Covid-19: the effects on rural churches and communities

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The opening of A Tale of Two Cities came to mind when I was asked to write about the effect these very difficult past ten months have had specifically on ‘the Church’ in rural areas. If I were not too old to start another post-graduate degree, I’d jump on this as a topic for a dissertation because the “effects”, what type of ‘rural’ we’re focusing on, and the ‘response’ of whatever we mean by ‘the Church’ are absolutely legion (to borrow a biblical term!). I’m pretty sure someone is already working on the 80,000 (or so) words needed for a thesis and it will be a very important study, to be sure. Already, we’ve learned an enormous amount about ourselves and, in this instance, about our behaviour as ‘church’ in these past ten months.

Overall, there’s actually almost too much to share, so I’ll focus on what I know because of my experience as a vicar in a nine-parish rural ministry team and as a relief milker. I’m a priest in the Church of England and so what I have experienced in the last months comes from working with Anglicans, Methodists, and Baptists in an area that is primarily agricultural, inland, and comprised mainly of villages and the occasional town.

For the purposes of this article, it’s important to know that, because that is our particular rurality. It means that, in some instances, our responses and feelings will be different from places that fit a different description of rural according to geography, population, industry, etc. With that in mind, I’ll share some specific things I’ve noticed that I hope will provoke some general reflections that might be useful to others involved in faith communities across both Christian and non-Christian traditions.

I’ll begin with “(…) the worst of times” because it seems we all, rural or not, can immediately name the difficulties facing us these days: isolation, fear, discouragement, frustration, exhaustion, hopelessness, pain (physical, mental, and spiritual) to name just a few. Probably the first thing my clergy colleagues will say is that the hardest thing they’ve experienced is not being able to be physically present to people in need. Being ‘church’ is all about relationship, how we ‘see’ each other, how we’re able to communicate in person, how we touch each other, how we comfort the bereaved – so much body language that just can’t happen over the phone.

Rural people are by nature relational, which makes the above as hard for them as it is for us. I’ve found that clergy speak more often of the difficulties of taking funerals these days than ever before. We clergy are profoundly affected by how hard it is for families to be separated from loved ones in hospital and then to have funerals with only a small number being able to attend. In our area in normal times, the funeral of a local farmer or his/her family will bring out well over 100 attendees. It’s who we are and what we do. The frustration of not being able to support one another like that is the focus of everyone’s conversation and points to our feelings of isolation and sadness.

People in ministry have been very affected by the changes in how we are able to function. Both clergy and lay ministers are having to learn new ways of communicating with parishioners especially learning to use social media for everything from meetings to online services. It’s a steep curve that can be frustrating and often leaves us feeling dissatisfied and incompetent. Our ministers need our support and understanding even when they still put on a very brave front. Often, we hear the joke that ministers only work on Sundays. Most folks know the opposite is true, but what many don’t hear are the conversations we ministers have with each other these days about how we’re working even harder to keep things going and how that’s affecting our confidence and energy.

This especially affects those in team ministry because of the sheer number of parishes that need our support. Each parish is unique. Its needs are unique. Its personality, per se, is unique, so those in charge are faced with dealing with all these differences in a totally new way. This can be incredibly stressful for those in leadership. We’ve been thrown into ‘being church’ in a completely new way in ways we never envisioned and for which we’ve had no time to prepare.

Our church congregations have also felt the absence of regular in-person services. This is particularly difficult for traditions that are sacramentally based. The regulations about how to make the church interiors safe and hygienic, how actually to share, for instance, Holy Communion, how to ensure everyone is socially distanced, are often daunting for our few and usually older members. In normal times, many of our churches have been open during the day. Now, with only a few people able to keep up with the sanitising regimen, our churches have had either to choose how and when to open during the week or to keep the doors locked. Many folks don’t realise how difficult those decisions have been for our lay and clergy leadership.

Perhaps one of the most fear-inducing effects of the pandemic on our congregations is the effect on our ability to raise enough money to maintain our buildings. Many of our rural village churches and chapels have been ‘too big’ for decades. Maintenance of our many medieval buildings has been becoming more and more overwhelming for shrinking congregations and now, with the ability to do our normal in-person fundraising activities severely curtailed, budgets are shrinking with alarming speed. In the year(s) to come, I wonder if we will see a fast and significant rise in the percentage of rural churches being made redundant in the next few years. This would have a profound effect on rural areas.

Whilst rural congregations are often very small, many people in the area see the building as an icon of their respective community. They are invested in it for many different reasons, whether that be as an historic and/or architecturally artistic venue, for those transitional times of life (weddings, funerals, christenings), or for festivals. Whenever there is hint of the threat of closing a church building, the response from the surrounding community is – well – pretty epic and can tear a community apart. I will be very interested to see how our rural areas will respond to the need to consider very seriously the future of our buildings and how our congregations will continue to ‘be church’ in their villages.

As I’ve said, this topic is worthy of a dissertation, so whilst I could go on, I’ll offer some closing reflections on “It was the best of times…”.  We have learned an enormous amount about ourselves and about how to communicate. I hope we’ve become more willing to share how we feel with each other. Denominational leadership groups, in particular, have given priority to developing ways to deal with mental health issues in the rural community in the hope that those suffering from isolation, depression, and fear for the future will have the help they need. Clergy and laity are working together to offer online services that we’ve found are being accessed by an outstanding number of people – even internationally! Many of us will continue these services even after lockdown as a way to share the Good News.

Religious groups are working with parish councils to provide help and support to community members in a variety of ways from shopping to transportation. We’ve become particularly aware of our elderly neighbours and of the needs of our schools and teachers. This pandemic has forced us to rethink how we work together as church within a community and to reorganise our priorities. It’s also forced those of us in multi-parish teams really to feel and act like a team. We’ve always said “the church is the people, not the building”. Now, we’re living out that statement like never before. There is some very innovative and forward-looking ecumenical work being done. Sharing buildings is being seriously discussed and planned for.

This is a time of increasingly rapid change as we continue to deal with the effects of this pandemic and the social changes going on in our country. Our purpose as the visible church and the way we live out our faith is already in the process of profound and, I believe, very positive change. This is a watershed moment for all faith traditions and the rural church will be the stronger for it if we embrace the opportunities. I hope we might one day look back on all this and say we worked together and made it “the best of times”.