I’m writing on the island of Iona. On the ferry from Oban to Mull was the mobile bank. On
the way across Mull, I passed the mobile Dental Clinic. To provide services and sustain
community in rural areas is important – but it is challenging and expensive. When I
reached Iona, I became part of an area of our church where worship and caring ministry
are sustained by a small number of clergy and by the commitment of lay members. It isn’t
easy for us either.
This week sees the Royal Highland Show – that great festival of rural community life.
Recently the Scottish Episcopal Church received a Report from its Rural Commission.
And of course the recent Assembly of the Church of Scotland continued to debate the
issue of territoriality – the question of whether the church is going to be able to sustain
parish life in every part of Scotland.
Traditionally of course, the countryside suits church life. Church communities work well in
settled communities. We are probably more influenced than we might care to admit by
Jane Austen and John Betjeman pictures of the English village with duck pond, village
green and parish church. But if you look closer, you’ll find that today’s idyllic parish church
south of the border is grouped with five others and that the vicar lives miles away.
The reality is that churches tend to drift towards the suburbs. Concentration of population
makes it easier to sustain church life – after all churches are entirely financed by voluntary
giving. That’s why there has been a focus on ministry in Urban Priority Areas. That’s why
there is now a focus on sustaining the life of the church in rural areas – lest the church like
the school, the Post Office, the doctor, the rural bus services should join the retreat from
the rural community.
But things are not as difficult as they seem. The Scottish Episcopal Church’s Rural
Commission reported that during the past decade it is the population in rural areas which
has been increasing most rapidly – over 10% in accessible rural areas and over 5% in
remote rural areas. Of course there are problems. Age profile is high, the public sector is
the largest employer and transport is a big issue. Issues which arise from climate change
will bear most heavily on the rural community.
So rather than dealing with rural depopulation, we are beginning to see possibilities of
growth in church life in rural areas. Those who come to live in the countryside will do so
by choice – often because of ‘quality of life’ choices. They will be a diverse group – more
likely to be involved in volunteering and community life than others.
No one should imagine that we can recreate a rural idyll of church life in the countryside.
As in the city, so in the country our clergy and people are going to have to engage fully in
community issues. That means taking a full part in work on tourism, farming, efforts to
sustain local schools, medical services and transport links. If we want to see viable rural
church communities, we must work for viable rural communities.
The Scottish Churches tent at the Royal Highland Show has been well visited in past years
and gives us an opportunity to learn how people are dealing with living in rural
communities. It may be a showcase for all that is best about rural life, but the Royal
Highland Show also allows us all to look at ways of working together to deal with the
issues and challenges of sustaining rural communities in the future. I believe that
Churches and other faith communities must together be part of that story.
Rt. Revd. David Chillingworth, Primus and Bishop of St. Andrews, Dunkeld & Dunblane