It’s hard to imagine a typical photograph of Britain’s rural scene without a church somewhere in the frame: sometimes an elegant spire, sometimes a solid, castle-like tower, sometimes just a smallish vaguely Gothic box with a bell-cote. The fact that we think of this as so obvious a part of the landscape is a token of the more significant fact that rural churches and chapels are so vital a focus for the identity of so many communities. They represent the way in which, over long centuries, the gathering of people to worship God in the name of Jesus Christ has been the foundation of all kinds of other ‘gatherings’. The church has acted as a reminder to people of their dependence on each other, their calling to live generously with one another and simply of the ‘social miracle’, as it’s been called, the fact that we want to celebrate our shared identity.

Today, in all kinds of settings, this remains true more so than many realise. Rural communities are no more likely than urban or suburban ones to produce huge quantities of certified saints, and the percentage of totally committed believers in the countryside may not be that much more than in other settings. But the central core of worshippers who literally and metaphorically keep the building warm for the community are helping to sustain a wide range of the activities that make communities alive and creative.

Coventry University recently sponsored some research on village life, which turned up comments like this: ‘The vast majority who are involved in the church keep this a throbbing and thriving community and if they weren’t here it would be dire. They are the ones with the motivation to do things in the village because they want people involved. They are the ones who push and drive and build the community. Without it the village would be dead really.’

Prof Richard Farnell, who organised this research, concluded from the five case studies undertaken that ‘rural Christian communities make a substantial contribution to the vibrancy of their villages’. He argues that this needs wider recognition because ‘this message is relevant for government departments, regional agencies, local authorities and for the voluntary and community sectors.’

It is important to hear this. A national press focused almost obsessively on urban/suburban issues might lead us to think that the visibility of the Church in our society, particularly the Church of England, was reducing fast and that most people were unworried by this. The truth is very different (it’s different in non-rural areas, too, but that’s another story). In our countryside, armies of unsung heroes are keeping the circulation going in the community’s body. They are organising community celebrations and simple local services such as mothers and toddlers groups or drop-in centres. But they are increasingly stepping into the gaps that have opened up in rural society in the past 10 years or so by making church premises available as post offices, by hosting language classes for foreign workers (a major presence in some rural areas) or by helping with local transport pools and even distribution of farm produce.

They have to do this with no public subsidy and, in most cases, with the formidable additional task of maintaining a listed building, which is a constant drain on finances. The work done by volunteers simply in raising funds to keep these amazing resources open and functioning is heroic enough in itself. It’s high time that our Government woke up to the fact that local churches are as often as not subsidising public services in all sorts of ways, and started thinking about how to encourage, not undermine, this vital work.

So it’s good to have a chance for once to pay public tribute to these community heroes, living out the Good News of Jesus Christ in all these very practical ways, and I look forward to seeing whose names will appear in COUNTRY LIFE, knowing that they will just be representatives of an army of committed workers for the good of their neighbours

The Most Reverend and Right Honourable Dr Rowan Williams

‘Faith in Rural Communities: Contributions of Social Capital to Community Vibrancy’ is produced by ACORA Publishing, and is available on the Defra website (www.defra.gov.uk) or the Arthur Rank Centre website (www.arthurrankcentre.org.). Printed versions (ISBN 0-9551358-1-8) are available from ACORA Publishing, Arthur Rank Centre, Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire CV8 2LZ, price £10 plus postage.

To enter the Unsung Heroes of the rural churches 2009 awards click here for an entry form