The Most Vibrant Church You Can’t Visit

About seven years ago, I was wrapping up the information-gathering phase of the large project in practical theology I did for the Diocese of Derby (Church of England).  By late June 2007, I had visited most of the parishes/benefices that I had identified to give me a cross-section of the life of the diocese and its clergy.  In the six months of this phase of research, I probably attended about 200 public worship services in about seventy-five different venues, and of styles ranging from Morning Prayer read by a “congregation” of three (myself included, but still in a church building and open to the public) to the installation of a new suffragan bishop, to a heavy-metal evening worship from which my ears rang for months but whose form Thomas Cranmer would still recognize. I spoke to well over five hundred people–clergy in both parochial and non-parochial contexts, diocesan staff, civic leaders with whom the church had significant interactions, headteachers at schools in which clergy provided leadership in “collective worship”, and groups of parishioners.

I had about nine contexts in which I spent a five-day period, usually arriving on Saturday afternoon and leaving around noon on the following Wednesday.  These were usually large parishes (sometimes with “daughter churches”) or multi-parish benefices.  Ordinarily, after being collected from the train station, I would have a walking or driving tour around the geographic territory served by this particular parish or benefice, noting the places of residence, commerce, learning, the various ways in which people earned their livings.  I would meet with the clergy, church wardens and other lay leaders, attend worship and Bible study, sometimes lunch clubs for the seniors of the village, after-school clubs. I wore hard-hats and climbed ladders to look at new construction projects, and I borrowed wellies that did not fit so I could interview rural vicars while they walked their dogs through pastureland.

I also had several shorter visits, to a convent, in order to speak to an ordained sister; to a historic church-affiliated school to visit with their chaplain.  I attended meetings of the rural deans and lay chairs, ordained women in the diocese, the diocesan clergy conference, and led an ecumenical focus group of chaplains to a variety of contexts including health care, theatre, retail, public transport, and heavy industry.

The one short visit that stays with me the most is the one I made to Shottle Church (St. Lawrence).  And to tell you the truth, this 2011 BBC story could have been almost completely lifted from the report I made of my visit to Shottle in 2007.*  My notes contain the names of every one of the congregants listed in that story. I won’t repeat the details of the story as told by the BBC, but I will tell you  that it is the most vibrant church I have ever visited–not only in my work in Derbyshire, but anyplace in the United States or the United Kingdom.

But before you go planning to worship on the next possible Sunday morning in this tiny farming community church, you need to know one thing:

You can’t.

Because they don’t hold regular Sunday services.

The building may be open during the spring, summer, and autumn months.  But it is more likely that a few volunteers will be offering tea, coffee, and biscuits to people walking along the popular Bronze Age trail that runs through Shottle, than a service of Holy Communion or Morning Prayer will be taking place.

Shottle holds, or held at the time I visited, five services a year.

  • Christmas
  • Mothering Sunday (the third Sunday in Lent, and that is when the UK celebrates the secular version of Mother’s Day)
  • Easter
  • Harvest
  • Remembrance

The church does not have (and never has had)provisions for:

  • Baptism (there is no font)
  • Weddings (it is not licensed)
  • Funerals (there is no burial ground)

St. Lawrence also does not have:

  • Sunday school
  • Youth or young adult ministry
  • A full-time priest all to itself (it is part of the Hazelwood parish, and the vicar of that church presides over the five services a year)

So, why do I think this church-that-almost-closed is the most vibrant one I’ve ever spent time with, and why do I think it’s a model for the church of the future?

First of all, without a full-time priest, they look more to each other for support than they do to ordained leaders.  When I talked to the (then) vicar, he spoke of the efforts to save the church from closure as having brought this farming community of 60 adults together for a common cause.  As a result, they began talking to each other about their secular work (farming, which I’ve noted is really sacred), and started looking after each other in ways they had never done before. They focused less on what happens “in church”, and more on what happens in their “real lives”.  For me, this indicates the first marker of Shottle’s congregational vibrancy:

1.  They take charge of their own pastoral care, and can separate it from liturgical leadership.

I visited Shottle to talk about their efforts to save the church on a Wednesday evening. The vicar had asked around if anyone would be willing to come out and talk to “the Bishop’s researcher” about the Friends of Shottle Church.  Mid-week, one household (three men renting one of the redundant farmhouses) put out a spread of drinks and nibbles for “whoever pitched up”, and twelve of the sixty adults in Shottle–20% of the entire adult community, not just the congregation–told me their story over glasses of wine and dishes of olives and nuts.  For about three hours. One person apologized for being late, but told the rest of the group that another farmer’s cows were in trouble because heavy rains had caused some localized flooding.  The meeting was interrupted as people inquired as to what additional help might be needed, and plans to deliver help were discussed. So, I would say that another marker of vibrancy in this congregation is

2.  They blur the spiritual and the pragmatic in healthy, life-giving ways.

As noted in the BBC piece on Shottle, one of the community members (who had, to me, identified himself as skeptical at best about the particulars of the Christian faith) said he felt that the church was important as the “symbol of goodness and truth” in the area.  He was one of the most active founding members of FOSC, and attends the five yearly services–less because of specific Christian belief, but because of the pride in the group’s accomplishment, and for the fellowship with other members of this tenant farming community.  Another marker of vibrancy is then

3.  They are not fussy about the particulars of belief.  Whoever is for them, is one of them.

One thing the BBC report does not say is that the ownership of St Lawrence was in doubt–diocesan property records were destroyed by fire in the 1920s, and there was a question as to whether the church had ever been deeded to the Diocese of Derby (which was founded in 1927).  The church was built in 1861 by the Duke of Devonshire (and would have been in another diocese at its founding), and there was no record of the land and building being transferred.  So, when the diocese said it would close the building and sell the land, the congregants responded with “not sure you can.”  When the diocese said it would not give the required “faculties” (documents permitting repairs and improvements to buildings owned by the diocese) to Shottle, the congregants said “not sure we need them”.  When the diocese said it would not give money for the repairs to the building, the congregants said “we can do that ourselves.”  And did.  So, a fourth thing I think indicates the vitality of this congregation is

4.  They are ready to challenge ecclesiastical authority.

Finally, the Friends of Shottle Church did not just raise money to fix their building for the present.  They put some in trust so that future repairs could be made without delay, and at the same time, started looking around for other local charities to help.  The fifth and final reason I admire the vibrancy of this tiny church that doesn’t hold Sunday services is

5.  They have planned for their own future of service to a wider community than their own congregation.  And they don’t equate the work of God in a place with the work done under the auspices of the church.

Numerical growth is unlikely in Shottle–fewer people are entering farming as an occupation, not enough to replace those who are retiring.  The church is off any major road, and as I’ve indicated, does not have regular Sunday services.  But it is a major presence in its community–the “symbol of goodness and truth”, as well as the gathering place for the whole community, Christian and otherwise.

Shottle was one of my best memories and favorite stories from Derbyshire. I think the five marks I’ve noted of this tiny community’s vibrancy can provide a model for churches of various sizes in other contexts. In my mind, it is very much an indicator of the direction the church of the 21st century needs to take.


*For various reasons, I have not been able to publish my work concerning the Diocese of Derby.  If you wish to access it, please contact the diocesan office (linked above) and ask for the 2008 Clergy in Ministerial Context report.

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4 thoughts on “The Most Vibrant Church You Can’t Visit

      1. Simon, because this isn’t the report I gave to Derby diocese, but my current reflections and analysis (which they do not possess), I am more than happy to have you use it, spread it around like the manure it is…. 🙂

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