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Rural Ministry

By John Clarke.

For most of the century, the rural church and by association, the rural ministry in this country, has been thought of very much in terms of the church's second XI. This was reflected in the deployment of the ordained ministry. Until about 1960 it was quite usual and acceptable to send young ministers fresh from theological colleges into rural situations where they could learn from their mistakes ( without doing too much damage) before moving on to something more `worthwhile' or `challenging' in the city. Alternatively, the countryside became the place where elderly clerical horses were put out to graze. There was certainly a widely held view that it was perfectly reasonable for a senior minister who had exercised a faithful and exhausting ministry in an urban or suburban context, to seek a nice quiet rural backwater where he could slowly unwind during the last five years of his ministry. (They were mostly ‘he's’ in those days).

Even more seriously, the rural scene was considered to be the ideal place to send ministers who were either ill or experiencing some kind of spiritual or emotional crisis. To send sick ministers into rural areas today is at best cruel and at worst fatal. The fact is that rural ministry today is not a sinecure but extremely demanding. That is why to send a sick, conscientious minister into a rural appointment is to sign his/her death warrant. The practice of putting ministers who have personal problems into rural situations is equally wrong-headed and just as cruel. Take, for example, a minister with a drinking problem, or a marriage problem or with a crisis of faith. Concealment may be possible in suburbia (if that is the aim), but quite impossible in the countryside, where the minister is more exposed to public scrutiny. And yet the idea still persists that this is exactly the ideal sort of place for ministers to convalesce, or rediscover their vocation - or simply to sort out their problems.

Given this perception of the rural church and of the ordained ministry it requires, little wonder that the rural church has been struggling for so long. It has been seen as a problem area and has been viewed in a very negative way. This has resulted in a lack of confidence within the rural church and a sense of inferiority, and this has led to a deep seated depression in some places. The miracle of grace is that we still have a rural church to worry about. Here recognition should be given to those ministers who have served the rural church with faithfulness and distinction over the last 60 years. In doing so they have been swimming against the clerical tide of their own generation, when most of their contemporaries were hitching their wagons to the urban star. This was where the future was seen to be - this would be where the action would take place.

In recent years there has been a growing acknowledgement that the above perception of the rural church is very flawed and that consequently a reappraisal of rural ministry is also overdue. There is an increasing recognition that rural ministry is a highly specialised ministry with a particular style and expertise. Some theological colleges have developed Pastoral Studies Units in Rural Studies. A discussion of training however is beyond the scope of this article.


The basis of any re-assessment of rural ministry must begin with an understanding of its context which must be taken in all seriousness. Rural ministry is different from urban ministry because the rural church is different from the urban church. Church typology is a fact of life, and it is a cardinal error to view all churches as replicas of one another. For one thing the physical, social and economic context is significant. A Town Centre church will operate quite differently from a neighbourhood church or an Inner City church or one in a small village, but it is the contrast between the urban and rural church which is important here. The relationship between the church and the community in which it is set is quite different in a city from what it is in a village. Generally speaking, urban and suburban churches are gathered congregations regardless of the orthodox ecclesiology of the denomination. Village churches in the Anglican tradition especially are community churches. Membership in a village church is by identification rather than by participation. One becomes a member of an urban congregation by attending worship and becoming involved in the life of that church. In the village, one may attend rarely (Harvest Festivals, Remembrance Sunday, Christmas) or not at all, but still regard oneself as a member. In the city people belong to a church; in the village, the church belongs to the people. That is why the most vociferous opposition to the closure of a church or the removal of a minister, comes from those who rarely attend! Non churchgoers will quite cheerfully provide money for the upkeep of the building, as long as they are not expected to get involved further than that. The church is a natural focus for the celebratory events in the life of the community. The minister is expected to be involved in the social activities of the whole village. It would be considered very strange if the local clergyperson had no interest in the village school. In other words the local church and minister have a much higher profile in the village than in the city. There is much less alienation. From the point of view of the Gospel, this is both good and bad news. It is good in that there is a much easier and natural way into the lives of people and their institutions.

Everyone knows where the parish church is, and a high percentage have entered it. They will even know about the existence of the non-conformist chapel, especially if it is an active one, and they may even have been inside that too. The debit side is that such comparatively easy relationship with the church, may result in a form of inoculation against the real thing. After all, if Christianity is thought to be about being a good neighbour and keeping the church building in a good state of repair, with an occasional appearance thrown in, what more is required?

Folk Religion

This leads on to another factor. Implicit religion, more popularly known as folk religion, is also something that any rural minister must take into account. Generally speaking, traditional country people are happier talking about God the Creator rather than about Jesus the Saviour. One Anglican historian has pointed out that the spirituality of the countryside is ethical and mystical, but not sacramental. Hence Morning Prayer and Evensong and 1662 are preferred to ASB Rite A. Occasional Offices are of great importance to the whole community and not just to the immediate family. The largest congregation of the year may well be on the occasion of a funeral. Certainly, a sure and certain way to arouse the hostility of a village is for a newly arrived minister to refuse to baptise an infant. It doesn't matter how immaculate one's theological conceptions may be, a refusal is a denial of centuries of tradition and is simply unacceptable. This is not a judgement on differing theological attitudes, it is a description of how things are.


But that is not the total picture. What makes the rural scene so fascinating and complex is that the majority of villages today in most of Britain contain a number of incomers from urban areas who have displaced the local people - especially those who are economically disadvantaged. This is having profound effects upon the nature of community and will be of great concern to anyone exercising a rural ministry. There are not surprisingly tensions between the old and the new villagers. Fundamentally, there is a different perception of what the village is. To the incomer it is a place where one lives but to the old villager it is a place where one lives and works. There is a sad irony that often the incomers who wish to preserve the village, little realise that simply by moving into the village, they are changing it. The rural minister has a challenging reconciling role to play as the new rural communities begin to take shape.

But this tension also exists within the rural church. It is generally accepted that where there has been growth in rural congregations, it has been due to the influx of incomers. They have usually been welcomed by the indigenous congregation and seen as saviours of the rural church. They also come with an assumption that the rural church is a small version of the church they have left behind, and that their task is to make it more like their urban model. This conflict becomes quite manifest in the case of a new baptismal policy, or in the introduction of charismatic worship or the adoption of a more ostensible evangelical approach. The incomers will also quite possibly opt for the ASB and some will enjoy Family Services. Again there is a reconciling role to be played by the minister, unless it has been decided that any compromise is a betrayal, and that therefore the correct Gospel response is confrontation.

It is not easy for incomers to shake off the image of the church they have left behind. This is the church which besides meeting for worship on a Sunday has an active programme of events during the week. Extensive use is made of the church buildings which will usually include a hall, smaller meeting rooms, toilets and kitchen. This building is the primary locus and focus of the church's mission.

Compare that with a village church or chapel. The Parish Church will probably be several centuries old, with no toilet or kitchen and will be heavily `pewed'. There may be a small room constructed in the bell tower. The chapel may have an extra room, with a sink at one end, and perhaps a toilet, but many are simply a rectangular shell. It is quite impossible to replicate the style of the `programme' church in such buildings - and to some extent unnecessary, because the village church functions rather differently.

A brief pen picture of a not untypical non-conformist chapel may help to make the point. This chapel was criticised by an urban visitor because it only opened its door once a week for about an hour. The Sunday worship was the only activity. On closer investigation it was discovered that the congregation of a dozen or so was very active during the week - but not on church premises. Three led the uniformed youth organisations in the village. One was a Parish Councillor, another was secretary of the Village Hall Committee. Several were involved in running the Derby & Joan Club, whilst one was President of the Women's Institute. One said to me that she wanted two things from her chapel. One was lively worship, and the other was a house group during the week for prayer, study and fellowship. For the rest of the week her place was where things were happening in the village. The village community itself is the locus and the focus of the mission.

It has been suggested that whereas the appropriate symbol for the urban church is light, the apt one for the village is salt. Salt dissolves imperceptibly in the veins

and capillaries of society and thereby is able to do its work. Light stands out against and is separate from the darkness. Salt works by involvement and identification - it is incarnate. In other words, that little chapel was a good example of a `successful' church, but only if it is not measured by the criteria which may be relevant for a larger urban or suburban congregation.


The size of the congregation is also a factor which needs to be taken seriously. And yet when it comes to the practice of ministry, so often the minister also sees the small church as a scaled down version of the large one. In fact it is a different sort of animal, or to change the analogy in favour of a phrase I have used over many years, "a tangerine is not a small orange"! It is very wrong therefore to see a small rural church as a failed large church.

We are greatly indebted to American writers for many insights into the nature and behaviour of small churches. Arlon Rothauge for example has identified four types of church based on size. They are:

  1. Family Churches which have a congregational size under 50.
  2. Pastoral Churches which have a congregational size between 50 and 150.
  3. Programme churches which have a congregational size between 150 and 350.
  4. Corporation churches which have a congregational size exceeding 350.

Other writers have modified this analysis, and considerable modification is necessary before it can be applied helpfully to the British church context. The numbers, for example, are far too high, but in any case, numbers are only a guide to type, they do not define it. Much depends upon the attitudes and self perceptions of the congregations themselves and the role of the minister.

The urban church described above would be a `programme' church. Most village churches and chapels would be designated as Pastoral or Family churches in the Rothauge analysis. According to this analysis, the Family church is small in numbers and sociologically acts like a family - it may also be a strong kinship group. It is a participatory democracy, but some votes are worth more than others! That is why it is not unusual for some decisions at the Church Council to be postponed if a certain person is not present - and why often the really important decisions are made between the Church Councils. It is important to recognise in these situations that the real leaders of the church are the local people and in particular the `authorisers'. The latter may or may not hold office in the church (or even attend church!), but nothing will happen without their consent. The minister of this church will not be resident in the village, but will live in probably a larger settlement some miles away. S/He may have several other churches to pastor. The Minister has been likened to a chaplain to a garrison of soldiers, being responsible for this particular group of people but not for the wider population. So the minister of a Family church will care for the pastoral needs of the congregation, and will provide some vision, but the real power lies in the hands of the authorisers. The first task of a newly appointed minister is to identify them! Such a church is mightily independent and not always respectful of hierarchies or institutions. Ministers accustomed to larger churches may find this disconcerting if not threatening, but it can also be liberating. Lyle Schaller has likened such a church to a cat which walks alone and which has nine lives!

The Pastoral church is usually larger in terms of the congregation, but the important thing is that it has a resident minister. This church is much more centred around the ordained pastor than the Family church and is much more dependent upon him/her. The minister may have other churches to care for, but because this is the largest congregation, and because the minister and family live in the community, the relationship between minister and church, and minister and community are quite different from that in the other churches and villages under the same pastoral care. The crisis facing many rural churches today is that whilst they have been Pastoral churches, they are now having to behave like cats. They can no longer be centred or dependent upon the minister. But as they have neither the tradition or the type of leadership required for their new situation, they are floundering.

Today, very few rural ministers have only one church or parish to serve, unless we include the rural towns with populations up to 10,000. The Church of England call it 'multi-parish benefices'. The United Reformed Church call them `groups'. The Methodists have called them `circuits' all along and have known no other system. This is usually presented as the nub of the rural church problem today, and it is certainly a major concern of many who come on our courses on Rural Ministry at the Arthur Rank Centre. There are several points to make:

1. The population expects the delivery of the traditional Anglican pattern of a priest in every parish, but this is no longer a realistic possibility. In fact, it only briefly almost became a reality 100 years ago in Victorian England when there were about 20,000 clergy and a population of about 14 million. Before that, absenteeism and pluralities were the norm. Today the population of the country is 54 million and there are less than 10,000 clergy.

2. The response has been to prop up the system through supplementing the dwindling number of full-time stipendiary ministers with non-stipendiaries,

retired or part-time ministers, by appointment of lay pastors, and by spreading the jam more thinly over wider and wider areas.

3. The Methodist circuit system was effective because the work which the village expected the local incumbent to perform was done by a team of dedicated, trained but unpaid lay people. The ministry of the chapel was corporate.

4. Anglican clergy in particular are having to face up to this new situation and many are doing so heroically and imaginatively, though frequently there has been a price to pay in terms of stress and breakdown. It seems that many can cope with up to three different churches and parishes - it just means spreading oneself more thinly. Beyond that number however all pretence that one is exercising a traditional Anglican rural parish ministry disappears, and one is looking at a different type of ministry. It is proving to be something between a traditional Methodist circuit rider (who stayed one year only) and the pastoral model of George Herbert. It could be described as perhaps more episcopal than presbyteral, not unlike the ordained ministry which is being practised today in Africa and other parts of the `developing' world - very effectively. The irony in this country is that the Methodists have moved to a more pastoral, George Herbert pattern of ministry but have retained the circuit system, whereas the Anglicans have retained the pastoral model but have adopted the circuit system. These two models are irreconcilable - hence much of the frustration and anguish experienced in rural church and ministry today.

5. The answer has to be along the lines of team ministry which is not simply the extension of the ordained ministry by the addition of a couple of locally ordained (unpaid) people. What is called for is the ministry of the whole people of God -rooted in the place they occupy in the world - whether it be home, factory, office or farm. The days of the Lone Ranger minister are over. The task is to animate, enable and lead teams and groups of people, formally and informally. It is about being able to identify allies among secular and other voluntary agencies and work collaboratively with them.

6. More than that it is about viewing the breakdown of the old pastoral model of ministry (and this is not only an Anglican problem - it affects all the major denominations working in the countryside), not as a disaster but as a blessing! At the moment all alternatives to that model are seen as second-best, as make-shifts. I would question the effectiveness overall of that pastoral model. While sometimes churches have been full, it has fostered dependence and acquiescence and has not been spectacularly successful in recognising people's charismata and enabling them to exercise ministry.

7. Rural Ministry is in the front line as far as some of the most vital issues of our

age are concerned. In the countryside environmental issues are daily issues not interesting debating points. Land use, conservation, pollution, animal welfare, genetic engineering and cloning, country sports, food safety, the use of nonrenewable resources - all require a strong theological input. The rural Christian community has the opportunity to make a decisive contribution to a re-statement of the doctrine of creation.

The Revd John Clarke is a Methodist Minister and Director of the Arthur Rank Centre, an ecumenical rural church centre at Stoneleigh, Warwickshire. He has previously served in Lancashire, Herefordshire and Kenya.

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You are reading Rural Ministry by John Clarke, part of Issue 13 of Ministry Today, published in May 1998.

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