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In 1993, a small group of international rural church leaders gathered in England to celebrate 21 years of the Arthur Rank Centre. This ecumenical centre is the focus for the rural work of all the churches of Great Britain and helps the churches understand their rural context much more clearly. Plans were made for a future international conference.
“Rural Culture and Spirituality” was the theme of the conference held in Durham, England in August 1998. About 100 people from a variety of countries attended and at the end of the Conference the International Rural Church Ecumenical Association, as it was then called, was established (IRCEA).
The first Secretary of the association was Michael Cruchley, the Director of the Arthur Rank Centre at the time. Lloyd Vidler, a minister with the Uniting Church of Australia, was appointed the first Chairperson.
A Council for World Mission school in South Africa in 1999 and a meeting of overseas participants of the Trans-Tasman Rural Ministry Conference in Northland, New Zealand in 2000 helped links develop further. The Rev B.D. Prasada Rao was at each of these and through his efforts and encouragement, the Church of South India became the host for the second conference in Chennai, November 2002. The theme of this conference set a theme that would carry through into the future for IRCA: “Voice of the Voiceless”.
The proposed 2006 3rd conference in Korea did not proceed, but Rev Catherine Christie and the Canadian Rural Churches Network entered the breach and agreed to host the third conference in Brandon, Manitoba, July 2007. Its theme was “Cry from the Heart”.
The 4th Conference held in Altenkirchen, Germany in September, 2010, saw IRCA take its next step in adopting a constitution and seeking greater “legitimacy” and connection with denominations and the World Council of Churches. The theme of this conference was “Hunger – The Global Challenge”, an issue that was impacting Europe within its own countries and, in relation to migration and post-colonial responsibilities, from the South.
The 5th conference was in Lilongwe, Malawi in July 2014, with the theme “Holding on to Hope”. At this event the CEO of the Arthur Rank Centre, Jerry Marshall. was appointed Chair. In 2016, for administrative simplicity, the committee asked the Arthur Rank Centre to hold and manage the accounts under the supervision of the IRCA Executive Treasurer.
The 6th conference, “Growing Together” was held in April 2018 in Lincoln, New Zealand. As well as two excellent key notes, we took a learning community approach and provided the 100 delegates with the material to be adapted for their own context. The local team were superb and the event was very enthusiastically received. Rev Dr Mark Yackel-Juleen was appointed Chair.
The 7th conference, “Flourishing: Land, People, Community”, was held in April 2023 in Dubuque, Iowa, USA. Originally planned for 2022, Covid-19 interrupted travel plans, as well as budgets. In 2022 a ZOOM alternative was arranged, aligned with the annual Rural Ministry Conference at Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, with people from around the world joining in to share stories, prayer, and song as we moved with the sun around the world in 24 hours. The 2023 face-to-face conference also aligned with the Wartburg Seminary’s annual rural conference, enabling part of the time to be a joint event, with considerable enriching of experience for the locals. Dr Heather Major was appointed Chair at the Dubuque conference and the hope was that the next gathering would return to the 4-yearly routine in 2026.