The rural church is an embedded, visible, imaginative, flexible, worshiping servant-in-community.
I love it!