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Reneging on an option for the poor?

26 February 2016

AT THE General Synod last week, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, painted a bleak picture of church life on the outer estates of our great conurbations (News, 19 February). He spoke of “cold, leaky, and unfit” churches, and an attendance rate dropping twice as quickly as in other parts of the country. He also claimed that the Church’s investment in ministry was proportionally lower in these densely populated areas than it was nationally.

None of this is new. The situation was bad enough in 1985, when Faith in the City was published. I remember making a film for the BBC at the time with Canon Eric James, one of those who had instigated the report. We looked at the way the Anglo-Catholic movement had produced heroic priests who had met deprivation with ritual, colour, generosity, and fun; but, by the mid-1980s, this brave tradition had died in most places, and had been replaced by a rather precious, more sectarian version of itself.

I interviewed a young priest who was living alone in one of the outer estates of Middlesbrough. He said his prayers faithfully, did his best to make the church relevant, gave generous practical help to those who needed it, and maintained Sunday services and social events. But he was culturally and socially isolated by class and background. The estate that he lived on was vast. It had few facilities. The few forlorn shops did not bother to supply fresh fruit or vegetables. Public transport was poor. Teachers and doctors commuted in, and went home in the evening.

The priest was doing a good job against the odds, but he should not have been expected to cope alone. Some would have gone under. I was not surprised when I heard that he had left for a different kind of ministry, in which he excelled.

The Church could have taken a serious “option for the poor” 30 years ago, and poured money, resources, and people into these areas, helping to form communities of prayer, protest, and care. But the leadership of the Church at the time was never as wholeheartedly supportive of Faith in the City as it appeared to be, and, within a few years, the direction of the Church came to be focused much more on evangelism, which, for Anglicans (as distinct from Methodists and the Salvation Army), has usually been a much more middle-class enterprise.

The current leadership has abandoned the theology of the Kingdom which used to make sense of costly ministries in deprived communities. Sadly, I don’t think even HTB could turn round this decline. Whether the C of E has ever known how to be poor among the poor is questionable, but, if it ever did, it has forgotten now.


The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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