THE COUNTRYSIDE COUNTS

Andy Hawes takes a look at rural Anglicanism

 

THE COUNTRYSIDE COUNTS - LISTEN TO US! So runs the Countryside Alliance slogan on the rear windows of all manner of vehicles in any village or market town car park. Next month will see the green and pleasant part of England decant tens of thousands of marchers to London to protest at the proposed ban on foxhunting. This protest will be the focus of many discontents and a vigorous expression of a usually quieter voice - that of rural England. But not everything is as it appears; not all cars and four wheel drives carry the countryside alliance stickers, and many country dwellers will not protest against the hunting ban. Rural communities are themselves divided on the issue and this division is a reflection of deep divides and tensions that are shaping the life of rapidly changing rural communities. The time has surely come when all rural stereotypes and archetypes are ploughed under. There is a cacophony of countryside voices crying out "listen to us"! One of the smallest voices is that of the orthodox and traditional Anglican.

A SOCIOLOGICAL REVOLUTION

The economic and sociological revolution now taking place in rural England is remolding fundamental concepts of countryside and community. Food production in England now accounts for only one per cent of GNP. In Rural Communities an average of only five per cent of the population depend on agriculture as a major source of income. Although farmers have shaped the landscape and have been the economic lifeblood of rural communities for centuries, they now find themselves marginalised and often among the poorer members of a parish. It is a fact that the average profit of a farm in 1999-2000 was 10,000; most farms have lost half their profitability in the last five years. The farmer is now seen as a maintenance engineer for pasture, woodland and arable land (one third of which is "set aside"). In one of the parishes I serve the number of farms has been reduced from seven to four; of these four farms one farmer supplements his income by working as a bouncer in a night club, and another as a butcher in a nearby market town.

There are many countryside voices that are unsympathetic to the farming community. They compare the demise of agriculture to the collapse of other industries; steel, mining, fishing; they point to the heavy subsidies that farms enjoy and the years of plenty they have reaped; they complain at the rape of the landscape in the grubbing up of hedge rows and the unchecked use of pesticides and fertilisers. They accuse the farming community of selling land at huge prices for development and thus causing the distortion of both landscape and community.

These are all points raised at a local meeting of clergy convened by the Rural Dean to discuss the pastoral care of the farming community. The feeling of the meeting seemed to be "they made their own bed so they can lie in it!" Another meeting of farmers expressed their deeply felt sense of rejection by the community, and of their isolation and confusion as to the way forward.

SUBURBAN INCOMERS

The Parish Church in rural communities is often the only institution where the conflicting voices of the countryside can converse. It is the case, however, that the older more "authentic" rural voice, which has long experience of countryside and community, is often drowned out. The open democratic government of the parish church means that the newcomers can often outvote and cast out the native from the decision-making bodies and lay officer posts. The "new comer" tends to be mobile, middle class, and often a retired professional with experience of running things. In some parishes known to me the church is becoming a tragic caricature of a "rural church", a hybrid of a postcard and a Bill Tidy cartoon. A messy fusion is taking place between half forgotten practices and the "incomers" expectation of what a country church ought to be. Nothing could be more ironic than the recent fad of reviving Plough Sunday or more sad than harvest suppers with not one farmer present.

The cultural imperialism of suburban England and its destructive impact on rural communities cannot be exaggerated. Both the equity rich early pensioners and the electric-rail commuters have brought new accents and expectations to the country parish. One thing is certain, many newcomers in villages are not interested in the community as it is. Roughly they divide into those who want to be left alone in splendid isolation, and those who want to improve what is there by getting involved. In one of the parishes I serve two nineteen thirties family homes have been bought and then demolished to make way for houses bigger than anything in the village in styles more suited to a wooded lane in Berkshire than a Lincolnshire hilltop. They are statements of intent and a reflection of the increasing desire to redesign the landscape into a "proper" countryside, with "proper" country homes, in "proper" rural communities. In many parishes the church is at the vanguard of the process of suburbanisation. Often made vulnerable by small numbers and the heavy responsibilities of medieval buildings and the administration of churchyards many PCCs have heaved a grateful sigh and welcomed the new order with open arms. The consequences of this change of government is profound; churches are often run by people who do not know the community and are happy to develop congregational lives increasingly divorced from the wider parish. This is not to say that the PCC member "new-style" has anything but the best of intentions, but sadly they are often ill informed and ill directed. What is created is sometimes good in itself but has no roots in the community and no foundation in the gospel.

ORTHODOXY IN TOILS

Thus it is the country parish has ceased to be a touchstone for tradition and orthodoxy, and has become a workshop for experiment in liturgy, ministry and pastoral re-organisation. In many rural parishes almost anything goes. The continuing enlargement of rural benefices means that clergy are increasingly dependent on laity to lead worship, and to take a lead in many aspects of church life. In rural dioceses, like Lincoln, local ministry has been around for more than twenty years. Even "ministry professionals" despair at the huge task of training and the impossibility of effective oversight of the activities of this expanding body of ministers. It is impossible to know what happens in churches during long interregna, or in large groups of parishes where hard pressed clergy happily hand over liturgical and preaching duties to anyone with some kind of authorisation. In the worst case scenario enthusiastic lay people are re-inventing the church and its doctrine. It is doubtful that effective Episcopal oversight can ever be restored in parishes like these where a Pandora's box has been opened. The destructive forces that obliterated rural Methodism in the 1980s and 1970s are now at work in rural Anglicanism; inward looking congregationalism controlled by one or two families or interest groups unable to break out of a cycle of decline.

BLEAK PROSPECTS

There is, tragically, no future for Christian orthodoxy in Rural Anglicanism. Within a generation the few parishes that now enjoy orthodox ministry through regular apostolic order, sound liturgical practice and scriptural preaching and teaching will be submerged in the inexorable movement of pastoral reorganisation and the hegemony of the new church order in small communities. There will certainly be a C of E in rural England but it is doubtful that it will be recognisably Christian; it will be based on a second hand folk religion whose focus is a much-revered pile of stones. It is not unknown for orthodox Christians to make a forty-mile round trip through countless parishes to be "meet partakers" at an orthodox service. Any orthodox Christian involved in a rural parish should begin the struggle now to maintain his parishes independence and secure all the pastoral, practical and legal help available when resolutions ABC are passed. If this is impossible, the time has come to recognise that both the community and the church which he first loved no longer exists and he must go out in Faith seeking fellowship and communion where it can be found, and by his best efforts support it. In this way not all that is noble and true will be lost from the English Countryside.

Andy Hawes is Vicar of Edenham with Witham-on-the-Hill and Rural Dean of Beltiloe in the diocese of Lincoln.

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