I am in a dilemma which has caught me by surprise. The church in the village in which I grew up is going to close. It is a small church in a small village of perhaps 120 houses. When I lived in the village 20 – 30 years ago the congregation was small. On some Sundays it now numbers 3.
When we first moved to this village in 1979 the pub had already closed down but there was a village shop, a garage, a village hall and the church. By the time I left home both shop and garage had closed and village life, though strong, centred around the hall, the annual village fete and the church.
In the churchyard are now the remains of my grandmother, my father and my sister. I never went to this church and nor did my family – it was our church that we didn’t go to. But it was, as for so many other villagers, our church. It holds a significance and a memory that unites me with all those with whom we shared life in those years. And so as I hear news of its demise I feel that this is undoubtedly a loss to a village and community which is slowly losing all of the communal resources that quietly make community life what it is.
And yet…there is a reality here that can’t be ignored. The 120 houses of this village were all leafleted and all given an opportunity to offer time and skill to keeping the church a village church. Only 3 people responded. The cost of maintaining and heating this building, even for the occasional service, on the basis of an electoral roll in single figures, is not sustainable. The local vicar has this, plus another 7 or 8 churches in the area to oversee. The clergy resource is being spread ever more thinly across these small villages and their historic buildings. This makes clergy less and less effective and more and more exhausted and liable to stress and burnout.
Since leaving home and the village church which I didn’t go to I have found faith and a vocation as a vicar in the Church of England. I have ministered so far in urban settings and now lead a ministry that is seeking to create church communities amongst people who are unlikely to engage with traditional forms of church. At present, certainly in my part of the CofE, I am seen as something of an experiment. I am not paid by my Diocese. And the future of the work I do and the kind of church communities that are emerging within the wider institution of the church is far from clear.
I am a little surprised then about my feelings toward the closure of a church I never went to. Except that perhaps it connects with the feelings so many feel toward the gradual erosion of something precious in villages up and down the country, the loss of a way of life that has survived for centuries. Even I am open to a dose of nostalgia for something that seemed boring when I was growing up, but which I now realise has immense value.
And yet… 2 principles tell me that this is the right thing to do, and indeed that we ought to be braver and do it more.
- The people of God are nomadic not sedentary and their gathering places should reflect that.
God’s people have always been sojourners, nomads, people called from place to place. We need structures. We need places to gather and places that can focus our worship and our sense of God’s presence. But once those places become so rooted, so fixed, that we cannot move on we risk losing something of who we are as God’s people. We are much more people of the tent than the temple – when we are truly living up to our call.
- The church is ultimately future oriented because it is animated by God’s Holy Spirit.
It is the Holy Spirit that births the church and then sends it out into the world and into the future. Of course there is an important dimension of celebrating and reflecting on the work of God in the past, but only is so much as we can be encouraged to move on into the future, in our own walk with God and as communities in mission. The Holy Spirit is sent into the world and then calls us to where He already is – so we are constantly moving into the place and time where God already is – not back to somewhere where God has been.
So in a small way I have to do what I believe the church constantly needs to do in order to continue to fulfil its call to be nomadic people of the Spirit – let go of the old structures, listen to the Spirit and move into God’s future. This is a death and so will be accompanied with pain and sadness. But that is what we must do if we are to truly be the church we are called to be.
Some might say that my old village church will just turn into a symbol of the demise both of the church and of the community. Well, perhaps it will. But in a world longing for community, but sometimes struggling to know how to recreate it, it must surely be an enlivened church that, listening to God’s Spirit, will discover new and more relevant ways of building community and creating new communities of faith in our historic rural villages.