WHEN I was nine, in the mid-1980s, my family moved to the Manor
estate in Sheffield. This coincided with the publication of the
report Faith in the City. The little church where my
father was the vicar felt absolutely the place to be inthe Church
of England at that moment.
I remember important people from London coming to speak to Joan,
a member of our congregation from one of the tower blocks, about
what it was like to live in the inner city, and to get her ideas
about how to make it better. We were pioneers, making an impact in
Thatcher's Britain, and I felt part of it.
Twelve years later, I returned with my husband to live in
another northern city. After university, theological college, and a
curacy in the suburbs, I became a team vicar in Benwell, in the
deprived west end of Newcastle. It felt like coming home: different
city, different decade, same crackle of energy.
The term "melting pot", so often used to describe inner-city
parishes such as Benwell, always seems to me to be misleading. In a
melting pot, everything added to the mix loses its distinctive
colour and texture, and becomes part of a homogenised mass. In my
experience, that is not what happens in the city.
Down our high street, the Polish café, the Bangladeshi
supermarket, and the West African grocers all have their own
smells, culture, and identity. This is not a grey gloop. It is a
collection of distinct communities. The challenge for the many
projects, organisations, and faith groups working in the area is to
help those communities feel that they are part of a cohesive whole
rather than competing factions.
IN THE past five years, our church, St James's, a huge Victorian
barn with structural problems, has become a "Centre for Culture and
Heritage", besides being a parish church. The centre operates
through local organisations that work together to deliver
activities at St James's. These partner organisations - such as a
children's project, an over-50s group, and a local-history society
- give support with fund-raising bids for the building.
Our most recent project was "War and peace in the west end". We
asked older residents to share their stories of the Second World
War, and we also involved asylum-seekers, many of whom have more
recently experienced war in their home countries and have come to
seek sanctuaryin Benwell. It was moving to see people from very
different placesin the world recognising the shared experience of
living through conflict.
During the course of setting up the centre, we have, almost as a
by-product, gone a long way towards saving our building. We have
raised £250,000 to mend the roof, and are about to replaster and
paint the interior. This has taught me a great deal about what it
means to be church in the inner city. Numbers attending on a Sunday
morning do matter - but being a meeting place for the whole
community matters even more.
There has been much discussion recently about the fact that not
enough clergy, many of whom are from the south-east, want to cometo
the deprived parishes in the north of England (News, 7
February; Letters, 14 and 28
February). I can identify with them. I think it is unlikely
that I would have come so willingly to Benwell, asked my husband to
live here, and had our children here, had it not been for my
positive childhood experiences in Sheffield.
If I were suddenly, inexplicably, asked to serve in a parish in
the commuter belt of London, I would be terrified, because I know
nothing about it. If we are going to encourage people to come to
work in deprived parishes in the north, itis important that we give
ordinands and those exploring the possibility of ordination the
experience of working in places such as Benwell.
Recently here there have been positive indications that there
are some excellent potential inner-city clergy coming through.
First, a group of students from Cranmer Hall, the theological
college in Durham, came to do a weekend mission in Benwell. They
threw themselves into parish life sensitively and effectively, and
I felt encouraged that there were people like that in the
Second, our assistant curate, the Revd Allison Harding, chose to
come here, despite having other options - a powerful sign that
there are clergy actively choosing deprived areas over affluent
Third - and I think that this is the most important - the
Benwell churches are hugely proud to have fostered two vocations to
ordained ministry, and two to Reader ministry, from among their
number recently. The Revd Peter Wilson, who is serving as an
ordained local minister, and Lee Cleminson, who is in his first
year at Mirfield theological college, were both born and bred in
the west end, as were our new Reader, Kathy Germain, and our
Reader-in-training, Terese Wilkinson.
IT IS difficult to pinpoint what it is about our team which
encourages vocations, but I think that two factors are relevant.
The first is that there is a strong tradition of lay leadership.
Significant parts of the main Sunday service are often led by lay
people, and we have a weekend parish retreat once every two years,
which is led by members of the congregation.
The expectation in the parish that lay people will lead at all
levels of church life has helped to bridge the gap between lay and
ordained, and given people the opportunity to develop their
The second factor is that many people come to us who are in
training. Whether they are curates, ordinands, trainee Readers on
placement, or weekend missions, there is a stream of people
training for something. I think that contributing to the formation
of others has helped individuals in the congregations to see
possibilities for themselves.
This month, my family celebrate our tenth anniversary in
Benwell. It is indeed the mission field of the north, a challenge,
and an adventure - and it is also home.
The Revd Catherine Pickford is Team Rector in the Benwell
Team Ministry, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.