Nigel Aston makes an impassioned plea for Catholics in the countryside
Catholic mission and ministry initiatives tend to be found in urban centres, often places of deprivation, hardship, and poverty, places where our movement has ministered since it came out of Oxford into the parishes. And, among others, Bishop Philip North has rightly and repeatedly reminded us of the priority that work should be accorded by the whole Church.
Without wishing to deny the importance of the inner-city, I seek to flag up the importance of reaching out to men and women who don’t live in cities, are likely to live many miles from a Society parish, and have drifted away from the Church for one reason or another. Possibly because the banality of so much Anglican worship in village parishes offers them minimal spiritual refreshment, a parish priest (most likely house-for-duty) who lives miles away and does not visit, or an unwelcoming congregation. And, in the 2020s, the vast majority of rural dwellers never go into a church anyway. Across rural England there are, I would suggest, thousands of men and women of all ages and all classes who have given up on the Church, who might respond positively to Catholic mission, whose goodwill is surely worth cultivating, and who might bring something distinctive to our work. But if we are going to try and venture into this territory then we will have on occasion to break out of what are at one and the same time our heartlands and our comfort zones – our parishes.
The missional challenge is always to raise the profile of the Society, meet the needs of exisiting Catholics, and bring the riches of a sacramental faith to new ones. So much has changed over the last generation or two. Dioceses such as Exeter and Peterborough, York and Salisbury, were once full of tractarian influenced parishes, Prayer Book Catholic places as they were familiarly known. Such parishes have been picked off one-by-one since the 1990s (earlier in some cases), often after nasty in-fighting that has acted as a deterrent to church-going. In Carlisle and Hereford dioceses there is currently nowhere of the original integrity; the situation is barely any better in Newcastle or Salisbury. For myself, if I want to communicate in such a parish then I must drive approximately 30 miles in any compass direction or find out where a Society might be on any given Sunday. What should I do in those cicrumstances? Drive, just go with the flow in my village church (if it actually has a Sunday service), join the Ordinariate, just become a straight-up Roman Catholic, don’t go at all?
And this worshipping dilemma has been and is faced not just by me but by hundreds of people of all ages up and down the country stuck in rural parishes where the historic faith is barely taught and archdeacons and suffragan bishops behave as if there is just one integrity in the Church of England. In my deanery there has never been any attempt to have a teaching session on the ‘Five Guiding Principles’ or the choices legally available to parishes. That is surely the case in many of its counterparts nationally. We have here a serious practical pastoral problem that is the upshot of diocesan high-handedness. Yet it could also be a mission opportunity.
For the countryside is back and it should be no less a place of Catholic mission than the towns. Rural poverty is real and presents its own problems but most villages have a plentiful quota of comfortably off retireds looking for spiritual comfort and replenishment as they age. And with ‘WFH’ professionals having moved into smaller communities in big humbers, they will not be coming into major urban centres on anything like the same basis as before and are as much deserving of what we can distinctively offer and the Gospel news of salvation as city dwellers. We need to show that there is an alternative to the Christianity-lite offered by so many Anglican parishes in rural areas. This is at one and the same time a work of reclamation and evangelisation, ‘planting’ the Society in rural areas, meeting the needs of existing or ‘lapsed’ moderate Catholics in the Church of England, trying to reveal the glories of our inheritance to new Christians.
Time and resources are limited, of course, and the Catholic Mission Network is surely right to take seriously the role that lay leaders can play within our movement (especially where we are scattered). But we also as need to think harder at what we are offering now and could offer better in the countryside. Models exist, and ‘mission priests’, venturing into rural areas with the sacraments can be assured that they won’t have to hide (in most dioceses at least!) in ‘priest holes’ like Elizabethan Jesuits ministering to the recusant community. The successful model of the Edenham Regional House in south Lincolnshire surely merits adoption in rural areas in other dioceses. Other possibilities come to mind. Could more use be made of churches vested in the Churches Conservation Trust for services? Might our Mission Network clergy offer occasional duty at parish churches where the incumbent is not a Society member but a person of goodwill genuinely committed to mutual flourishing? Is there scope for trying harder to make sure our clergy, young and old, are not discriminated against when rural parishes are vacant, irrespective of whether a ‘Letter of Request’ has been made by the PCC? Back to my underlying point: the countryside should be seen as no less a mission field than our towns and cities, and a place where our ministry is largely missing because of what can be an inflexible parish-based model. And what we can offer should properly be seen not as competition, but complimentarity, a witness to both the Catholic faith and Anglican comprehensiveness.