I ACCIDENTALLY tuned in recently to Channel 5’s Rich House, Poor House (Media, 7 April), in which a family living on a council estate (weekly budget, £175) changed places with a family from a far different kind of estate (weekly budget, £1700).
With their temporary wealth, the estate family were able to hire a mobility scooter for the week, which freed the mother from an involuntary imprisonment resulting from poverty. For the rich family, the endless barrel-scraping, rubbish jobs, and waste of human flourishing was a convicting experience.
The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North’s, passionate address to New Wine during the summer, in which he said that the Church of England was “complicit in the abandonment of the poor”, was a convicting experience for me (News, 11 August). For I am a privately educated, middle-class, white ordinand with graduate and professional qualifications; and I know that Bishop North is right to say that people like me are reluctant to serve on estates.
I live in the cognitive dissonance of being in a comfortable position, serving in rich parishes, aware of the gospel imperatives towards the poor — but struggling to live them out. I have wrestled with this in recent months on an outer-housing-estates placement at Wythenshawe, in Greater Manchester.
THE prevailing media presentation of housing estates is that they are areas with high crime, anti-social behaviour, and unemployment. Yet I found that the stereotypical narratives around poverty and deprivation were false. Yes, there were some issues, but, as the Rector, the Revd Stephen Edwards, explained, these were more to do with the low self-belief and limited aspiration that come from being on the wrong side of the story.
I met people who had lived in the community for years, and dedicated themselves to improving the lives of others. On a home visit, Joan (whose claim to fame is that she has twins who were actually born on different sides of midnight, so have different birthdays) told me of her teaching career, gently nurturing deprived children and rejoicing in their growth as people.
Mission here seemed so much more direct, and the leadership and ministry abilities of people stood out. It was hard to identify someone in the congregations who did not have a part to play, who was not actively engaged in some ministry that was outward-focused, whether it be Jill, starting a school-uniform exchange, or Hans, a retired bus driver, who knitted baby jumpers from leftover wool.
I saw the widow’s mite come to life in Helen, who regularly unloaded the full contents of a shopping trolley into the foodbank box. The box was too small, and, as she piled packets of sanitary products and groceries around it, Helen told me that it was a weekly exercise to spend everything she could in this way.
For all the churches did to relieve the brokenness of poverty, this was not the main gift that they were giving. In Rich House, Poor House it was not so much the loss of wealth that was an affront, but the brief taste of dignity followed by its withdrawal: the dignity and hope which is bestowed by God and ought to come from knowing oneself to be loved. These churches and clergy were some of the best that I had ever had met, in their collaboration, dedication, and encouragement of others. They showed that a common vision of embodying love and imparting dignity can unite even through profound theological and ecclesiological differences.
WHAT would prevent me from ministering here? A friend at college from a similar background is training contextually in a former mining community. We share a similar understanding that fear is a significant barrier to working and living in deprived communities. Her story is of facing and overcoming those fears, little by little, of developing resilience and patience as she plants seeds of hope which she might never see bear fruit.
My own greatest fears would be isolation and physical vulnerability, as well as how my children would adjust and thrive. I saw that I could not manage without a team (which would have to include my husband), and without intentional support from the wider Church, such as mentoring and emergency support. There are already Estate Churches Networks, but the awareness of these outside estates ministry is low.
So, if the Church is serious about housing estates, my plea is that it should not blame ordinands, but allow us to open up about our fears and resource our families better to overcome them.
Training is a good time to try things out; so more supported placements and contextual training opportunities should be planned, in a way that deliberately encourages honest reflection with supervisors about fears and concerns. There is no point being ashamed of a privileged background, or of being afraid to leave it: what matters is honesty, and the willingness to trust God as you go where you are called.
I finished my placement with a more realistic understanding of what estates ministry would mean, and more openness to being called there in the future. And I left with a deeper sense of God’s love in action — not just for the people who live on estates, but for myself. As Stephen tells all his placement students, “Once you’ve been to Wythenshawe, you never leave.”
Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Anne-Marie Naylor is an ordinand at Cranmer Hall, Durham.
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