The Foundation’s Associate Research Fellows John Reader and Greg Smith have written complimentary Advent blog posts that looks at the myriad and complex ways lived religion and belief bring hope, light and resilience to localities. These narratives of progressive engagement and solid presence belie what is often a strident and simplistic narrative of an irreversible decline of religion and the church in public life.
However, what is clear from both rural and urban contexts, is that the relationship between religious and other forms of belief, secularism and the public is changing fast. The fact that belief and the search for a common ethics in public life is often just below the surface, and doesn’t need much coaxing it into being, still leaves huge challenges for institutional forms of religion to connect and harness this spiritual capital in ways that renew both society and those religious institutions themselves.
On the evening of Advent Sunday I sat at the back of the church with my wife – a rare but encouraging experience when I spend most Sundays dashing round my benefice of 8 rural churches worried that I am not going to arrive on time or turn up at the wrong church by mistake. On this occasion my colleague “topped and tailed” the service which had been organised by the villagers themselves and with an attendance of 100 in a community where the total population is only about 150. The evening before we had been at a folk concert in one of the other churches which rounded off the first day of a craft fair being run in the building for the second winter and with a footfall of well over 150 in another of our smallest villages. This had been organised by a group of non-church goers within that community but shows how church buildings – despite lack of facilities – can be used for community events. The previous Sunday we held a Café Church in a village hall with just under 50 present including 7 young families, a pattern which has established itself over the last 18 months. Such accounts are by no means unique and will be replicated across our rural communities as we approach Christmas.
Why does any of this matter? One of the Foundation’s initiatives of the last two years has been a series of seminars looking at “Faithful and Flourishing Communities” and trying to identify where and how faith groups have a positive impact upon their immediate locality. Against a background of threatened withdrawal of Church of England ministerial resources from “the rural” and increased problems of maintaining ancient buildings, such examples provide a counterpoint to what is portrayed as a picture of decline. One must be careful not to overplay the successes nor to diminish the scale of the challenges now facing many rural churches. Across this benefice in North Oxfordshire I calculate that the cost of adapting the Grade 1 and 2 listed churches as regular venues for other activities is close to £1m. Could such an expense be justified, even if funds were available? Two of the churches are having to cope with lead thefts and replacement materials costing more than our reserves or the insurance can cover – the gang has just been arrested in North London we gather! Regular attendances continue to struggle as ageing congregations shrink. Yet, one could argue that with appropriate leadership and investment of time and energy, it is still possible to generate activities through which faith groups have a positive impact upon their communities.
The key terms there are “leadership” and “investment”. What characterises the events just mentioned is that they are either wholly or partially led by lay people with the clergy part of a team or else simply in the background enabling and encouraging. This is still leadership, but one built on contacts established over time and often based on pastoral relationships that are beyond calculation or deliberate design. Another example are two churches in the benefice which had to be challenged in July as to whether the people of those villages wanted to retain their church buildings for regular use at all. At a public meeting 50 people turned up and subsequently volunteered to take on many of the roles previously held by the 91-year-old retired churchwarden. Again, this has led to a lay organised Carol Service supporting “Singing for Syria” and a pre-Christmas social event to draw people into the smaller of the two churches. Others have “come out of the woodwork” to offer their skills on applying for grants and knowledge of buildings. Open the tasks up as we did in the village where the Advent service was held and it seems that there is the will and interest to participate in the general activity for which the churches are a resource and a focus.
The mantra which I hear is that although the churches themselves may be under threat, those now inhabiting these villages don’t want this to happen “on our watch”. That and an interest in creating community events appear to be the motivating forces behind these small signs of revival. Is this enough to construct resilient communities let alone viable benefices in the long run? I think it would be too optimistic to claim that, but one can argue that the physical stake provided by church buildings and the ministry of enabling presence offered by clergy does still have a positive impact. The other crucial dimension ignored by those who would withdraw resources from these areas is that of church schools, now probably the major occupier of clergy time both through regular assemblies, governing bodies, and, in my case, as a board member of the diocesan multi-academy trust which will soon have 25 schools on its books including one in this benefice. Our most regular means of outreach is precisely through these contacts, even though many of the families involved come from outside the benefice. As I have argued for some years, the boundaries are now blurred as people access the resources they need from wherever, not just for education but for baptisms and weddings also. Sticky places and slippery spaces are the name of the game now in rural ministry and a model of leadership and organisation that is more like a rhizome (tendrils and tentacles that spread out underground) than a tree with firm foundations and lots of branches. These are the possible ways forward that are still worthy of organisational investment.
The remaining questions though focus on this issue of resilience and how faith groups can contribute to this. There is a danger that it is simply understood as a defensive reaction and an attempt to help people bounce back to where they were before – maintaining buildings often feels very much like that! One runs faster and faster just to stand still. This cannot be enough. Resilience must also involve that bounce forwards which enables communities to adapt to new and potentially threatening circumstances, whether that means withdrawal of central resources or preparing for the risks attached to environmental challenges. Along with that goes the temptation to get drawn into a political agenda which presents withdrawal of resources as a new norm and thus fails to question or debate whether or not this should be the case. Leadership and investment demand that responses are motivated by a critical perspective and enable people to ask those difficult questions which go beyond the immediate and local. As an Advent theme this represents shining a light on the darkness that descends when injustice determines what happens in our communities and showing how the energy which commitment brings can transform the present by working for a different future.
John Reader is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation
More on religion and public life:
The Trump of God: Should Evangelicals Rejoice?
by Greg Smith
The Church’s Damning Edicts on Sexuality Challenge What It Means to be Human
by Jo Henderson-Merrygold