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No grey gloop, but lively cities of distinct groups

11 April 2014

The energy of northern communities is attracting talented ministers and fostering local vocations, says Catherine Pickford

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 system.

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 ones.

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 leadership skills.

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.

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