Barnham Broom and Upper Yare Group
Some would say that one PCC AGM a year is enough for anyone, but when you are faced with 13, you begin to understand the reality of managing the Barnham Broom and Upper Yare Group.
Offering welcome, building Kingdom
Stretching from Dereham to Wymondham and covering an area of over 80 square miles with a population around 4,000, its challenges are many but probably reflect those of many rural parishes.
Our benefice has some 17 villages or hamlets. We regularly worship in our 15 churches (three without electricity) and occasionally in the sixteenth, which is run by a national charity. Our local Methodist chapel is very much part of the family too and we are privileged to have people of several denominations worshipping regularly with us. We have three brilliant schools, two pubs and one shop and since we straddle two district council areas across such a wide area, we are an expression of unity, something we are keen to emphasise in our preaching.
In order to sustain our services and although we only have one full time priest, we are fortunate in having a retired Archdeacon as Associate Priest, a Curate, a Reader, an ordained person of another denomination and a group of highly respected Authorised Worship Assistants. As a group of ‘worship leaders’ we meet and study together several times a year and through the Diocesan structures are regularly assessed and re-accredited.
Having lay persons as leaders in this way has many benefits including bringing a constant ‘refreshing’ of Christian life as our diverse group make their way around the churches and also, as one of our colleagues put it “a high percentage of our regular worshipping community are directly involved in many diverse aspects of sustaining the work and meaning of the church across such a dispersed population. We either get involved or risk losing our church life”. Shared Morning Prayer is a regular practice in different locations across the benefice on weekday mornings. Our choir is expertly led by a local teacher.
Perhaps paradoxically because we are such a dispersed community, we have a strong sense of ‘church’ as being something much bigger than (our beautiful) buildings. In this way relationships across the area are nurtured through such diverse ways as regular community meals, home-based communion services, teams of Open-the-Book volunteers going into our schools, group-wide services, and a whole-benefice community magazine, together with social events and an outward-looking vision which sees us collecting for local charities as well as the usual fund raising activities for parish share and church fabric. We have several summer fetes which are always well supported by many visitors. Likewise, the Christmas Rural Market held every two years has become a huge success and is an opportunity for each parish to contribute collectively to a single benefice-wide event.
Pastorally, many of the church-going community have lived in the area for decades, and as a result they are that expression of loving concern for neighbour, community and environment.
Our Group Council, with members drawn from all the parishes and worship leaders, meets four times a year and enables us to take decisions on many issues collectively. It is a visible expression of how we value each parish for its own expression of the Faith whilst being equally committed to our unity as the Christian church in this geographical area.
Our monthly Group Services cycle around the churches and are strongly supported by the majority. No one congregation need ever feel ‘small’ or ‘forgotten’ when a larger congregation periodically descends on your church.
Yet for all the activity, you need a single ethos which says something about why the church needs to be here, why you are here and why the Church of England needs to value rural ministry.
This has to do with a generous welcome in Christ’s name, a welcome that sees us host many couples each year for their weddings especially those from outside the area. One of our recent couples remarked on the welcome and friendliness: “We would recommend our experience with this collection of parishes to anyone and have been left with a long-lasting feeling of community”.
It’s a welcome that encourages contributions of all sorts from residents irrespective of what their beliefs might be and a welcome that emphasises participation in community and community-making. Practically this means activities as diverse as offering our churchyards as places where school children come for classes, to inviting a local Youth for Christ team to come-in and lead a highly successful youth group, to welcoming participation in re-purposing our churches as community spaces or as training-spaces for the next generation of bell-ringers in one of our three bell-towers.
As a result, rural ministry is a place where people come to be quite literally ‘re-formed’ as they value time spent over effort expended and the slow process of developing relationships, sometimes in conflict, sometimes in pain, sometimes in joy, but always intentionally in Christ’s love, over years.
Perhaps the last word should go to someone who arrived amongst us recently, our Curate.
“Before coming to this benefice, and with no prior experience of rural ministry, I was worried I might be moving into a context with little scope or opportunity for learning and training as a curate.
“I could not have been more wrong. Not only have I had an excellent training experience, but I have found in this benefice a warm and welcoming family of parishioners across our many churches who are a vital part of building community where they live, and I have found myself challenged by their example to constantly rethink what it means to go about the work of building the Kingdom right where we are.”
Find out more on the website: www.groupof15.org.uk