Urban life: Committed to uncomfortable Britain

15 July 2009

THE fixed-term appointment of a Bishop for Urban Life and Faith, with a brief to follow up the report Faithful Cities, which was debated by the Synod in July 2006, comes to an end this month. On Saturday morn­ing, he gave the Synod a presentation on his report The Urban Church: Three years on from “Faithful Cities”.

He is the Bishop of Hulme, the Rt Revd Stephen Lowe (Northern Suf­fragans), who began by describing life on a depressed Roch­dale housing estate. A half-time parish priest and a CUF-funded com­munity worker were the Church’s continued pres­ence in what the Bishop described as “a different world from the comfort­able church in comfortable Britain”. The BNP found support, while main­stream political activity strug­gled against apathy and im­potence.

Clergy in such communities were often undervalued, poorly sup­ported, and under-resourced. “We are also not training and equipping enough men and women to work in uncomfortable Britain.”

Such parishes would always need subsidy from the Church Commis­sioners and the comfortable churches, who needed to remember the theological imperative behind the parish system. Adding more parishes into benefices in urban contexts was “a recipe for disaster”,as the lack of articulate, literate, and numerate lay leaders meant more clergy dependency. Bishop Lowe warned that political correctness by government might defeat attempts to get some pump-priming resources.

“If politicians want the Church of England to contribute to welfare as we do on education, they have to help us build our capacity and work in proper partnership with us rather than accusations of special pleading when we make our case for help.”

He called for socially and eco­nom­­ically mixed communities, and an end to socially divisive gated com­munities. “Our presence at a national level, prodding Governments about their urban presence, is vital,” he said. A national Church that took its theology seriously must be prepared to be prophetic about the shape of society. “For that to happen, we must not become a comfortable Church for a comfortable nation, but a Church totally committed to its con­tinued presence in uncomfortable England.”

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd John God­dard (Northern Suffragans), said that “the most vulnerable in our society deserve the best of our priests and the best of our resources.”

Adrian Greenwood (Southwark) quoted the title of a recent book, Who Cares about the White Working Class? The answer was that the Church of England did. The time had come for “concerted action and positive discrimination” in the Church’s support of this group. Youth workers, youth clubs, and youth provision were “excellent tools” with which to take disaffected youth through their difficult years, and yet there was no reference to them in Faithful Cities.

Bishop Lowe said that it was diffi­cult to get people to work in “these uncomfortable places”. The BNP found these white ghetto estates were “fertile ground to sow their poison”. The Church of England was the largest provider of youth work in the country.

Dr Philip Giddings (Oxford) asked for guidance on how the Church might communicate these issues and its willingness to be involved with “ignorant” officials who had no understanding of the Church’s role or purpose.

The Bishop of Dudley, the Rt Revd David Walker (Southern Suf­fra­gans), said that a disproportionate number of ordinands were being recruited from the middle class and suburbia. He asked how more voca­tions could be encouraged from inner-city areas.

Bishop Lowe said that the selec­tion process was often biased against people coming out of the poorest communities. They did not have the same opportunities to present themselves in ways that the selection boards could commend; but the Church should prioritise people from the poorest parishes.

The Revd Richard Moy (Lichfield) said that he had been impressed with the quality of Church Army recruits. If the Church could not find clergy for inner-city parishes, it could ask the Church Army to provide its officers for the task. Bishop Lowe said that the scale of the need was far greater than the Church Army could meet.

Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham) asked how church work and parish work could be integrated with the health and local-care economy on issues of mental health and addic­tion. Bishop Lowe said that there were many “brilliant examples” of church-sponsored partnerships in addiction programmes. Church halls often provided a far more convenient and friendly environment for people to attend such sessions than the local medical centre. Nevertheless, such activity further increased the work of the parish priest.

The Ven. Dr John Applegate (Manchester) said that partnerships with local government and the NHS could be difficult where dioceseshad between 20 to 40 per cent of their parishes in urban priority areas. In such situations, inter-diocesan support could be necessary.

The scale of the deprivation in the parishes could make it difficult to make partnerships: where there were twinning arrangements, they were not always two-way. A twinned parish did not always learn about the generosity of the poor, or the quality of the discipleship exercised in the deprived areas.

Canon Alan Hargrave (Ely) spoke of the difficulty of making clergy appointments in the inner cities. The clergy could effectively take a pay cut when they moved to urban priority areas, because they might not get expenses, secretarial support, offers of holiday cottages, etc. He wondered whether stipends should be paid at a rate that was inversely proportional to the number of people who applied for the job.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, described Bishop Lowe, in a summing-up that was also a farewell, as “a fiery, passionate prophet” of the Church in urban areas. There was still “a tiger in the tank”, he said. Bishop Lowe’s work had been pioneering, and he had not been shy of saying important things to the Government about more engagement — a “trumpet call to wake out of sleep”.

The Church owed him a great debt of gratitude.

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