Along with a number of other rural clergy from the Diocese of Chichester, I found myself having afternoon tea with the Archbishop of Canterbury today. Gathered together in Hartfield, we were there to hear, share and reflect on rural ministry - the challenges and triumphs. Knowing that I was going to attend this event in my role as Rector of St Andrew's Church in the rural parish of Bishopstone, I asked my PCC beforehand to share with me any issues or questions that they hoped would be raised. I received thoughtful suggestions on the pastoral need in rural ministry, the exhausting demands of caring for an ancient building, the difficulties facing farmers, and the process of filling a vacancy.
The afternoon began with an introduction from Rev'd Gary Creegan, the new diocesan Rural Officer for East Sussex and then Archbishop Justin Welby opened the afternoon with some reflections on his understanding of, and concern for, rural ministry before then taking a few questions. This was followed by tea as His Grace visited each table to chat with smaller groups.
The Archbishop won over the most of the room by first describing his own seven years as Rector of a rural parish in the north as 'the most stressful chapter of his life', apparently even more stressful than his current role! He then spoke movingly and insightfully of the opportunities and unique nature of rural parish ministry - important things such as the relational nature of ministry, the natural tendency toward partnership working, the importance of good funeral and baptism ministry. He assured us that his interests lie in 'resourcing, not demanding' from the rural parishes of the Church of England and he acknowledged their resilience 'Rural parishes have been part of the life of this country since 597ad' he said and 'they will keep on going' even if the House of Bishops and General Synod were ever to be no longer.
++Justin did speak about the challenges that face the rural parishes, especially as a result of emergent crises over the last 9 years. He acknowledged that the pressures faced in the UK were markedly different to the life and death challenges faced by churches overseas (he used his recent visit to Pakistan as an example), however he was keen to recognise that pressure is pressure, whatever its form.
Four significant challenges were presented and ones which will change the landscape of rural communities, he named them as follows: 1. Covid - especially the challenges faced by rebuilding churches, but also the acceleration in working practice cultures. There is a great revolution in working from home which means more people will move away from urban centres into rural communities. Rural communities are changing.
2. Buildings - The Archbishop was full aware of how difficult it is to look after these buildings, what a drain on energy and time they are for local churches and in particular the faculty application and heritage aspects. While he didn't have an immediate answer he commended the 'simpler' aims of the national strategy and the hope that this would ultimately help rural parishes. He expressed a keenness for 'buildings to serve the church, rather than the church serving the building' and a concern that our buildings can easily become 'idols'. The faculty system is unhelpfully 'clunky', he also acknowledged.
3. Demographics - I was encouraged that the Archbishop recognised the incredible contribution that largely older congregations make in their local rural communities and the need for them to be alleviated from some of the material pressures that take up their energy. I asked an additional question (see below*) on this subject.
4. Climate Change - When talking about climate change, ++Justin spoke about simplifying the way in which our churches can make changes to better their carbon footprint but he also spoke about farming and the development of glebe land. On farming he expressed a view that farms shouldn't become entertainment sites, but be enabled to produce food, especially in the face of the fast changing global landscape which places future supply in some uncertainty. Food production is the proper use of land and the essence of rural life. On Glebe Land, he expressed a very strong view that we shouldn't be selling such land but developing it ourselves so that we can shape communities well, support affordable housing, contribute to the common good and return a better investment long term - both social and financial.
Rural communities are changing, ++Justin said - shifting communities are part of our landscape and with this comes great opportunities and challenges. The fuzzy edges of rural ministry, its vital place in the life of the church means that rural clergy are indispensable - 'We need to be ordaining more clergy, not less' and he shared the good news that we have more ordinands in training now than we have had for thirty years. When asked about SDF monies only going to urban areas, he mentioned the availability of 'STF' (Strategic Transformation Fund) and an 'Innovation Fund' which were accessible for rural parish projects.
When he visited our table I asked him why we couldn't have a grant fund to specifically fund parish admin support or project management and he encouraged me to formally ask this question at the next General Synod as it ties in with something he is already working on behind the scenes. During his speech he also mentioned the distinct nature of rural evangelism and I followed this up with the Archbishop when I described how important it is for rural church congregations to be confident because this then helps them be able to speak confidently to others about their church community. Problem being that much confidence and energy can be sapped by the fabric matters we face - I described the facilities project we are facing at Bishopstone and how demoralising it was to be advised that it could take up to four year by the DAC before we have even begun - all we want to do is make our building better to be used by more people.
Overall, I was impressed by his evident respect and concern for the rural parishes, it was a rather encouraging counter narrative to the general criticism of the National Church Institute as being disconnected. He well recognises the challenges and is clearly grateful for the thousands of people keeping the rural church alive and I feel as though the will is there, if not yet the absolute answers to the issues we face.
The Archbishop ended the day with prayer in which he drew a beautiful parallel between Christ in Capernum, a small village also with a building, the synagogue, and the largely rural ministry that Christ himself exercised around the Galilee which form such a significant part of the Gospels. God is with us out in the sticks, and I believe the Archbishop knows it.
Rev'd Arwen Folkes Rector firstname.lastname@example.org