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How village churches thrive

- an interview with Robert Atwell, Bishop of Exeter

Over the summer, a new book will be released by Church House Publishing, called ‘How village churches thrive: a practical guide.’ The book is a collection of ideas and practices, drawn together by the Bishop of Exeter, that have helped rural churches. Our CEO Simon Mattholie met with Bishop Robert to ask him a little more about the inspiration behind the book, as well as his personal thoughts on the future of the rural church.

The background to this book is partly to do with my responsibilities within the Bishops of the Church of England; I’m what’s called the ‘lead bishop for rural.’ Exeter diocese is a substantial rural diocese with 604 parishes. From a Church of England perspective, the dominant images of growth and churches thriving are all these great big urban churches, and they are fantastic. The last thing I want to do is to detract from any success in these, but at the same time, what we shouldn’t be doing is undermining the rural. Often rural is being put negatively as if the rural church is a great millstone around the neck of its go ahead, urban cousins. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence is that those in small rural churches feel like failures. Sadly, the way that some people in leadership talk encourages a line of thought which suggests that the best thing we should do with the rural church is to close them so that we can instead invest more in big urban centres. By doing so we miss some of the great things that happen in our small rural parishes.

Along with many other denominations, the Church of England cannot sustain the number of full-time ministers that we were used to perhaps 20-30 years ago. This creates stress and strains; however, the plus side is that many laypeople have stepped up to the mark. Regrettably, they can sometimes feel overwhelmed, under-resourced or simply lacking in confidence. So, this book is aimed at the layperson and how they can help a rural church thrive.

Rural churches can at times feel overwhelmed; they mistakenly think that they’ve got to do everything that other churches do. Encouraging them to focus instead on one or two things that will make a difference is a critical lesson. For the last 25 years I’ve tried to get village churches to cooperate. When we do so we might discover that the church in the next village is good with young people. If that is the case, let’s celebrate it, invest in it, and support it rather than attempting to begin our own version. It is a way of building a critical mass, but more than this, it’s relieving a single church from the guilt of not being able to cover every area. Encouraging collaboration is vital for the rural church.

When it comes to ministry, what is important is relationship, relationship, relationship. Change goes at the pace of trust, and how do you build trust? You build trust through relationships. I’m impervious to parodies of the rural church being stuck in the mud and resisting; of course, there are some resistant places. Nevertheless, if we look at the farming industry, I’m inspired at how flexible and agile it is; UK farming is very entrepreneurial. It knows that if it wants to thrive, it must respond to the market and the changing times. Likewise, the rural churches which are thriving are the ones that have the confidence to experiment and flex themselves and they have done that by investing in relationships.

We need to view our buildings differently, not as a problem but rather as opportunities. When we look at rural England, many public buildings have gone; whether it’s the village school, the pub, the post office, the village shop – they’ve gone. Often, it’s just the chapel or church that’s left; therefore, if we don’t use them, we’ll lose them, but let’s think outside the box. Let’s be imaginative about our buildings.

The rural church is good at celebrating and marking life events. It is still the place where funerals and christenings take place. It is often the place where couples want to get married. These things have come under threat or disappeared entirely in some urban areas. There has been an explosion of civil celebrants, and it is now almost normative in many urban areas if you look at funerals. But that’s not the case in rural areas and I think that, by and large, the rural church understands the significance of life events and marking these times. It’s not all about having the latest interpretation of these events or something flashy or ultra-modern. Instead, it is being truly authentic. I’ve seen some beautiful times where funerals have been marked in an authentic, simple way, and you are left with the impression that this church pastorally cares.

Perhaps the rural church needs to stop apologising. One of my clergy team was lamenting her experience travelling around rural churches. “When you get there”, she said, “the language invariably begins negatively. The person at the door begins by saying, ‘I’m terribly sorry. We haven’t got many people here today because so-and-so’s got COVID or it’s half term’ or ‘I’m terribly sorry the organist isn’t here, so we’ve got to do with this track, and I’m afraid the computer tends not to work very well.’ We seem to begin with these endless apologies.”

Perhaps we should challenge this negative language, stop apologising and begin to recognise the importance of authenticity.

The rural church has much it can teach the urban church. I always think of Oscar Romero, who said that the poor are the church’s teachers. I believe that the Lord speaks to us in surprising ways. I would like to think and hope and pray that the rural church will have things to teach its urban and suburban cousins. Lessons about authenticity, the nature of Christian community, and sheer faithfulness are just a few that spring to mind. Being rooted has become much more significant in this pick-n-mix culture that we inhabit. I think roots are something that a rural population understands. Being rooted in Christ is something that I hope we can all honour and celebrate.

There is such huge creativity in rural churches; let’s celebrate it and see the rural church continue to flourish.

Hugh Dennis, the comedian and writer, remarks in the foreword to the book, “I think many rural churches are rather like spring bulbs, ready for the right conditions to release all the potential they hold, and to thrive.”

Receive a FREE copy! How village churches thrive: a practical guide is available from Church House Publishing in June. We are giving away ten free copies. To obtain a copy, send us an email to telling us in 60 words what you are currently doing in the rural context which is thriving.


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