The church in the countryside - Q&A with Gordon Gatward

The ARC has been going for 40 years. There have no doubt been numerous highs and lows during that time.

Gordon: Yes, the highs are often related to the lows. I’ve been here since 1999 and I actually retire at the end of the year. One thing I’ll never forget is the foot and mouth crisis of 2001 to 2002 because the ARC had a key role in providing support not only to the farming community but to the wider rural community as well, because people forget that things like tourism were also badly hit. It was during that time that we set up the Addington Fund which was a response to the economic needs that many were experiencing in the countryside as a result of foot and mouth.

That was very much the response of the church and the churches really did recognise the need for ministry during that time and just did a magnificent job. The National Centre for the Rural Church coordinated much of the support given. It was a terrible time but it was also just such a privilege to be part of that ministry and to feel part of what God was doing right across the countryside.

Do you feel that each challenge and crisis gives you more tools and more expertise to help the farming community the next time they face difficulty?

Gordon: We’re not here just for the crises but when there have been crises since, such as avian flu and flooding, ARC developed a new basis for its work. With foot and mouth, for example, that was providing housing for those who had to get out of an unviable rural business. They’ve had a terrific ministry doing that. In addition to that, we have been supporting the local churches that are supporting local communities in these situations, working with agricultural chaplains and working alongside the Farm Crisis Network and Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution.

We’ve really seen what the church is capable of in being able to respond and the lessons that have been learned are built on as new problems arise.

What is the nature of the ARC’s mission beyond caring for farmers in difficulty?

Gordon: Caring for farmers is just a part of what we are about. The ARC is recognised across the church as being the national rural unit for the churches so our role is to support the local church in the countryside, ranging from worship to training to evangelism to direct action with the community, and working with the wider rural community in driving many new initiatives in the countryside.

We’re also an advocate for the church in terms of rural issues. We speak out in the name of the church where there are things we need to have a voice on and we represent those concerns back into the fabric of the church.

Have you found yourself doing that a lot this year with the dairy protests?

Gordon: There are times we have to be at the front and drive it forward but a lot of it is being in the background and supporting those in engagement. Early on in the dairy farm protests, one of the people involved in those protests asked about the best way forward and whether they should engage in them. Many local churches engaged in them and we provide material for them. There was recently a local vicar who was asked to bless a new dairy parlour and an order of service was put together for use by the local congregation. That was an example of the local church going out onto a dairy farm and praying about the work of dairy farmers and dairy farmers.

It must be a great strength to people working in rural communities and farming to know that there are people praying for them and thinking about them?

Gordon: Going back to foot and mouth, over the period of that crisis, the Addington Fund distributed nearly £10.5 million to over 20,000 applicants for help. I was directly involved in that as the chairman at the time of the charity. Each cheque went out with a letter that said “This comes to you with our love and with our prayers”. We still have the letters that came back to us and so often they would say thank you so much for your cheque but thank you especially for your prayers. We still do this, we still encourage that ministry of prayer.

We work very much alongside other groups concerned about the countryside and its wellbeing, and we now have a network of well over 200 farms around the country that are providing care and therapy for a wide range of client groups, people with drug addiction problems, mental health issues, young offenders. These farms have such people on them and provide them with therapy and support and healing and a large number of these farms have a Christian foundation.

So it’s really about serving?

Gordon: Yes, our strapline is to serve the rural communities and the rural churches. We are there in the name of Christ to do exactly that. We are there, in with the local congregation. We provide training for clergy coming into rural appointments for the first time or suddenly finding themselves with a multi-church ministry when they have never experienced this before. We provide a lot of online training resources for evangelism and pastoral care and we’ve been working on two new areas in the last 18 months. One is looking at rural entrepreneurial skills in the rural church and how they can help the church develop its ministry, and the other is on developing the ministry of all of the people of God - local collaborative ministry within the church. We are there to be the interface between church and wider society, but also to allow the local rural church to fulfil its ministry and its mission.

What kind of things would be new for someone coming from an urban setting?

Gordon: Our role is not quite to say what is different from the urban setting. I personally don’t have that experience, I’ve never been in that environment. I’m rural born and bred and all my ministry has been rural. But what we do is help them to make that comparison. They may have been down in the suburbs in the south-east or in a mining town up in the north and so their experiences of “urban” would be very different. We provide a contextual understanding of the ministry they are going to be moving into by coming into the countryside. We also look at the issues that rural congregations face and issues affecting rural life. We run a workshop on rural stress and the problems in the countryside that are different from stress in the town.

You run a stress helpline. What kind of issues do people call in with?

Gordon: A lot of the issues relate to isolation, the fact that it’s difficult to access services. Within a rural community, people are very close and supportive but sometimes it can be too close and when it is very personal issues with, for example, family or alcohol, they may not want to talk with someone locally about it. Calling up the helpline, they can talk, and talk to someone who knows what it’s like to live in the countryside.

We’ve gone from droughts to floods this year. Have you seen more calls?

Gordon: Calls are starting to come in now from farmers who have had bad harvests. One farmer called in to say he had had a very bad cereal harvest and just wanted someone to talk to. We can’t change things but sometimes they want to talk to. I’m not sure if there has been an increase in calls but the office has certainly been very much involved in the problems in the dairy industry and those suffering as a result of bovine TB. That is a concern for Scotland because Scotland is TB free but there have now been two outbreaks this year.

The crises seem to show how fragile the land is and how much we take our food with granted without giving much thought to where it comes from.

Gordon: Yes, if you think about where the dairy producers are at the moment. They have had a horrendous time because of the sudden cuts in the price of milk by the retailers. There has been a tremendous response by the public and the retailers have got their act together. But on top of that, one could look at the pig sector and poultry. There hasn’t been a very good harvest here and that has been the case in other parts of the world. There has been a very bad soya and corn harvest out in America and that has a knock on effect on animal feed and so the price of producing pork and eggs and chickens is all going up but it’s very difficult to have that matched by increased prices on the shop shelf. Dairy producers have got the headlines just now but our pig and poultry producers are in a very similar situation.

Is this just a particularly bad season for farmers?

Gordon: I’ve been around farming all my life and there is always some issue. But I think it will change because with the growing world population we are going to need more and more food but what people have to realise is that food has to be produced at a certain cost. This is part of the role not just of the ARC but the church at large, our prophetic role to make people aware of how important food is and if we want that food then we need to pay the people producing it a living and profitable return on what their investments are.

So it’s about being conscientious consumers?

Gordon: It is also very scriptural. In the Old Testament there is a call on being just in our dealings, we talk a lot about Fairtrade but we need Fairtrade for our own producers too.

You’ll be leaving the ARC soon but how would you like to see its work continue?

Gordon: I believe the ARC’s mission is the same. God raised up the ARC to be there in His name, to push forward the work of the church in the countryside. That hasn’t changed at all. What I hope and pray is that it will give birth to new initiatives and continue to support the church in what it is doing and find new ways to do that.

When I came here back in 1999 our website was one static page and now today, it is a comprehensive website that is our main means of delivering our service. There are going to be other ways of doing that with Facebook and Twitter.

I pray that the relationship between the ARC and the local church will grow stronger and that the wider church will recognise how important it is to support the role of those local congregations because so often what happens is that the church at large sees the strength and importance of the local church in terms of the number that go there. A rural church might have half a dozen people and it would be easy to say it is not achieving very much, but when you actually look at what those few people do in the life of their local community, their involvement and the way they are known for their ministry locally, their impact far outweighs their number. There might only be a dozen people in the church on Sunday but there might only be 70 or 80 people living in that community anyway and if every urban community had the same ratio we would be calling it revival!

There is still that link between the local congregation and that community, and in many places, that community would still see that church as being their church. That’s important. It’s easy to say oh well they only come at Christmas and Harvest but that doesn’t matter. It is their church and that means there is a real opportunity to minister with them and share with them what the Gospel is about.