There’s a thing government does that tests out how policies may impact rural areas and it’s called rural-proofing. The UK government does this because rural areas together count: they are “home to one-fifth of England’s population and a quarter of all registered businesses; they contribute over 16 per cent of England’s economy each year.” But rural areas also present distinct challenges that policy makers should take into account:
• Demographics: There are proportionately more elderly people and fewer younger people in rural populations compared with urban ones.
• Access to services: The combination of distance, transport links and low population density in rural areas can lead to challenges in accessing and providing services.
• Service infrastructure: Lower levels of infrastructure such as low broadband speeds and variable mobile coverage can be a barrier for rural businesses and limit the growth in rural productivity.
• Employment: The variety of employment opportunities, the availability of people with the right skills, and access to training can be lower in rural areas.
The latest government rural proofing guidance was published in 2017 and it sets out a simple four-stage process:
My question to church leaders, such as those who plan at Church of England diocese level, is this: how far do we rural-proof our church policies and initiatives?
The characteristics of rural areas that government guidance identifies are descriptive of rural churches, as well as their wider communities. They are typically older (people and buildings!), more dispersed, with more limited access to transport and communications networks (i.e. few buses and less than wonderful broadband and mobile signal).
A recent post by Jill Hopkinson on growing rural church and the Church Times’s recent feature on rural churches gives the background in more detail. Rural churches are also often – and this is key for church initiatives – small groups. Even when rural churches form more tightly knit teams (multiple village churches making up a single parish, for example) it’s not always easy to arrive at a critical mass for some kinds of activities and initiatives. Areas of concern range from being able to find a safeguarding officer from a church community of single figures to the prospect of running a youth group or a regular seekers’ course.
Thinking ahead about what’s viable for rural churches at – in an Anglican context – diocesan and deanery level can be of enormous benefit. The government guidance in its 4th stage of the process gives useful examples of the kinds of change that could be made to policies. How far could planners and policy makers consider differentiated expectations for rural areas?
This doesn’t mean that the responsibility rests entirely with the upper levels of church leadership. Rural churches also can do some creative thinking about what’s expected. In my Anglican context, there’s an expectation that each parish church should put forward two representatives to the Deanery Synod, but for some rural parishes, attending the synod meetings and reporting back could be a responsibility that is shared amongst several parishes in a team.
I wonder whether it would it be possible to include in policy papers a how does this impact rural churches question – after all, rural represents 40% of regular CofE attendance!(1) The answer may well – after careful consideration – be that an initiative won’t work for rural contexts. That doesn’t mean the plan needs to be scrapped. But why not start at the planning stage to consider other ways of achieving the aims for rural contexts?
1. Archbishops’ Council, Released for Mission: Growing the Rural Church (2015), p. 9.