Saving the rural church - 1000s of countryside congregations to gain from new report

Villages around the country may have lost Post Offices and local shops as Britain's rural identity changes, but the Methodist Church is determined to reinforce Christian presence in rural communities.

 

Religious leaders and politicians have come together to support 'Presence', a new handbook that will shape the way the church will work over the next 10 years. 'Presence' will be launched at Methodist Conference 2004, and will outline how an effective Christian presence can be sustained and promoted in rural areas.

 

Christian churches still constitute the principal representation of faith communities in the countryside. However, the report warns that unless things change quickly, there are going to be huge areas of rural Britain without any effective Christian presence.

 

The Revd David Emison, Chair of the Cumbria District of The Methodist Church and editor of 'Presence', said: "New patterns of worship will be encouraged. There is a growing demand for simple rituals to help people express the sorrows and joys of human experience. An effective Christian presence is not necessarily building-centred or Sunday focussed. The church must learn how to respond to popular spirituality, though at the same retain its authentic Christian witness."

 

He continued: "The Government is increasingly recognising that faith communities have a role in creating 'cohesive communities' in which no one is excluded. The Methodist Church is equipping its churches and its members to serve and support rural communities through times of change and uncertainty."

 

Stories abound where Christians in rural areas have already taken these messages on board:

 

  West Bradford - When the village Post Office closed the Methodist Church offered to make available the vestry be used instead. The church now serves coffee to the post office customers.

  Beadlam/Nawton (North Yorkshire) - The closure and sale of the Methodist Church Hall enabled the refurbishment of the Parish Church as a single centre of Christian worship in the village.

  Alston (Cumbria) - Methodists and Roman Catholics share the same building.

  Kirkby Lonsdale (Cumbria) - New patterns of church life and worship have led to congregation growth from 33 to 80 over a period of five years.

 

'Presence' recognises that an effective Christian presence in rural areas will always be ecumenical. The Anglican-Methodist covenant provides a new and exciting context for ministry in rural areas. Commending the new resource, The Rt Revd Michael Langrish, Bishop of Exeter, said: "This series of group studies, well illustrated with stories, ideas and photographs, challenges rural Christians to deepened engagement in prayer, thought and action."

 

The Rt Hon Alun Michael MP, Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality, said in support: "The Church has a key role in helping people faced with poverty and social exclusion, which can be a special problem in scattered communities where those without transport - especially the young and the old - can be particularly isolated. As 'Presence' recognises, the churches need to work with other public service providers, local authorities and parish councils, to develop an integrated approach to meeting the changing needs of rural people and communities."

 

Ben Gill, ex President, National Farmers' Union, also made links between the church and community: "When communities work together they have found that the differences that they had expected to dominate tend to disappear; the problems that seemed insuperable become bearable and even soluble; hope is restored and spirits rise. 'Presence' seeks to encourage Christians to recognise and play their part in enabling this to happen."

 

'Presence' also asks questions about the nature of rural ministry. To equip new patterns of church life, new skills will be demanded from church leaders, both lay and ordained. Revd Ken Howcroft, Team Leader of Formation in Ministry, said: "We need new initiatives to fire our imagination, channel our commitment and release new energy. Greater flexibility is called for. An effective Christian presence in rural areas will be essentially local and lay led. This means re-focusing the ways in which ordained ministers work, allowing them to move between churches and develop alternative patterns of presence".

 

Notes:

 

  'Presence' will be launched at The Methodist Conference on Monday 28 June. It will be debated by Conference the following day.

  The Methodist Church has over 3000 churches in rural areas.

  While this is a document prepared for Methodists and therefore uses Methodist language, we offer it to all Christian communities, both rural and urban, for adaptation and use.

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