Book Review: Re-shaping Rural Ministry

Here comes another book trying to persuade me that life in rural churches has a different set of challenges, presumptions and priorities to those which apply in an urban setting. To articulate that is also to articulate an uncertainty about who this book is aimed at. It might be written to encourage others engaged in rural endeavors. On the other hand it might be written for the very purpose of convincing the wider church (ie those decision makers who live in towns and cities) of some kind of perceived special needs of the rural church. It it is the latter, I fear I am not yet convinced.

This is a book (like many being produced currently) which many hands have contributed to. Different people (bishops, directors of ordinands, rural officers) from around the rural scene in the Church of England have each made their contributions. It is perhaps not surprising that these are most contentious when it comes to areas dealing with ministry. Once again, the rural strategy outlined here seems to be to find ever more inventive ways of providing ministry on the cheap to ensure that rural churches die more slowly. Once agan, collaborative ministry and ordained local (ie relatively under-resourced and undertrained) clerical ministries seem to be the answer.

It is the generalisations which stick in the mind long after reading this book. Apparently, for those living in these special rural places, in contrast to those living in towns, time may be “seen as cyclical…based on the seasons rather than just linear”. Has the author of this section (Amiel Osmaston) never met the academic year? “Rural spirituality,” she tells us, “was forged by those who were in touch with the soil and the seasons.” Is that paganism she is talking about or not? “In rural areas faith is often implicit, shown in practical works and relationships within the community”. Is that supposed to mean that it isn’t elsewhere?

Those of us who live in areas which are not deemed sufficiently rural should be rightly indignant at these holier-than-thou attitudes from those who live in the countryside. There can be no doubts at all that the experience of Christian Faith is shaped by its context. However, that does not justify such condesension towards the places where most people actually choose to live, as we find in this volume.

The truth is, the more that people make a case for the church developing strategies (and setting aside budgets) for the rural church, the more one remembers that Christianity started in a city and was passed from city to city in the ancient world. It is undoubtedly true that there seem to be a number of recurring neo-pagan spiritual responses that modern people make to being in the countryside. However, whether the church should encourage the notion of a distinctive ministry in such places is less certain. That rural ministry should be possible, is no doubt cause for celebration. That it should take up the time and energies of synods and assemblies is far less clear.

Re-shaping Rural Ministry
Edited by James Bell, Jill Hopkinson and Trevor Willmott (Canterbury Press £14.99)


  1. annie t says

    I don’t think the book preaches a ‘holier than thou’ attitude at all. It sets out to describe the particular needs and challenges of rural ministry, which naturally differ from those of urban, exurban and suburban contexts. But what is more dangerous is the unhelpful polarity you set up in your closing remarks. At a time when rural and urban need to be partners in development in view of the future challenges and immense stresses that water demand, food security, population increase etc will create, opposing the two contexts is unhelpful.

    • Well actually, Annie T, I agree with you up to a point. I’m inclined to think that the problems facing ministry in town and country are actually rather more similar than those behind this book seem to think.

      It is they who are opposing the two contexts much more than I am.

      I’ve worked in urban and non-urban settings and I don’t recognise the differences and the polarity that some of the authors describe as being real.

      Problems of housing, church finance, population etc are all remarkably similar.

  2. “Ministry on the cheap to ensure that rural churches die more slowly”
    I’ve often thought that new churches should be multi-functional community buildings. If they were it could be possible that the local council would contribute to their up-keep and maintenance.

  3. Is that paganism she is talking about or not?

    A few years ago I went around the cathedral in the centre of Gloucester and saw stations of the cross including the theme of “Jesus’ body being laid in the grave like one lays seeds in the ground” (that being a paraphrase: what matters is that it invoked the same thoughts as the hymn “Now the green blade riseth”). So no, that sentence does not necessarily imply anything about paganism.

    You don’t say whether there’s been any input from laity to this book, without which the whole thing would be futile. Some of us see the most important factor in choosing regularly to attend a church as welcome. All the way, welcome: it just varies with timescale, in that after 6 months it’s more typically called being “involved”.
    The dangerous dark-side of user-interaction the church faces is that a congregation might not notice a visitor / prospective newcomer; alternatively, the church might have switched service-times around without explicitly stating everywhere that the service won’t happen at conventional times: said visiting prospect will rightly feel messed-around when they get there and find the door shut. The difference with rural church is the risk: when you have to drive for half an hour to find it’s not happening, the stakes are higher.

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