Last Thursday evening I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in the first of the Faith Debates on the Future of the Church of England organised by Linda Woodhead and colleagues at the University Church. This opening debate was on the future of the parish system. Four distinguished speakers offered their thoughts: a representative of Radical Orthodoxy from Cambridge, deeply committed to a vision of both church and theology which felt like a throwback to a different era; an entrepreneur who provided upbeat examples of what churches with extensive capacity could do; a sociologist of religion, himself a non-stipendiary Minister who advocated this pattern of ministry as the way to the future; and then a Canon Missioner from Exeter who actually had some recent parish experience. My role was to throw a spanner in the works and to challenge each of their interpretations of where the parish system is in reality, although the speaker from Exeter was also close to the mark on this.
Had there been more chance to expand my brief contribution I would have pointed out that “parishes” are no longer the correct unit of currency, certainly in the more rural areas, and that it is benefices or clusterings of parishes that make up the majority of charges for rural clergy. As it was I could only mention lack of capacity as the major inhibiting factor, along with a lack of critical mass of people to populate new initiatives and the problem of lack of continuity of contact for most rural clergy who do not even see their regular congregations sometimes for weeks on end, as they dash from church to church and meeting to meeting. I was informed by the entrepreneur that this was a problem of “mind set” not capacity, and I would love to have invited him to my own benefice where we have worked on a raft of new initiatives, but without the people to cooperate on these, success is inevitably limited.
Two other factors are worth a mention. The first is that there is a glut of clergy of my generation coming up to retirement over the next five years, more than will be replaced by new recruits, and that the policy in my Diocese at least, is to redeploy the remaining resources into the urban areas and new towns. This will further reduce the numbers of clergy for rural benefices. Then there is the challenge of recruiting ministers in the first place into the ever expanding rural empires. Who, in their right mind, wants to be running a scattered benefice of 12 small churches struggling to pay their parish share let alone for the upkeep of their buildings? One can generate as many exciting new ideas as possible, such as that of ‘Festival Churches’ which are only used for occasional offices and Harvest, Christmas etc., but none of this is, in itself, going to stem the continued decline of rural churches and congregations. A friend who was with me has the experience of worshipping in a remote rural deanery with 27 churches where, at the moment, there are only two full time stipendiary incumbents and one lone curate. The development of lay ministry which should have been further encouraged 25 years ago when there was still time and energy seems to have been blocked by a hierarchy afraid of losing control, or simply not interested in the smaller benefices out on the margins. So, like the other denominations before it, the CofE is effectively abandoning its rural presence and focusing its resources on the centres of population.
Only four days later, a report was published on the future of church rural primary schools which concluded that “the days of small autonomous rural primary schools are numbered”. Despite subsequent attempts to row back from what reads as a very negative response to the problem, there is a failure to face up to how and why this pressure on rural schools has come about. In an article in the Daily Telegraph by the Bishop of Oxford, current Chair of the Board of Education, the reason given for the threats of closure and amalgamation are simply those of financial pressures. Those pressures have been there for well over 30 years and led already to the closure of rural schools. I would suggest rather the current pressure is a direct effect of government policy of Academies which results in any school with less than 250 pupils not being financially viable as a stand-alone Academy and thus facing merger or closure. Somehow this stark fact is being lost or quietly buried beneath the “spin” of all the new initiatives which such schools can take such as hosting Post Offices on their premises!
The reality is the Church of England is so worried about losing government funding (which accounts for 90% of its funds for schools) and thus its stake in the formal education system, that it is prepared to collude with Coalition education policy rather than rock the boat by challenging it. The hope is that its own Diocesan Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) which become the umbrella replacement LEAs for some of its church schools, will be effective enough to maintain a church presence in at least some areas. The impact, however, is that those small church schools on the margins of the urban areas and often with challenging financial and teaching scenarios, will not be wanted by such Diocesan MATs as they are desperate to recruit “good schools” rather than problematic ones. Once again then, this is a policy for abandoning the rural. It has been pointed out that for many rural clergy it is their contact with the local schools that is the main channel of outreach. Remove the schools, or absorb them into larger units managed from outside the benefice, and that channel is closed for good.
I am not arguing that abandoning the rural is a deliberate strategy of the Church of England – that would be to assume that the CofE is capable of a deliberate strategy on anything – but that, like it or not, this will be the impact of current trends and decisions. Perhaps it is time for a dose of honesty and realism so that those of us who continue to be committed to some form of rural ministry can at least know where we stand.
Revd. Dr John Reader is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.
John Reader will be running a workshop at ‘Reclaiming the Public Space’ on 10th November in Manchester. Other speakers including Linda Woodhead, Craig Calhoun, Elaine Graham, Raymond Plant and more. Book Now!