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)