For those interested in the problems of contemporary rural mission, the Church Army recently produced a very helpful edition of 'Encounters on the Edge' that includes a summary of the situation facing the rural church (by George Lings). Issue number 27 (click here for further details) includes some very helpful reflections on patterns of services in rural multi-parish benefices.
He refers to the lessons we can learn from the Methodist Church who reduced the number of services offered in their smaller rural chapels in the hope that people would travel to a nearby chapel where regular worship was considered sustainable. He notes: "The policy became to close small local chapels and ask people to come together to form critical mass or joinable churches. Conversations I had with Methodist leaders tell me one third of the people simply stopped going anywhere, one third stayed local but transferred (usually to the Anglicans) and only one third complied."
Turning to the practice in the Church of England, he writes: "Many services became no longer weekly but monthly, creating a context which demanded esoteric knowledge to find them, discouraged that favoured Anglican bird of passage, the casual attender, and created patterns of irregular attendance as an unwelcome norm in spirituality."
He also adds that "it is better to provide simple but sustainable weekly lay-led services of the word, with Eucharist less frequently, than to operate with the priest as a whirling dervish Eucharistic machine, flying around the benefice, parachuting in for the magic words, splitting the integrity of word and sacrament and unable to build pastoral contacts."
Some thought-provoking remarks there and something, perhaps, for browsers from other rural parishes to pursue further. The suggestion of 'lay-led services' is particularly fascinating and apposite in these days of priest shortages.
Here at the small church of St Mark's in Flecknoe, faced with just such a shortage, we have already taken the difficult decision to 'close' in terms of regular services and only offer the four major services of Easter Sunday, Harvest Festival, the annual Carol Service and, of course, Christmas Day itself. It does mean that the 'casual attender' referred to above is going to be discouraged. But in a tiny rural community like ours, even the casual attender is practically extinct. And in the age of the car, worshippers are not worried by the idea of travelling a few extra miles to larger and more lively churches. It is our hope, naturally, that they will continue to worship in the absence of regular services here at St Mark's and not leave the Church altogether ...