‘So, if anything, 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.’ Those are the words of comedian Hugh Dennis, a vicarage child, in the foreword to this positive and helpful handbook to the many diverse ways in which we can help rural churches to bloom. Each of the ten contributors has direct parochial experience and it shows. Sandra Millar, formerly Head of Life Events for the Church of England, demonstrates the work that parishes are already doing. She leafs through the register of a tiny village church with a regular weekly congregation of fewer than twenty people, to discover they had touched the lives of over five hundred that past month through two christenings, two weddings and a funeral. She then gives a few ideas to deepen these encounters and to help the ministry on, emphasizing, for example, good relationships with the local undertaker, offering a wedding or christening package with your hall as a reception venue and so on. One idea I really liked was to mount a mock-wedding at the local school as I recall how we used to do that as children informally at playtime. There is advice about how to be welcoming to casual visitors during the week, including when the church has to be closed and ways to be ‘the heartbeat of the community’, which included a suggestion that home-workers be encouraged to work alongside each other in the church or hall, or offering a hot desk for workers or students. It can be quite lonely working from home and such suggestions have real potential as energy costs and other factors bring much more working from where you live. In fact, one of the ten topics is loneliness and isolation and the good thing here is that any church community, no matter how small, can offer tea and company, and a listening ear. This book will have gone to press before the full horror of energy price rises came along, so does not factor in the effects on the parish church. Sharing workspace may have to be a summer activity, as parishes too face crippling energy bills.
One of the most challenging problems for village churches is attracting children and their families, in communities where sport and riding often cluster on Sunday mornings. Gill Ambrose gives the example of a fenland village with only 17 on the electoral roll, all over 65, which started children’s work from a hospitality impetus, holding a children’s party, which developed into Cre8, which meets four or five times a year on Saturday afternoon, with high quality craft materials (not kits like the onerous numbers of pre-made elements you have to prepare for messy church), with a song, faith story, creative activity and a simple meal, followed by a prayer. People sign up to come on face-book and Cre8 has increased bookings of the village hall. Examples like this abound throughout the book and are encouraging. Sensibly, the authors suggest not trying to act alone but finding out what local people’s priorities are, what other groups or churches around can be partnered with. The book gives you questions to ask, simple advice about starting small initiatives, and lists of resources in each case. Everything is small-scale and unfrightening, with a nice section called ‘don’t’ overdo it’. If you want to use social media, there is a great table which explains the difference between Instagram and twitter, and ten ways to have effective e-newsletters, all aimed at luddites like myself. There is also a lovely section on churchyards, ‘caring for God’s acre’.
Although in Save the Parish we are aware of all the burdens that are placed on village churches and those who struggle to keep them going, this book is not one to set a parish up to feel inadequate and burden them with yet more guilt but to stimulate discussion and to give a positive vision of the hundreds of works of the kingdom that are being created up and down the land in our parishes. Village churches are necessarily small, but as the Bishop of Exeter writes in the introduction, ‘a small church is not a failed church, any more than a satsuma is a failed orange’ (p. 2).
I wish every PCC had a copy of this book, which is produced on sturdy paper, is full of colour, useful tips and heart-warming case studies. It shows that outreach and welcome is in the DNA of village churches and it breathes confidence that they are the Church of England’s heart-beat and that despite what the hierarchy often throw at them they most certainly can thrive.