PRIESTS working on housing estates have spoken about the realities of their ministry, after the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, issued an encouraging update on the work of the evangelism taskforce (News, 14 October).
Meetings of estates clergy, and those interested in the work, are taking place around the country, and priests have welcomed the focus.
The Revd Andy Delmege, who chairs the National Estates Church Network, believes that Bishop North’s speech to the Synod earlier this year, which warned of abandoning the poor (News, 19 February), was “almost one of those Kairos moments where we get a chance to act”.
Evangelism on estates often meant working with people that the Church has “never been particularly successful at reaching,” Mr Delmege said. “All of the stuff about getting people to come back to church has never worked because they have never really been in it. The Church has to very visibly show what it is in order to be attractive to people.” He spoke of serving the local community and building up those who are “going to be the best people at relating locally, as they are part of the culture”. Drawing a distinction between this work and evangelism “doesn’t make a huge amount of sense on estates,” he said. “We are showing God’s love in all the ways we can in order to welcome people into the Church.”
While, historically, council estates have housed white working-class people, there is now increasing diversity, he reports, and it is important that the Church doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the 1950s and ’60s, “in terms of how we welcome people of different cultures into our area”.
The Vicar of Mixenden and Illingworth, in North Halifax, the Revd Robb Sutherland, reports that meetings of estates clergy are important, to remind one another that “this isn’t Craggy Island: this is a wonderful opportunity to be ministering in a fantastic vibrant context that is challenging.”
Questions of faith are “not necessarily the questions that people are asking,” he said, which might include “why haven’t I get food today?”. But as a preacher, he found it “really easy” to expound the Bible, “as I keep finding that it is what Jesus is talking about”. There are challenges in preaching to the wealthy, he thinks, from a Bible that talks about dragging the rulers from their thrones and lifting up the poor.
“I have thought about our context in the context of the parable of the sower and think that estates ministry is a long-term game,” he said. “It is not just something where you turn up and suddenly transform things overnight.” He pays tributes to those who have gone before him, who “tilled the soil and dug out a lot of rocks”, including church wardens. “In terms of evangelism, every new person who comes through the door, it’s years of work.”
Another strand of estates ministry entails church planting, and partnerships. In 2013, the Vicar of St Peter’s, Brighton, the Revd Archie Coates, was asked to be Priest-in-Charge of St Cuthman, built to serve the new residents of the Whitehawk estate, in Brighton, in the 1930s. About 25 members of St Peter’s joined the congregation, including a small group that moved into the vicarage. In partnership with the existing members, they have established a foodbank, debt relief services, and they work with children on the estate. There has been some movement from this to people attending church, he said: “What we are finding is that trust takes quite a long time to build so it’s a kind of trickle at the moment.”
The Church can make a difference by making a long-term commitment, he said: “We are finding the greatest source of witness has been the people who have actually moved onto the estate and are renting houses and living there and sending children to local nurseries and schools.”
Church services needed a “different approach”, from the preaching, to the music and set-up. Many children come without a parent, and the team learned that giving them lunch or breakfast helped them to concentrate.
He advises others considering estates ministry to ask “how can the church be a blessing in the community?” rather than “how many of this population can be persuade to come to church?”
Admitting that, in planting, Holy Trinity, Brompton, hasn’t “always got it right”, he believes that it is better to have a model of partnership than planting, which recognises the need to “keep the identity of the church that we partner with”.