Church of England looks to bring village churches even closer into the heart of countryside communities

Senior clergy are set to launch a strategy to help breathe new life into rural communities and see a “renaissance” in village churches to ensure they can thrive in the 21st century.

The crisis facing many countryside communities with dwindling facilities and a dramatically skewed demographic to an elderly population has prompted a move to ensure rural churches can broaden out their mission.

The Yorkshire Post can reveal that the Church of England is overseeing a concerted drive to bring places of worship even closer to the communities they serve.

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The strategy will outline how rural church leaders need to “think out of the box” and adapt their often centuries-old buildings, according to the Bishop of Exeter, Robert Atwell.

The Bishop of Exeter, Robert Atwell, who has heralded the importance of village churches in supporting countryside communities. (Photo: The Church of England)

The Right Rev Atwell, the chairman of the Church of England’s rural affairs group, said: “A lot of rural communities feel that they are on the margins of society and are not properly recognised.

“They may well have lost their village shop, the Post Office, the local school and pub, and the church is often the last remaining public building.

Churches have been part of the fabric of the country for centuries, church spires are part of the landscape and they are in the nation’s consciousness.

“But village churches need to adapt and move with the times, and become even closer to the communities that they serve.

“We hope the work we are undertaking will lead to a renaissance of village churches across the whole country, supporting the communities in those rural areas even more.”

The Church of England’s estate includes 16,000 parish churches and 42 cathedrals, and it is responsible for 45 per cent of all Grade I listed buildings in England. A total of 8,500 parish churches date from the medieval era or earlier and 12,500 places of worship are listed.

Figures have shown that an average of 20 churches close each year in both rural and urban areas, although some are replaced with more modern facilities.

A new book, How Your Village Church Can Thrive, is being published in June by the Church, with a foreword by the comedian and broadcaster, Hugh Dennis, whose father, John, was a bishop.

The book will provide a clear path forward for village churches to become even greater community facilities, adapting to provide meeting rooms, hosting events outside of actual worship and focusing on the environment.

Churchyards are seen as valuable ecological assets, boosting biodiversity and improve habitats for wildlife and plants.

Covid-19 has heightened the need for stronger community links, with churches now the venue for foodbanks nationally.

The Dean of Ripon, John Dobson, has been a key figure in highlighting the challenges facing the countryside through his role as the North Yorkshire Rural Commission’s chairman.

The commission published its final report in July last year, highlighting how a lack of affordable housing, poor digital connectivity, dwindling facilities and an exodus of young people has left rural areas in crisis.

The Dean said: “Churches have always had the mission to work together with communities they serve. Using a church to strengthen community life can only be positive, with the sacred and the secular brought together in a life-enhancing way.”