Inkling One: The Mission of the Rural Church of England
by Sarah Cawdell
Some years ago, at about the time of the Up and Coming Church roadshows, a theological consultation in the Diocese of Hereford, I began a research project looking at the mission of the rural church.
So many on our diocese work so hard to keep a large number of small village churches open. I wanted to ask why? What inspired such devotion, and faithfulness across the generations?
How could we justify so much outlay energy and finance in the face of shrinking clergy numbers and ageing congregations.
I had a most exciting five years pottering round the diocese, drinking beer and asking various people who were not regular church attenders about their experiences of God and church. People who were regular at Harvest, Remembrance and Easter, but did not go to church at least once a month were included in some of the conversational groups. Alongside this I read some exciting theologians old and new, not least Dan Hardy and David Ford. In listening to the variety of points of view I came to some joyous understanding of the point of it all, which encourages me to go on living as a rector’s wife tucked away in a small corner of the English countryside.
I started my reading with what is for me a fundamental question: What sort of God do we believe in, as Christians. What is he like?
Of course one can never come to the end of this question, but all the more reason then to ask from time to time, just to ensure that our behaviour and style of living are integral with our faith.
Some key points came to me, which bear a particular relation to the primary point of the study:
God Values Creation
First we believe in a God who values creation, and who understands the particularity of creation. He is a God who has in the past located Himself in a particular people, and a particular place. And this is not to say that God is only to be found in one place and in one time, but somehow by making Himself known to the people of Israel, by choosing to be incarnate in the man Jesus born in Bethlehem, brought up in Nazareth, dying outside Jerusalem God has shown that He is infinitely concerned for all people in every time and place. It is, in part, because time and place matter to God that the Anglican Church is concerned where possible to keep up an outward and visible sign of the presence of God in a place. Our church buildings are living symbols of the presence of God amongst us, sometimes at the heart of a community, and sometimes on the edge, but always present in the landscape.
God Reveals Himself
Second, we believe in a God who loves to make Himself known, God is a self revealing God, showing his true nature towards and to what has been created. We, being created in the image of God, come to some limited understanding of the nature of God. Because God loves to reveal himself to us we go on to ever new understandings. Sometimes we have to put an old grasp of things to one side, and acknowledge that the fuses are blown, we have been overloaded, and God has shown us so much more of what God is like that we are required to remake our faith in the light of the new revelation.
Sometimes in response to the love of God we are like Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, making shelters to contain the glory. We enclose God’s self-disclosure, limiting by our boundaries God’s further self revelation. Sometimes, and for a while, God may live with that limitation. Sometimes the Spirit bursts through afresh, disrupting and turning the tables upside down. If we can survive the shock of redemption then we find our faith restored, revived, infinitely extended. Until the next time. So our understanding of God has the potential to be continually developing in the light of new self revealing acts and words of God.
We are God’s Partners
Third we believe in a God who works alongside his creation: those made in the image of God. God honours us in calling us co-workers, and limits Himself to our obedience, our faithful listening. This same God who is constantly longing and desiring to bring us to a closer knowledge of what God is like is humble and gracious to limit the act of self revelation to our willingness and capability. God does not impose his will, his guidance, his self-revelation on us, but travels with us, at our pace, waiting for our open eyes, and ready hearts and minds to turn towards the infinite love.
I hope in a series of continuing articles to explore the reason of the church continuing as an office in every village, a presence in each community, to highlight a few key characteristics that my conversations brought out, and to offer again a vision for the rural church which is not overwhelmed too easily by the demands of the system, or the requirements of performance.
Sarah Cawdell is an ordained rector’s wife living and caring for the family in a small market town in Shropshire. She plans to offer a series of monthly inklings: hopeful thoughts about the rural Church of England
Sarah Cawdell lives in Shropshire with her husband and three teenage children.