The future of the Church in the countryside is under threat and the contribution parishioners make to communities is in danger of being lost, a group of bishops has warned.
With the Church of England facing financial pressures, decisions to close rural churches would have a huge impact on the countryside, according to a new book called Changing Rural Life.
The book, launched at a meeting of the General Synod yesterday, has been written by 13 rural bishops, including the Rt Rev David Walker, Bishop of Dudley, the Rt Rev Alan Smith, Bishop of Shrewsbury, and the former Bishop of Hereford, John Oliver.
Contributors also include the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the Rt Rev Anthony Russell, Bishop of Ely and president of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, which is based at Stoneleigh, Warwickshire.
Jeremy Martineau, who edited the book and is the former national rural officer for the Church of England, based at the Arthur Rank Centre in Stoneleigh Park, said financial pressures could signal the closure of rural churches in the future.
"The message to the Church is that there is a strong urban feeling that we are spending too much keeping buildings open and to solve the problem we should close lots of underused rural churches.
"It is a thought, in my view, which is wrong. Rural churches need to be better understood within the Church.
"There is a serious danger that with financial pressures, the diocese might just pull out of rural areas. What they fail to realise is that the clergy works for all the community, not just for those who sit in the pews on Sunday," he said.
Mr Martineau said rural churches were vitally important, with the buildings often being used for other events.
"Churches make a huge but largely hidden contribution to the well-being of rural communities. Government and each local community would benefit from a greater appreciation of this contribution," he added.
Mr Martineau, the director of the Centre for Studies in Rural Ministry, said it was the first time a group of bishops had written a book in this way.
"I haven't found any other volume written by a group of bishops this way - it is a relatively unique approach."
Chapters focus on the use of the countryside by an urban population; the way in which rural communities actually function; the changing environment; the alienation of people from the food they eat; the impact on rural areas of global forces; and the way people inhabit the land.