As part of my theological training at Cranmer Hall, St John’s College, Durham I took a Mission Study Block (MSB) looking at rural ministry in the Ripon Deanery. I chose this study block because I came with virtually no knowledge of the challenges and opportunities of rural ministry. I’ve always been a towny – I’ve visited the countryside on holiday but that was the extent of my knowledge. I don’t feel especially called to rural ministry but neither did I want to rule it out purely because I have no experience of it.
12 of us from Cranmer Hall spent 2 weeks together in and around the Ripon Deanery undertaking a combination of teaching, trips out and time on placement with local clergy and churches. It was a very formative experience in all senses of the word and I am sure everything I learned will be applicable to wherever I end up in ministry in the future.
I will share here some of the status updates I made on Facebook throughout the MSB and try to summarise some of the key things I learnt about rural ministry. At the bottom is a collection of photos I took some of which probably speak more loudly than these words! This is all part of my theological reflection – if you have anything to add or challenge, please do, as it will help me to learn more.
Today we prayed in a T shaped chapel (St Lawrence Aldfield with Studley), held some tiny piglets, had an ice cream in the sun and said evening prayer in Ripon Cathedral. Joy!
Today I was inspired to hear Sally Gaze talk about being Mission-shaped and Rural; overwhelmed at the wonderful place that is Jennyruth Workshops by the fab staff (who have learning disabilities) and the quality of woodwork they produce, finishing the day at a priest’s induction in the beautiful Pateley Bridge. A good day.
Today I helped with a graveyard survey, discovered that the one thing they don’t teach you at theological college is that being a deacon is great fun, spent the afternoon learning about tourism and the rural economy at the beautiful Newby Hall & Gardens (over afternoon tea) finishing off with a meal at a parishioner’s house playing Monopoly and then reading the chapter about the Quidditch World Cup in HP book 4 to her two children. What a great day! I could get used to this!
Today I learnt about the challenges of rural ministry from the wonderful Bishop James, visited the Yorkshire Showground, said evening prayer in a lovely Methodist chapel and watched the Ripon wakeman sound the watch at 9pm – something done in the square every night since 886AD!
I spent today in beautiful Swaledale and learnt about rural spirituality from two inspirational priests. Then had a fab lunch in Reeth and then went to Marrick Priory – the coolest outdoor activity centre that’s actually a converted medieval priory. We went climbing in a quarry – proud of myself for doing it. Finished the day having dinner with a lovely retired URC minister & his wife. I am tired but happy!
What I learnt about rural ministry from the experience (in no particular order):
Please note that all of the below are gleaned from just 2 weeks in one particular (but quite diverse) deanery – so please don’t take these as generalisations or as applicable only to rural contexts.
- Visibility: being visible in rural ministry is really important, even if it is not possible to personally visit everyone in your benefice. You are often known by your car – Caroline, priest in Swaledale has a Land Rover with a badge on the wheel on the back saying ‘Parish of Swaledale’. One of the Methodist ministers we met talked of the importance of shopping locally – even if it is inconvenient – in your dog collar you are seen – and of course you can catch up on local news. Hanging around at bus stops is also an opportunity to engage with people. Finding out where people are and then going there works. Bishop James Bell called it ‘strategic visibility’.
- Rootedness: People in rural communities are very much rooted to the land, its heritage and their ancestors. Often, everyone is related to everyone else. One farmer showed us Roman finds from his farm. There is a sense of continuity and rootedness that you simply don’t get in cities. There is a real sense that the land is just ‘on loan’ and that many people have preceded you and many will come after you.
- Hospitality: this can also be evident in towns and cities of course but rural ministry does seem to run on tea and cake! Food and making people feel welcome is an integral part of what happens in rural communities.
- Ecumenism: tied to ecumenism is the lack of any extreme churchmanship. When an anglican church is the only church in a community (which is often the case) the congregation will comprise of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. This means that you will not get ‘niche’ churches that serve a particular flavour of Christianity – such as you get in towns and cities. As a minister it’s important to take into account the different backgrounds of the congregation. A simple suggestion made was to say such things as, “let’s sing that great Wesley hymn…” in introducing hymns – nodding to the Methodist heritage of some people. Working across denominational boundaries is essential in rural areas and some of the best examples of ecumenical work can be found in rural areas.
- Seasons: This is an obvious one but the seasons have a more powerful impact on rural communities – especially farming communities. A way the church can be more involved is in using the old rural church calendar traditions such as Plough Sunday, Clypping and Rogation Sunday. One priest said she spent a lot of time blessing farming equipment and her church has been praying for the yield of local farmers – one farmer saying they’d noticed a lack of disease in the flock this year!
- Relationships: this is true for all ministry – it is about relationships. However, because so many in rural areas are connected to each other by family links this does change things somewhat. For example, attending an Alpha course with family members is awkward and not necessarily appropriate. Spirituality is more expressed corporately than individually. This shows how urban-centric many evangelism programmes are – so many are focused on coming to a personal faith on one’s own – rather than as part of a community over a period of time. My reflection on this is that more ‘organic’ forms of discipleship growth need to be used in a rural area (and perhaps in cities actually).
- Cross cultural: rural ministry is cross cultural mission – working with incomers and landowners, farmers and artists…
- Creative: far from being ‘behind’ what is happening in the church in urban areas there is a huge amount of creativity in rural churches – perhaps because of the restrictions and lack of resources that are common in rural churches. I was really inspired by how Caroline, vicar of Swaledale, turned a ‘bat problem’ into an opportunity.
There was much more that I learnt but this is a simple summary of some of the things I noted. At the end of the placement we were encouraged to spend some time writing a Collect (prayer) for the Rural Church. Here is mine, a little rough around the edges:
in the deep memory that the land holds,
may we remember your faithfulness through the generations.
In our deep knowledge of the people in our community,
may we deepen in our relationship with you.
For in you is perfect relationship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Here is a collection of images I took whilst on the placement, click on the images to see a full slideshow (24 photos). I think the piglet probably wins it!
Images from Rural ministry study block, a set on Flickr.