Bishop James Bell, the Bishop for Ripon, has told the General Synod of the Church of England, meeting in London, that the rural church “should not just be another social organisation but one that is able to proclaim the Gospel afresh in this generation.”
He was speaking as Chair of the Rural Affairs Group of Synod which has produced a report on the challenges and opportunities facing rural churches, ‘Released for Mission, Growing the Rural Church’. The report was welcomed by Synod which approved a ‘take note’ vote on the study. It makes a series of recommendations including locally accessible training and development for lay people and clergy working in multi-church groups
Citing examples from the Thornton-in-Lonsdale, Masham and Grewelthorpe in the Ripon Episcopal Area, Bishop James said, “Our recommendations seek to address the issues that hinder the rural church in achieving its huge potential – realised in many places despite the barriers. They are not directed at specific people or committees as the changes that are needed will have to be enacted by us all, from here at General Synod and the National Church Institutions, to every church in every parish in every multi-church group.”
Among the report’s other recommendations, it says a review needs to be carried out urgently to examine how to simplify legal governance structures of multi-church groups. Multi-church groups would also benefit from improving systems to take care of administrative tasks, financial accounting, and building and churchyard management on behalf of the whole group.
More ecumenical partnership should also be encouraged, opening up the possibility of new initiatives that might not be possible for a single denomination, the report adds.
Mission and growth are more likely to flourish in rural multi-church groups where time and space is created for this, the report notes, and where the ministry of lay people is supported.
Nearly two-thirds or 65%, of Church of England churches - 10,199 - are in rural areas and almost all work in groups.
Writing in the foreword to the report, Bishop James described the recommendations as “practical and achievable.”
“A Christian presence in every community is more than a strap-line – it is the heart of English Anglicanism. It is the expression of our obligation, as the church for all the people of the nation, to leave no community untouched by the gospel of Jesus Christ, lived out among the people of every place,” he said.
“Ministry and mission in the rural church is highly demanding of energy and imagination. Growth is being realised but much needs to be done.”
The study drew on interviews with 47 clergy and lay people from 35 rural church groupings in six dioceses in the autumn of 2010 and spring 2011. Data was also analysed from parish returns, and the 2011 Census. The research project was led by the Church of England’s National Rural Officer, Canon Dr Jill Hopkinson.