Renewing Rural Worship

by Gerry Lynch last modified 31 Jan, 2017 06:14 PM

Energising Local Ministry helps West Dorset benefice see bumper attendance at Plough Service

A rural benefice in West Dorset has seen a large congregation attend its first ever Plough Service, assisted by a Diocesan project aimed at releasing energy and gifts in multi-parish benefices. 

The Revd Jan Delaney, Rector of the Benefice Askerswell, Loders, Powerstock and Symondsbury, led the service which was a direct result of the benefice’s engagement with the Energising Local Ministry scheme (ELM). 

ELM was launched by the Diocese in 2011 to help multi-parish benefices share leadership and gifts in ways that free people up to serve their communities better, and spend more time on mission and ministry. It was developed based on a scheme which runs in our partner Diocese of Évreux in France, which is similar in size to Salisbury and also has many small towns and villages, but has only 36 priests to minister to them. 

“We are a very rural benefice of four parishes and eight churches, with small, ageing congregations in the west of Dorset”, says the Revd Jan, “Our total population is only around 1,700. Over the last fifteen months we have been working with Energising Local Ministry and this event was the wonderful fruit of that.  

“Before ELM, we were very much separate parishes with very little interaction. People did not know churchgoers from other parishes very well unless they knew them in general community. The only thing the churches really shared in common was the Rector. As the process of ELM progressed, people began to enjoy meeting and working together and a new feeling of identity and community as a benefice has developed. 

“This is a huge step. We can now access people with skills and interests from all the churches to work together to achieve things no single church has the human resources to do.” 

Rather than having small parishes work in silos, they now support one another by having a co-ordinating group made up of all church wardens, lay pastoral assistants, lay worship leaders plus leaders of the various focus groups. 

The Revd Jan continued, “We have focus groups which work to develop different aspects of our church life such as prayer, pastoral care, worship, events, communications and social action. Plough Sunday was the first major event organised under this scheme. 

“The social action focus group thought about mission and who we really are, which is a very rural benefice with eight small congregations spread over a wide area, with many isolated farms. It was decided to emphasise and live out our rural character. This matched our desire to be ourselves with the attention the Diocese is paying to rural mission and ministry. 

“It was decided that we would celebrate all four of the special times of the farming year. We have traditionally had services for Rogation, including a walk and the blessing of fields and other places, as well as the more common Harvest festivals. The plan is now to include services on Plough Sunday and Lammas. 

“Our first Plough Sunday service was a dramatically successful experiment. We celebrated it in a village hall to give us flexible space.  

“People came from every church in the benefice and 115 attended in total, at least half of whom are not regular church attenders. Many farming families came, and there was a wonderful display of farming implements collected from local farms. This provided the focus of our worship.” 

This is an unusually high attendance for any church service apart from Christmas and Easter in an area where the four villages have a combined population of just 1,700 people. 

The service included a blessing of the ploughs, as well as much eating and drinking and folk music entertainment. Hymns were sung to folk instruments, the event beginning with mulled cider, then the informal service, blessing the ploughs, followed by a ploughman’s lunch  - what else? – and more folk songs.

Children were integrally involved in the service, and helped with the sprinkling of water for the blessing. 

The Revd Jan concluded, “All this was far more than any one parish could have managed on its own and it really showed the benefit of our new community life together. It was a really exciting day, and we were very blessed. 

“Roll on Lammastide!” 

Canon Janet Smith, Co-ordinator for Energising Local Ministry, said, “The project in Askerswell, Loders, Powerstock and Symondsbury is a fine example of shared leadership between laity and clergy and shows the gifts and energy this can release. 

“I would welcome contact from anyone, anywhere in the Diocese, who would like to have a conversation about Energising Local Ministry. I can be reached on 07468 580 196 or plumsmith18@gmail.com.”

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