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)

Book Review

The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality – A resource to enable listening and dialogue

Edited by Phil Groves (SPCK – £14.99)

The clearest call for a process of listening to the experience of lesbian and gay Anglicans came 10 years ago at the Lambeth Conference of 1998. That this book is being published just a couple of weeks before this year’s Lambeth Conference is a testament to the failure of that previous call.

The process of listening to the experience of lesbian and gay Anglicans has been comprehensively hijacked and turned into a process of listening to the different warring factions of the communion. Things are not going to get better until those gay voices are heard more clearly and I am unconvinced that the process that has been adopted here will help matters much at all. Rather than ensure that we are listening to the experiences that the Communion bishops told us to listen to, we are being encouraged to listen to schism. Who can be surprised if further division is the result?

The book, like the Communion, is a mixed bag. Parts are good, parts are bad, some parts look rather uneasy and insecure and some parts are sick.

By far the best chapter is the one on Listening and Dialogue which appears near the beginning of the book. Would that this had been published as a pamphlet for the churches after the last Lambeth Conference. Less secure is the strategy of locating the listening process within the context of a discussion about mission. There is much in the experience of foreign missions which can throw some light on the current crisis, yet that experience goes largely unexamined here.

Near the beginning of the book, we are told, “The aim of this book is to enable you to begin or to continue listening to those identified as ‘homosexual persons’ and to discover and engage with the diversity of responses found among Anglicans.” Herein lies its failure. It presumes that the reader is straight, it uses terms like “homosexual persons” which unravel the identity of those very voices it claims to be promoting and it sets the whole within an agenda of listening to schism.

By far the worst parts of the book are the last couple of chapters which claim to be about listening to the “Witness of Science”. The placing of these chapters at the end of the book unchallenged and as though they were some kind of a conclusion is unfortunate at best. The clearly stated agenda for this work is an examination of what causes homosexuality in order that it can be cured. Are gay people supposed to welcome this kind of agenda being published as a response to a call to listen to their voices? We are warned in an introduction to this section that the depersonalized and medicalized language might be upsetting. Indeed, there is a suggestion that we read it in the company of a scientist or a doctor. However, we don’t need a medic present to conclude that it is not gay people who are sick.

It is the Communion itself.

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