For almost the last five years I have ministered in a small rural parish in the Midlands. Twelve villages, outlying farms and countryside comprise the parish and many people travel long distances to attend Mass. If you were a bishop planning for Catholic provision today you probably wouldn’t open a church here, but thanks to the historic conversion of Rudolph Fielding, 8th Earl of Denbigh, the parish was endowed and established.
Today the parish is lively and vibrant, although a normal Sunday would see attendances at Mass which are just below 100. We have a choir, full serving team, an active (and youthful) Union of Catholic Mothers and regular young peoples activities. There is a daily Mass, weekly adoration and the full cycle of the liturgical year is celebrated in all its fullness. Our musical tradition is flourishing and unusually for a Catholic parish, everyone sings. There are good links with the local village communities and other churches, as well a longstanding relationship with the village C of E school and care homes. The school is probably unique in that there is a regular Mass for Catholic children and a Catholic teacher is employed to provide catechesis. In many ways the parish punches well above its weight.
When the secular Parish Council recently published its Parish Plan, St Joseph’s was regarded as a valuable and important community asset. This is in a community where so many assets, such as the shop, have long since disappeared.
Whilst our parish may be active and full of life, when it comes to numbers of parishioners we could easily be seen as non-viable. The Catholic news is full of stories of church closures, amalgamations of parishes and reorganisation. I know of parishes nearby which are much larger than we are, where Masses have been lost and where they now share a priest with a neighbouring community. What future is there then for small communities within the Catholic Church?
Bishops have an unenviable job when faced with declining numbers of clergy. It would be sad however if they were they were to see the future solely in terms of financial viability and the ability of the faithful to travel to Mass at other centres. A church such as mine is a community at the heart of the community. We have a strong visible and emotional presence in the villages that we serve and this would be lost if local Catholics were expected to travel to a larger church in a neighbouring town.
The Supermarket Model
Over the last thirty years supermarket chains have established larger and larger stores on out of town sites away from local communities. Each time a new branch was opened it seemed to be bigger and better than the last. However, the tide has now begun to turn and many large out of town sites remain undeveloped. The big six chains have recognised again the value of local convenience stores and this has represented a massive growth in the sector over the last few years. This is also coupled with a desire amongst consumers to buy produce with local provenance.
It appears that in seeking to amalgamate parishes and create bigger centres, the church is adopting a model of ministry just at the point when the commercial and retail world is abandoning it.
Should we therefore think again about the value of smaller churches and the missional possibilities that local communities present in the work of The New Evangelisation?
Small communities and Evangelisation
Small communities are where the parish system really works. In a town with more than one parish, people will often choose a church based on time of Mass or the character of the parish. This has led to our churches becoming more eclectic. The whole concept of a parish then is often diminished in people’s consciousness and reinforces a consumer model of Church attendance.
People attend our little church because it is the local church rooted in the community. We have a strong identity as a parish church. Many non-Catholics seek support from St Joseph’s at certain times in their lives and this is because a community centred church becomes the natural place for people to gather to mark life events.
A small community also places far more emphasis upon the faithful taking their place as part of the body of Christ. Small parishes often have more people involved in the life of the worshiping community than in larger ones. People know, support and care for each other, but also recognise that if things are to get done then individuals need to step up to the mark.
Such communities therefore can become communities of nurture and growth. New people are noticed and welcomed. Parishioners who are ill and away from church are spotted and people grow in the life of the Church because they are involved and engaged. This cannot easily happen in a large parish where a significant proportion of people remain anonymous to the priest and other parishioners.
Whilst rural churches like mine are small compared to town parishes, it is probably the case that a larger percentage of the resident population actually are active parishioners and attend Mass.
As a stakeholder in the local community, the small parish can also have a significant presence. Our relationship with all the villages, parish councils, schools and other community organisations are strong and give the Church an important platform from which to proclaim the Gospel. If there were not a rural catholic presence this important aspect would be lost.
Communities of Transformation
A church should be an Outpost of Eternity which seeks transformation in people’s lives. If we really desire for people to become disciples and grow in faith then we cannot underestimate the value of our Catholic communities. The problem is we often now see our churches as Mass centres, rather than communities of the faithful. Catholics urgently need to regain that sense of belonging, commitment and sacrifice when it comes to the parish otherwise, being relegated to just a Mass centre, we may be the next to face the chop!
It is a shame that so many of our smaller churches now seem under threat due of a lack of vocations to the priesthood. However, part of the problem is also down to a lack of imagination.