After a recent leaked report the Archbishop of York has spoken strongly that the “national church” has no plans to reduce clergy or do away with the parish system. This is a decision he said, that rests with individual dioceses. Now as anyone who has ever lived in Hazelbury Bryan will know this is a little disingenuous. Hazelbury Bryan doesn’t exist as such – it is a catch all name for several hamlets – Kingston, Wonston, Droop etc. The Church of England is rather the same – it exists in as much as it is made up of 40+ Dioceses. And Dioceses pretty well across the land are having to take some very hard decisions about the future number of stipendiary clergy, the use of church buildings and the boundaries of parishes.
No one wants a church to close. That, (I hope) is a given. But there may have to be hard conversations about how church buildings are used, how often, and who invests in them, both in terms of money, time and energy. Rural communities have had to deal with a great deal of loss over the last decades. Many villages have lost their shop, their pub, their school, their bus service, their post office to name but a few. We are very fortunate in our benefice to have retained shops, pubs, even the occasional bus! But it is not an easy job keeping these services going, and we should never take them for granted.
So let’s imagine that we do live in a village where the shop is closing. What do you do for food? Well I suspect that the majority of the village already do a larger shop at the supermarket some miles drive away. But for the sake of argument, let’s say you do all your shopping at the village shop. And it closes. Will you starve? Or will you drive to the next shop along? Or will you start having your food delivered so you don’t have to go anywhere at all? I suspect the latter two…
Let’s imagine we live in a village where the pub is closing. Will you give up drinking and socialising altogether? Or will you drive to the nearest pub? Perhaps less frequently as it is a pain to drive, especially on a dark evening. Or you may find you drink more at home using the beer/wine you bought at the supermarket. You may invite your friends round more often to make an evening of it just as you did when you could gather in the pub.
How might these two scenarios help us understand what could happen if a church were to close or be reduced in its services? Is it the shop scenario or is it the pub scenario?
Lets think about the shop scenario. If church serves spiritual food will you allow yourself to starve to death or will you travel to the next church down the road? (Like you already do for the supermarket, the doctors, the dentist, the retail outlet, the garden centre and the hospital to name but a few). Maybe you will connect with church online, rather like ordering your food from Tesco – there is a great deal more church choice out there on the internet than can be found in the local “shop”!
Let’s think about the pub scenario. If you view church as a luxury, a hobby, a social event, is there the same impetus to travel? Might you just find you drink at the well of the living water that is to be found in church just less often? Or might you value the community it was and meet up with fellow “drinkers” (i.e. Christians) in your home instead?
What we see from this is that the loss of a church building in itself need not be a disaster. We have found great strength as a benefice in travelling through lockdown together as Christians in this area. We have found new friendships, rejoiced in gathering together in way greater number than normal, made new connections online and come out a bit leaner for sure, but a lot stronger.
No church building has been closed down. Churches have just been used differently. Online has been embraced, a culture shift has occurred. This was forced on us, but my feeling is that it has been good for us. But it has meant change. It has meant moving from one church to another. It has meant losing that tight grip on the “my-village-my-church” mentality – that peculiar particularity I have written about before.
I believe this is because people do not see church as a luxury or a hobby or a social club, but as a necessity without which they will starve. We have been made to stop taking church for granted, to value and reassess what it means in our lives and just how important it is to us. Which is most important to us – to be in “our church building” or to be with “our church family”? I think we are beginning to see an answer to that.