THE Church of England has been accused of abandoning the poor and taking a “preferential option for the rich” by the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North.
While the Church claimed to offer a “Christian presence in every community”, this was not true, he said. “We are not present in every community. And the places we are least present is the urban estates.”
Speaking to the General Synod during a discussion on evangelism, Bishop North, who used to be an inner-city parish priest in north London, castigated the Church for claiming to have a bias to the poor while spending more money on richer areas.
Nationally, the C of E spends, on average, £7.87 per head on ministry. This rises to £23.88 per head in rural regions, but in city estates it is just £5.07, Bishop North said. “The conclusion is an obvious one. We are all leaders of a Church that has taken a preferential option for the rich.”
The withdrawal from poor housing estates had seen Sunday church attendances there fall twice as fast as the national average, during the past five years. The Church on estates is dying, he said, “and it’s dying very quickly.”
To combat this disturbing trend, Bishop North was presenting a paper on mission to urban estates, and was calling a conference at Bishopthorpe Palace next month to discuss how to reinvigorate the C of E’s ministry in poor urban regions.
Whatever the answer was, it could not simply be to shut down stuggling churches and focus on booming ones in richer areas — that would amount to a “betrayal of the gospel”, he argued. “The battle for the Christian soul for this nation will not be won or lost in Kensington or Cobham or Harrogate. A Church that abandons the poor, abandons God.”
A number of speakers in the take-note debate that followed Bishop North’s presentation took up his theme. The Revd Dr Jason Roach, an assistant curate at St Helen Bishopsgate, in the City of London, said that, as a black priest, he knew many people who assumed the C of E could not be for them, since they came from housing estates.
Canon Kate Wharton, however, the Vicar of St George’s, Everton — which is the 30th most deprived parish in all of England — said that church growth in poor urban districts was not merely a “quaint idea from the past”, but a reality today. Her church had seen Sunday attendances double as it reached out to parishioners struggling with deep poverty, addiction, and unemployment.
Captain Nicholas Lebey, a Church Army evangelist in south London, said that patient and passionate engagement with young people on estates could bear significant fruit. One youth group he had helped grow over several years had recently decided to form itself into a church.
He was convinced that, in 20 years’ time, some of the young people he worked with in Thamesmead would be sitting in the Synod chamber, talking about how to do evangelism.