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President of the Methodist Conference expresses concern over 'fundamental' churches leaving rural communities

by Donna Birrell
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The President of the Methodist Conference says he hopes for a new era of mission focused on rural communities.

Reverend Richard Teal, who is in the final month of his year-long Presidency, is visiting Cornwall to view first hand the issues facing local people. 

Speaking to Premier, he says the pandemic gives people a new opportunity to walk alongside residents in rural communities and understand that it's not like the TV show Escape to the Country:

"I was born into a rural community in the Yorkshire Dales and the majority of my ministry has been in rural communities and my last appointment was as chair of the Cumbria Methodist District, which of course is very rural. 

"So this year I have really tried to focus on the rural church, the importance of rural communities, which very often feel marginalised and isolated. I've tried to really support and encourage rural communities and rural churches because they are fundamental and very often forgotten and not seen as important because by necessity, they are small. But Jesus in His ministry spoke a lot about the importance of smallness and the mustard seed, speaking about the kingdom, smallness is hugely important."

Although Reverend Teal hasn't been able to visit many places during his year as President because of the pandemic, he says he's spoken to many farmers, who he found were really interested in sharing their concerns, even though they were not church-goers:

"I've been hugely impressed by young farmers who wanted to meet with me and talk to me very openly about agriculture today. I've met a lot of small rural businesses and we've talked about the real things that are really affecting rural communities at the moment, certainly in the agricultural world, the new Transition Plan, which is going to really change the whole nature of agriculture, as we've known it. We've talked about climate change, we've talked about rural isolation, rural loneliness, all the mental health issues which can be found within rural communities, which are very often not seen."

He says the church should always be alongside people wherever they are and he sees this time as a new opportunity to engage with people in more remote communities:

"A lot of people said to me, 'why is the church pulling out of rural communities? The church should be alongside in new forms, different ways.' Absolutely - maybe not just what it was in the past, but being alongside, of listening to that voice of the rural community and making sure that voice is really heard and heard very positively."

The popularity of programmes such as Escape to the Country can be misleading according to Reverend Teal:

"You only need to see now on television the huge growth in programmes about the rural community. But very often they don't tell the true story. Escape to the Country is one of those programmes on television - 'escape to the country', it is not like that at all. It's a very different place in reality. I also think that we need to try to ensure that we don't have a divide between urban and rural, that we can learn from each other." 

Reverend Teal believes the pandemic has shaped a new future for the church:

"I think we will be a hybrid church in the future, a blended Church of online, alongside what we call formal church. I think there's going to be a new era of mission. We'll be more missional in the community, listening to people and really understanding the rural community."

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