The resilience of local communities
AUTHOR: THE REVEREND DR MARK BETSON, NATIONAL RURAL OFFICER AT THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND
One of the very positive things to come out of the current global crisis is the resilience of local communities. I work as the National Rural Officer for the Church of England and part of my role is to keep in to try to keep in touch with the 10,000 of our 16,000 churches that inhabit the countryside. The story from them has largely been the same across the country with village communities developing locally based schemes to support the vulnerable and encourage everyone.
New groups of people have come forward to volunteer, local businesses have adapted and become the focus for local consumers in a way they have never been before. People have got to know the places where they live better than ever through a focus on staying local. Local councils have played a key part in leading, enabling and informing some of this activity in places. NALC's Coronavirus case studies publication records this activity for many councils across the country.
Parish Churches across the country have also been responding by using their networks and changing what they do to meet current needs. Village Facebook pages are doing a great job of keeping people informed about what is going on locally, but not everyone is able to connect with them, particularly those not comfortable with social media. Churches often have a well-developed network with some of the more vulnerable members of our community, including those over 70, and have been conduits for maintaining contact and passing on information. They are also often doing regular services online in a number of formats, that bring people together in a way not possible under current social distancing restrictions.
Rural ecclesial parishes are normally now grouped into benefices of several churches. In the benefice, I live in the four churches have come together across the villages to do a weekly service via Zoom and connect people after for a virtual coffee together in small groups. We regularly get over 50 connections with often couples or families connecting, so often there are over 70 people joining in – far more than we would get on a regular Sunday in a church. Age has been no barrier either with individual coaching helping some in their 80’s and 90’s to join and open up for the other opportunities to talk to the family online as well.
Prior to being National Rural Officer, I was a Vicar in a rural parish and we had a very successful relationship with our Parish Council based on mutual concern for our community and a desire to support one another in reaching out to them.
In my current job, when travelling across the country I would always encourage churches to engage with their local councils. In many cases, there was already a relationship, often with cross-over of people engaged with both council and church, but sometimes the possibilities of working in partnership could have been explored further. Where this was the case my suggestion would be that the church asks their local council, ‘how can we help you?’
The intense local activity that this crisis has stimulated may be an opportunity for more of these partnerships to be formed between local councils and churches to help one another for the sake of their communities. Together can they look forward to what a ‘new normal’ could be for them?