One of British Catholicism’s most significant divides is between urban and rural. The Church is most visible in towns and cities: there are more churches, Mass is celebrated more frequently and parish events are easier to get to. But what about Catholics living in rural areas? It is estimated that 70 per cent of the land area in the UK is agricultural. Yet out in the sticks, it is harder for Catholics to get to the sacraments and for priests to reach their parishioners.
The consequence, of course, is very often falling congregations and church closures. It was announced earlier this year that Salford diocese plans to close more than 20 churches and merge approximately 100 parishes. These closures are rarely popular: Bishop John Arnold of Salford has said that he is “well aware that some of the changes proposed … will not be welcomed”. But he pointed out that “adjustment and change is required to meet the continuing needs and challenges of a changing world.”
The idea of merging parishes is becoming increasingly popular in the United States, where rural areas are even harder to cover. Last December, the Archdiocese of Hartford merged almost 100 parishes. Fr James Shanley, rector of the archdiocese’s mother cathedral, said at the time: “It is sad, there is great emotional attachment.” But, he said, “small numbers of people cannot possibly sustain” the number of their churches. And earlier this year, the Diocese of Trenton in New Jersey announced plans to amalgamate 10 churches in response to declining clergy and church attendance.
Fr Robert Miller, who has run the UK National Conference for Rural Catholics for the past 13 years, says the basic problem is all too obvious: the “reduced numbers of clergy”, which make it harder to do pastoral work.
“It’s difficult to lay on Masses to the far-flung,” he says, “because we are short-staffed.” He adds: “My friend who’s a priest in London can do six house visits in one morning. I would be lucky if I can get one done in one morning by car because of the distance involved.”
So what about merging parishes? Could that be a solution? “I don’t see a problem with it, providing people go in for good management,” says Fr Miller. “It works for other organisations – if you think about Scout groups and suchlike.” Fr Miller notes that married ordinariate clergy have expanded the ranks of the priesthood in recent years, and more married priests could help fill the gaps.
But it’s not only administration and clergy numbers contributing to this seismic shift in rural Catholic practice. Fr Rob Taylerson, rural adviser to the Archbishop of Birmingham, believes that “demographic and economic reasons” are to blame for the dilution of rural Catholicism. Fewer people can afford to live in villages, he argues, making the Catholic population more sparse. Add to this the “considerable” cost of running churches – insurance for the various buildings, gas and heating bills, the liturgical costs, the endless need for maintenance of the church, the hall and the grounds – “the question is, how much can one reasonably expect a member of the congregation to contribute? Often they are on a pensioner’s income. Even with fundraisers, we struggle to get by.”
Merging parishes therefore “could help in rural areas”, Fr Taylerson believes, but he concedes that “people rightly cherish their place of worship. The sense of place is held deeply in the hearts of those that are there. It is a wrench to anyone who is asked to change their place of worship and it causes huge anxiety.’’
A “wrench” is certainly one way to describe the reaction. Parishioners whose churches are closed are often angry and sad: there have been fierce disputes in some parishes about the closure of beloved churches.
I have seen the change happen in the area where I grew up, deepest Somerset. As a child, church for me and for many of my cousins was a place for the family to congregate. But the place seems to have lost that sense of being a focal point of community: visiting at Christmas, I was met with the melancholy sight of rows of empty pews.
I asked a Catholic farmer from West Sussex how she felt. She began by telling me of her disappointment at the possibility of her village church ceasing to mark the Easter Vigil. “The community is falling apart,” she told me sadly, adding that it was partly because of a lack of dialogue between clergy and parishioners. Often, upheavals in a parish can cause difficulty for locals, who may find the new Mass times or a new priest discouraging.
More activities in the community will keep the church at the centre of the community, she suggests. “We must see the Church as an extended family. If it is an extended family, you always look out for the members. A lot of people feel they are being sidelined. When a church is closed they think the clergy cares more about the buildings than them as people.’’
The problem carries many complexities – bureaucratic, managerial, financial – but perhaps the greatest problem of all is the emotional. For many rural Catholics, their parish and its ways are charged with all manner of associations and attachments. This is a time of transition for many parishes, and bishops will face dilemmas ahead. We can only pray that some creative and sensitive solutions will be found.
Constance Watson is a freelance journalist
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