Rural churches have a very strong sense of “parish”: the geography of what constitutes “our patch”. Sometimes this can be a little frustrating as people are unwilling to travel away from their parish to a neighbouring one, but I have come to recognise and celebrate the strengths of parish more and more. In a world where a sense of belonging is being eroded at so many levels, having a defined sense of identity in a place is increasingly important. To play down boundaries is to play down belonging: to be loosely attached to nowhere-in-particular is to love nowhere very much and we need to pursue the idea of “local monogamy” as one writer puts it. Supporting our village pubs, schools shops and community hubs plays a part, but our parish churches have a unique place in our landscape and sense of place.
Our rural churches will, most likely, be the oldest building in the village: they make their own inscription on the landscape. A report came out a few years ago called “Landscape without Livestock” which highlighted how the countryside as we have come to know and love it has been shaped by our agricultural practices and the rearing of livestock over centuries. Without livestock the landscape would be altered profoundly. Without our church buildings our rural landscape would also be altered dramatically. Without our parishes and their boundaries we would have a different sense of place.
But to believe in parish is not just to believe in the people within the boundaries, but also the place. Churches care not only for their congregations, and the wider populace but also the environment in which they are set. To have a parish is to have care of a manageable circuit of ground – a place where we can make a difference and have a real impact.