Small Churches

How may we value, celebrate, and support our small churches?

This project was launched at the Diocesan Synod on Saturday, May 18. Bishop Graham James, former Bishop of St Germans and then Norwich, has been asked to lead it. Back in Cornwall in retirement, he is an honorary assistant bishop. The Diocese of Norwich has 577 parishes and 642 church buildings for a population of less than a million, so the subject is one which is familiar to him.

Bishop Graham writes: “I am pleased to lead this project on behalf of the diocese, and thank Bishop Hugh and his colleagues for asking me to do so.  Since my return to Cornwall five years ago I’ve loved going to some of our smaller congregations, and have marvelled at the faithfulness of many of our lay people. They are salt and yeast in their communities, even if they do not always recognize it.

I’ve also noticed many of them are tired, sometimes through doing too many jobs, and feeling that keeping their church going is a burden. Some have wondered whether the Church of England even wants them to do so anymore. The short answer is that this diocese will always have small churches, since our smaller villages and scattered parishes are unlikely ever to have large congregations. That does not mean they do not matter. Our origins lie in just 12 people chosen by Jesus to be with him in his ministry, and an even smaller group gathered around the cross on Good Friday. In many countries Christians meet in very small numbers but their faith is vibrant and hopeful.

God frequently seems to favour the small and fragile in the story of our salvation. Think of David the shepherd boy, or the teenage, unmarried Mary. Despite this, the Church seems to be attracted to the large and powerful in church leadership. It’s reflected in the way we organize ourselves. The Churchwardens Measure or the Church Representation Rules seem to regard a large church is normative. No wonder small churches sometimes think they are seen as a problem.

Over the coming year, I hope this project will celebrate the life of our small churches, and that many people will contribute to it. Smallness is not a problem to be solved. A small group of Christians may well be very joinable, if they take delight in God and the gospel. The intention of this project is to give a voice to small churches, to inspire confidence, and to have an impact on the culture of the diocese.

What is small? There’s no neat definition. A congregation of 30 people meeting in a large church building in a well populated town will feel small, and perhaps daunted by their task, whereas 30 people in a small church building in a village may feel vibrant. You will know best yourself if you are part of what you think to be a small church.

If this project sparks your interest, I invite you to be part of it

Over the coming months I expect there will be some gatherings, both in person and via Zoom, to look at the questions outlined below (and many others too). I would be grateful to have your thoughts now, and any ideas you may want to suggest.

What I want to do is to canvass some initial views and then set up the gatherings mentioned above more purposefully. The intention is to complete a report, perhaps by Easter next year, but the process and discussions may prove to be even more valuable.

Some questions to consider

  • Do you consider yours to be a small church?
  • What are the blessings which come from a small church community?
  • What are the challenges you experience?
  • Is it the church building which presents the main worry, or the lack of people to do all the necessary jobs?
  • Do you think your smallness has a negative impact on people being able to join you?
  • What would make you more joinable?
  • Is the form of worship in your small church suitable for your size?
  • If you’ve become smaller in recent years, how has that altered the worship?
  • What does the diocese and the wider Church of England expect from small churches which you think should only apply to larger ones?
  • Do you feel your congregation is valued by the diocese?
  • In what ways could the diocese help small churches to thrive?
  • What additional resources/support do you need?

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