Meet the people in your churchyard

by
25 June 2008

Churches need to engage with the tough characters on their doorstep, says Kevin Scully

One of the comforting and challenging shibboleths in the Church of England is that it exists to serve the whole community in which it finds itself. How far this has ever been true is dubious, but its currency is surely questionable at a time of increasing sectionalism within and without church circles.

Social diversity is complex, but the main thrust of the report on community cohesion (the Cantle report, commissioned by the Government after racial violence in Oldham and Bradford in 2001) points to a truth: that much of the fabric of British society is lived in parallel lines.

The Church sits somewhere between the poles: some are mixed, while others are more monochrome. Serving the breadth of the community is, however, a noble ambition, and any group of Christians should seek to find ways in which their faith can be expressed in social terms. Many do so, in lunch clubs, night shelters, and educational and recreational projects. Rightly, these are often aimed at meeting the needs of vulnerable people.

Churches that have open spaces surrounding them have a particular calling. At those whose grounds are no longer used for the committal of the dead — the term “active graveyard” has a wonderful ring — congregations have a rare opportunity. It can lead to service far from the considerations of Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.

The Bishop of Reading, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, told a conference last year how, when he was a canon at Peterborough, the introduction of closed-circuit television cameras into the city centre shifted many darker human activities into the cathedral precincts. Church councils in towns and cities around England have similar experiences — bad and

good.

Consideration of churchyards can lead to a potent understanding of a church’s mission. Rather than looking out and beyond into the distance, church people could connect what happens in worship with the world immediately outside their doors.

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My ideas about this have been prompted partly by the time when I found a prostitute pleasuring a man in the halo of the sole functioning light in our churchyard. Things have moved on since then: all the lights are now functioning, and the U-Turn project has a base in a church building to engage with vulnerable women who earn money as sex workers. This was not a popular cause, but it has been supported by the church, and many of us believe it is probably one of the holiest things that we do.

What happens in the churchyard matters. There are five churches in the East End of London that have churchyards, and, over the years, the clergy have reported similar manifestations of what is now termed anti-social behaviour. These range from the mildly annoying to the outright criminal. Prostitution, drug-taking and -dealing, gang culture, speed-drinking, using the place as an open-air lavatory — all add to the lively mix of sunbathing, dog-walking, sports, and picnics.

It took an attack on one of our number, the Revd Michael Ainsworth, to lead to a welcome and sensible potential partnership between the Church, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, the police, and others (News, 21 March). There has been a precedent for this: St Matthew’s did some work in seeking Lottery funding to halt some of the degradation in the precincts of the church (pictured, above). It failed because of the complex nature of consultation, partnership (especially with the borough), and management that is required for any such project.

I found myself the centre of attention when I was attacked in the grounds of St Matthew’s last month (News, 16 May). The assault itself was brief, but efficient. More worryingly, it came after a large group of Asian youths had been using the crucifix on the front of the church as a target for basketball practice. I confiscated the ball, closed the church doors, and left it at that.

Three days later, I asked, as I often do, a group of five lads sitting on the church steps to move to the splendid new indestructible benches recently installed by the borough. One objected, asked for the return of the confiscated ball, and, eventually, punched me on the nose. Two others joined in. I managed to escape, thanks to the intervention of a passer-by. He was likewise punched, and his dog was kicked.

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It is a commonplace that idle youth find activity in trouble. I have sat in on committees, public gatherings, local partnerships, and council meetings about young people. The issues are complex, taking in racial and religious diversity, attitudes to authority, and the ubiquitous challenge to respect difference. Diversions are not enough in themselves.

Real community develops when people dare to embrace the difficult. Each group and area provides the key. A church in north London has a project aimed at providing medical and social care for those wary of doctors’ surgeries and social-services offices.

A number seek to work with young people who stay shy of centres and pre-planned activities, providing community projects that come from the young people themselves. Even a humble soup run, with vision and support, can provide the beginnings of a pathway out of sleeping rough.

As a neighbouring priest, the Revd Brian Ralph, the Vicar of St Barnabas’s, Bethnal Green, says, you cannot overlook the unsavoury types in a parish: the street drinkers, the drug addicts, the rowdy youth, the homeless. They are, if the shibboleth holds true, our people. And it is up to the Church to dare to see that.

The Revd Kevin Scully is the Rector of St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green. His book Into Your Hands will be published by BRF in November.

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