Churches are central to the life of many smaller communities and this is never more so than at Christmas, as three Anglican bishops explain. Written by Matthew Dennison

Rural community churches are central to village life, as often they are the only community building left. This is never more pronounced than at Christmas, as three Anglican bishops tell Matthew Dennison.

This time of year may seem a bleak, but the winter solstice traditions expertly adopted by the Christian Church make it a time of hope and glory – read winter solstice traditions: a bleak but beautiful mid winter.

RURAL COMMUNITY CHURCHES

“I am deeply committed to the flourishing of rural life, deeply committed to the landscape,” says Dr John Inge, Bishop of Worcester. A former president of the Three Counties Show and author of A Christian Theology of Place, which explores connections between communities and places, Bishop John, who comes from a farming background in East Kent, believes passionately in the importance of supporting farming and the role of the country church. “The work of the Church in rural areas is crucial to community cohesion and the wellbeing of communities. Churches are important everywhere but they do tend to be more central to the life of the community in villages, where they’re often the only remaining community building.”

Rural community churches

The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford.

At no time, the Bishop suggests, is this centrality more pronounced than at Christmas. At Christmas, the challenge “is putting on enough services. We want to make sure that everyone who wants to go to a church service can.” For the church’s great winter festival, families and communities across Britain come together in a way that is unique in our national calendar. Their local church acquires a special significance, even for those who are not churchgoers during the remainder of the year. In Worcester itself, the cathedral has increased its number of carol services: for each, the congregation fills the part-Norman building. Cathedral clergy do their best to respond imaginatively in their Christmas worship. Last year, Bishop John’s seven-month-old granddaughter appeared as baby Jesus in the cathedral’s children’s service. A crib service includes a real donkey.

As the Bishop acknowledges, meeting the increased demands of Christmas can be a greater challenge for smaller parish churches than well-staffed cathedrals. At Christmas, all over England dioceses call on local retired clergy to supplement clergy ranks and provide the maximum number of services possible for worshippers. It’s an approach that is easier to implement in some dioceses than others. The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, is based at St Albans Cathedral, only 30 miles from central London. “House prices are so expensive in this area that people can’t afford to retire here. There aren’t the numbers of retired clergy. So we use curates and lay readers to satisfy demand.”

Rural community churches

A Christmas service at Chichester Cathedral, West Sussex.

Both bishops spend much of Christmas Day itself in their cathedrals. It’s a valuable opportunity for a bishop to encounter worshippers from across the diocese. In 2015, for example, some 98,000 people took part in Christmas services at St Albans Cathedral. But cathedral worshippers represent only part of any bishop’s flock. To strike a balance, Bishop Alan devotes Sundays in December to visiting churches across the diocese, including rural parishes; Bishop John attends as many as possible of “the myriad Christmas services” on the days leading up to and following 25 December. The bishops’ presence is an offer of guidance, encouragement, support and direction at a key moment in the church year.

A ROLE BEYOND FAITH

In this way, Christmas reflects the bishops’ year-round role of ministering to Anglicans in town, suburbs and country. A bishop is a figurehead. The 21st-century bishop, however, has a role that extends beyond matters of faith and parishioners’ spiritual lives. Bishop Alan is the Church of England’s lead bishop on rural affairs in the House of Lords and president of the group of 12 countryside-focused national organisations that make up the Rural Coalition. If the Bishop’s first duty is to his Church, he is equally engaged with a roster of secular issues that impact on the lives of his country parishioners, including rural sustainability, rural housing and rural broadband. Twice a year the Bishop leads a delegation of fellow bishops to Defra to meet the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. “Many bishops are asked to engage with all sorts of questions: how are we going to have thriving communities in rural areas with rising house prices and so fewer families and so fewer children?”

Rural community churches

The Bishop of Shrewsbury, Mark Rylands, is a keen rod.

As in previous centuries, bishops forge connections with the people of their diocese in a variety of ways. Bishop Alan is a knowledgeable and enthusiastic gardener, an interest he has found unusually useful. In a country of passionate gardeners, the Bishop has a shared interest with many of his flock. “In this sense, gardening is like walking the dog, it brings you into contact with, and helps you to talk to, all the other people who love gardening.”

In the weeks after Christmas some years ago, he visited a tiny, brick-built Victorian church south of Hitchin. He paused outside the church to admire a drift of unusually large-leafed snowdrops. Before his departure at the end of the service, a galanthophile churchwarden had tracked down a spade and dug up a patch of the snowdrops as a present for the Bishop. Today, they’re among the winter glories in his garden, which he describes as “full of cuttings and bulbs from around the diocese”. As Bishop Alan opens his garden to visiting groups during the year, parishioners are afforded opportunities to see the fruits of their generosity. In addition, his love of gardening and agriculture aids the Bishop in his ministry, providing a source of imagery for sermons and homilies. “The Bible is full of horticultural and agricultural metaphors, like the image of the vine,” he comments. “Congregations absolutely understand those metaphors.”

THROUGH THE LITTLE

The Bishop of Shrewsbury, Mark Rylands, also draws inspiration from Biblical imagery in addressing the challenges of rural parishes within his diocese. “A lot of my work is encouraging people in rural areas to see that they can achieve much, particularly in small communities. All through the Bible God tended to use the unlikely and the little to achieve things. The Kingdom of Heaven is likened to a grain of mustard seed and David was Jesse’s eighth son, the runt of the litter. God loves working through the little.” Bishop Mark is an avid fisherman, too, and unravels parallels between the fisherman’s alertness and that needed by those involved in rural ministry. “When you’re fishing, you have to pay attention to all that’s around you, noticing everything. You concentrate very carefully on the presentation of the fly, on where to place the fly. Something of that alertness is very important in ministry and church life, spotting the one or two people who show openness to God or the Gospel.”

Rural community churches

The Bishop of St Albans with local school children.

Like so many current clergy, bishops work hard at overseeing a church that accommodates the diverse needs and tastes of parishioners. “One of the things we have to do in rural communities is cater for all sorts of tastes and worship traditions, recognising that, in small villages, not all those who worship come from a traditional Anglican background – it may be that the village church is the only form of worship available to them,” explains Bishop John. He applauds and encourages the variety of services provided by many of his 280 churches, including the medieval church of St Peter, reflected in surrounding water meadows in the West Worcestershire village of Martley, where the monthly cycle of Holy Communion services from Common Worship and early-morning services from the Book of Common Prayer is punctuated by less formal gatherings, with coffee and bacon sandwiches, called “Café Church”. In Shrewsbury, Bishop Mark is pleased with a variety of similar initiatives,
including a “forest” church organised by outdoor activities enthusiasts and the “mossy” church organised outdoors by an enterprising curate. Not all would suit every worshipper; the key is to provide a variety of options and ignite communities of worshippers. A carol service held by Bishop Mark at a livestock market outside Shrewsbury each Christmas has a special resonance for its worshippers, who are drawn from the local farming community. “They bring with them their sheep; their animals make up nativity scenes and the service takes place against a background of farmyard noises.”

WORKSHOPS AND RESOURCES

In Hertfordshire, the Bishop of St Albans continues to work to “create a culture to help people think what they can do realistically. There are all sorts of things small rural congregations can do and do very well. What we can do as a clergy is create workshops and resources so that people are able to think that small can be beautiful.”

The Bishop recognises the challenges facing small rural parishes, including the costs of maintaining expensive historic buildings with what is often a small core of volunteers, but is reassured by the degree of engagement, flexibility and commitment he encounters in country parishes. In the tiny 12th-century Bedfordshire church of St Peter’s, Thurleigh, he recently witnessed its fortnightly transformation into an alternative community centre, with drinks served to a cross-section of local residents, from school children to the elderly. This was not a scheme suggested by the bishop or his team. Instead, it represented grassroots innovation on the part of a particular church and its team.

Rural community churches

St Albans Cathedral in the snow.

St Peter’s Church’s engagement with specific local needs is one bishops across the country are eager to encourage. In Shrewsbury, Bishop Mark talks of the invaluable contribution a single family can make to a parish, while in Worcester, Bishop John talks of “extensive” schemes training lay people to participate in church services. Although only clergy can celebrate the Eucharist, Bishop John points out that lay people can read morning and evening prayer. “We try to suggest to people that it’s their church. In turn, closer involvement by parishioners may help them in their discipleship. Through involvement their commitment is deepened and their understanding broadened.” This level of commitment the Bishop recognises as a wholly positive contribution to rural life year-long.

Across the counties of England some 16,000 parish churches remain, infinitely varied, many of astonishing richness, local landmarks as well as repositories of centuries of community prayerfulness. For Bishop John, there is a special delight in landscape, which England’s historic churches enhance. “I rejoice in the country of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire.” Within the landscape, the Bishop suggests, churches are “the jewel in the crown of our built heritage”. Visually and physically these community “memory palaces” preserve the legacy of more than a thousand years of Christian worship in these islands. And at no period in the year is this symbolism more powerful than at Christmas.