For the last thirty years, there has been a steady migration from urban to rural areas. After the 1991 census, geographers coined the term ‘counterurbanisation cascade’ to describe this movement. Two major reasons for their move were that migrants wanted to enjoy the natural beauty of rural areas and be part of smaller, more identifiable communities.  The rural idyll is alive and well.

The pandemic has ignited a greater interest in rural life: anecdotal evidence suggests that more people are migrating from urban areas.  In addition to the two reasons given above, concern for personal health and well-being is luring people into the countryside.  All three indicate people’s thirst for a life-style providing more fulfilling relationships with others, with the environment and within themselves.

Some are moving to suburbs or countryside within easy commuting distance of their work-places.  Others are moving further afield to more remote rural areas seeking a complete change in life-style. The popularity of the television programme ‘Escape to the Country’ is an indicator of this trend. Whatever the final outcome, there can be little doubt that the counterurbanisation cascade will continue and may well accelerate. In addition to increased migration to rural areas, countless people are holidaying there, enjoying the scenery and engaging in physical activities ranging from walking to rock-climbing.  My home area of Exmoor welcomed two million visitors a year before the pandemic: with two years of restricted travel forcing people to take staycations and the rising cost of overseas’ travel, this number is likely to rise.

What role does the Church have in all of this?  Every church, wherever it is located,  is called to be what the world would look like if it were in touch with God through Jesus Christ.  This calling is shaped by local context, culture and community in dialogue with the universal Church. For Anglicans, it is shaped by worshippers (regular and irregular), by potential worshippers and by those who share the sentiments of Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Church Going’:

For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here

Rural churches are particularly called to reflect, through the people of God and in their worship, the beauty and distinctiveness of the environment and to acknowledge nature’s wildness and unpredictability.  All of this, in addition to their daily lives, forms the context that worshippers take into their worship on behalf of themselves and their communities. The pastoral nature of ministry will support those who struggle and its prophetic nature will speak to those in power to ensure that the environment is managed with respect and love and that the vulnerable are not forgotten and displaced  but cared for and encouraged.

Taking the role of the Church into account, I identify five opportunities and challenges that such demographic changes and evolving holiday habits pose to rural churches as well as to dioceses and central church bodies whose policies and funding impact the whole Church of England.

The first challenge is recognising that each rural area is distinctive.  Central church bodies tend to view rural churches through urban or sub-urban lenses and this is to the detriment not only of the life and mission of rural churches, but also, paradoxically, to that of urban and suburban churches.  People move to and holiday in rural areas in search of a life that is different  from urban living. If such differences are not recognised by the wider church and reflected in their strategies, then the imagination and countercultural insights to be found in rural ministry will be missed and the rural church viewed as eccentric and irrelevant.  Alienated and misunderstood, relationships are strained as rural churches question the central church’s relevance. It was worrying to read in a recent review of the Church’s Mission and Pastoral Measure (GS Misc 1312) that some interviewees argued that ‘the interests of the parish are not the interests of the diocese.’ (p.6)  As management guru Peter Drucker warns, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’  

Secondly, one example of the failure to take account of rural distinctiveness is in the way a church’s viability is assessed by attendance numbers.  While the latter is not unimportant, it cannot be the primary arbiter in rural areas.   Of primary significance is not Sunday attendance but rather whether the majority in the community regard the local church as theirs.  Again, relationships, in this case between church and community, are paramount. When the clock needs repairing or the roof needs refurbishing then it may well be the person who rarely attends who generously offers finance for ‘their’ church.  One of the Church of England’s glories is its care for all in the parish and, at a time when less emphasis is being placed on this aspect of the Church’s nature, rural churches are well placed to remind the wider church of this priority and show creative ways of modelling it.

Thirdly, one challenge that the relationship with the community poses to rural churches is to ensure the community voice is heard in church decision-making.  The Parochial Church Council (PCC) alone does not always hear the outside voice and not all villagers will want to spend time on PCCs. Many villages have found ways of ensuring there is good communication, but if it is an issue, then a regular gathering with community members will be vital.

Fourthly, rural churches, in contrast with their urban sisters, are usually surrounded by churchyards, many of which remain open for interments. This deepens the sense of community by embodying the often unarticulated reality that ‘community’ consists of relationships with the past as well as with the present and the future. In addition, a churchyard in the centre of a village provides a visible reminder that in the midst of life we are in death and that a realistic acknowledgement of death and its rituals  are required for a healthy understanding of life. Used creatively, this geographic configuration of a village is a springboard for some profound discussions about life and flourishing for which there is currently a deep thirst. Furthermore, trauma for the future was stored up during the pandemic when many were unable to be with dying loved ones and few were able to grieve their deaths at funerals. The visibility of village churchyards will help deal with this trauma.

Finally, as the wider Church makes difficult decisions about resources and deployment, it is imperative that the impact of Covid, the counterurbanisation cascade and the potential within rural parishes are taken into account. Society’s cultural tectonic plates are moving.  Courageous and imaginative decision-making is required.  Will the church in rural areas be sufficiently resourced to point to the God who is the source of all?

This is a fuller version of the article ‘More Escaping to the Country’ published in the Church Times on 11 November 2022.

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