Church is ‘abandoning’ the poorest areas, Bishop Philip North warns

11 August 2017

DIOCESE OF BLACKBURN

Comforting: the Assistant Curate of St Paul’s, Marton, the Revd Linda Tomkinson, is a pioneer minister leading a mission on the Mereside Estate. In his talk, Bishop North commended a combination of social activism and evangelism, such as hers

Comforting: the Assistant Curate of St Paul’s, Marton, the Revd Linda Tomkinson, is a pioneer minister leading a mission on the Mereside Estate. In hi...

A WARNING from the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, that the Church of England is “complicit in the abandonment of the poor”, and will continue to decline unless this is redressed, has been welcomed by church leaders and parish priests. 

The Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, described the remarks, which were made at the New Wine gathering this month (News, 4 August), as “vital” and “rightly sharp”. But Bishop North’s intervention has also prompted clarifications, qualifications, and a warning against a descent into cliché. 

Addressing New Wine United, Bishop North warned: “The simple and hard truth is that, in the poorest parts of the country, we are withdrawing preachers. We are seeing the slow and steady withdrawal of church life from those communities where the poorest people in our nation live.”

He cited attendance figures — the proportion of people who attend an Anglican church in England was 1.7 per cent, but on estates just 0.8 per cent — and spending: “Nationally, we spend £8 per head of population on ministry. In some rural areas, that figure rises to £24 per head. On the estates, we spend just £5 per head — by far the lowest. The poorer you are, the less the Church values you.” The discrepancy in applications for posts in the south-east and the north was also highlighted, as was the closure and merger of churches. Church planting was creating “white middle-class graduate Church for white middle-class graduates”.

It was extremely hard to attract high-calibre leaders to estates churches, he warned. “And, whilst many of those who do that work are heroic, we have to be honest and accept that some really struggle, because their reason for being there is that it is the only job they could get.”

This week, Bishop Bayes described those remarks as “rightly challenging and rightly sharp. But I wouldn’t want them to drown out the fact that actually there are substantial numbers of people who have heard this call to be among the poor, and who are seeking to answer it.”

It was sometimes “very hard” to get a shortlist when trying to fill posts in the north-west. “Partly, that’s about poverty . . . but partly, I think it’s because there is a divide in the nation between the north and the south. . . I believe there’s a systemic discrimination in the way that resources are allocated in England.” In Liverpool, nevertheless, “the quality of the people who are serving in areas of deprivation is very high.”

There was a need to “break the idea that the way to get on in the Church is to be the vicar of some whacking great big wealthy suburban church with an enormous staff”, he suggested. Those who served in deprived areas needed to be reassured that “that way of being a minister is blessed by the Church and resourced by the Church and if you come work on an outer estate in the North Eest or in the inner city in the North West, you’re not going to be hung out to dry.” But “suburban people need Jesus, too.”

At New Wine, Bishop North suggested that structures for selection and training were “woefully unfit for purpose, and deliver only white, graduate-class leaders”.

The Director of the Ministry Division, the Ven. Julian Hubbard, spoke this week of an “important priority” to “encourage able ministers to see ministry in urban deprived areas as a passion and a calling, and to draw out and sustain local leadership”. The Division was “committed to widening the diversity of candidates for ministry as well as increasing numbers. We really welcome candidates from churches in these areas and would be delighted if the dioceses send more of them.”

He added: “Where people can model themselves on others whom they can recognise as leaders, they gain confidence and can see themselves in a similar role. . . It needs commitment, and a respectful approach to encouraging others in ways that make sense to them, rather than being imposed from outside.”

The Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, the Revd Dr Mike Lloyd, said that preparing ordinands to serve in areas of deprivation did not require special training but “special trainers. . . inspiring examples of people doing it. What we mustn’t do is make the mistake of thinking — this is a form of patronising superciliousness — that if you are going to work in those areas you don’t need much theology, as [people in those places] are not terribly educated. They need the same theology everyone else needs. It needs to be profound. People on the margins deserve the most theologically literate and agile clergy.”

At Wycliffe Hall, ordinands complete a placement in a different socio-economic context from the one they have come from; but Dr Lloyd believes that more can be done: “The thing I am taking from Philip’s superb talk is that I need to expose our students more to the context, and to inspiring examples of ministry within those contexts.”

But he rejected suggestions made by some that young clergy were not prepared to sacrifice. “I don’t believe that is true. I think people will make costly decisions if they just get a glimpse of what God is doing, and could do, in particular contexts.”

The challenge facing the selection process for ordination was similar to that faced by other institutions he said: that of looking for “ability rather than training”. One response, he suggested, could be to conduct assessments in the home context of the candidate.

DIOCESE OF BLACKBURNGiant football fun: Bishop North joins some of the thousands of youngsters at a worship event at Ewood Park, organised by St James’s, Lower Darwen

At Westcott House, Cambridge, under the Manchester project, four or five ordinands go each term to serve in some of the most deprived parts of the country, in Salford and east Manchester. The Principal, Canon Chris Chivers, said this week that many had gone on to serve in such areas. While it was “wrong to give the impression that no one is thinking of it”, he recalled a time when a generation of priests was encouraged to go north after training at Oxford and Cambridge.

“We have swung from that to a situation where, perhaps, people are less willing, more metropolitan. That is a feature of our culture. . . Far too much of the central church rhetoric on ministry is framed from an upwardly-mobile kind of bubble, and I think he is right to say we need a lot of redress here.”

While there was “plenty of focus” on the issues raised by Bishop North, Canon Chivers said, “what there doesn’t seem to be is a strategic emphasis.” A “massive part of our DNA is our commitment to the parochial system, and that means a commitment to those places which are never going to be able to afford to sustain their ministries. I suspect what is happening in the institutional panic we seem to be experiencing in the C of E is we are not thinking strategically ‘what is it we want to do?’”

There was a danger, he warned, of following the trajectory of the Episcopal Church in the United States, which was a “sort of Church of the successful: a gathered Church where everyone pays their way and they do masses of good, but not necessarily sustained ministry amid the less materially well-resourced. . . What he [Bishop North] has put his finger on is a theological question about what is our commitment to the presence of Christ in the nation.”

Bishops and clergy could sometimes be “unaware of what the experience of their clergy is,” he suggested. “One can get the impression that people making decisions about deployment don’t think in the round about what experience people actually bring to ministry and what might be something that could be utilised and then needs to be encouraged.” There were also questions to be asked about how to make “sustainable” the family lives of those moved to serve in these areas.

Canon Chivers was wary, however, of “a clichéd conversation about middle-class Church depriving urban areas. The debate needs to be more nuanced than that. Otherwise we will descend into slightly romantic Anglo-Catholic-cliché slum-priest stuff. We don’t need to get ourselves back there. We need a real look at the state of the Church in all sorts of contexts.”

The social-responsibility officer for the diocese of Truro, the Revd Andrew Yates, who is Priest-in-Charge of the Penlee Cluster, welcomed Bishop North’s comments, but emphasised that poverty was “not limited to urban and estate communities. There is also much poverty in many rural communities and in towns on the margins.” This was often hidden, he said. The “cheek by jowl existence” of rich and poor highlighted by Bishop North was mirrored in Cornwall, but could be “turned into a positive” if churches supported one another.

“Bishop Philip is correct, too, in noting the reluctance of Christians to serve in such areas,” he said. The Penlee Cluster was currently struggling to fill two intern posts. “We sometimes wonder if this lack of response reflects an unwillingness to become part of God’s bias to the poor.”

“People in my parish don’t see themselves as “deprived”, said the Revd Vernon Orr, the Rector of St Agnes with St Paul, Reading, one of the poorest parishes in the country. “But, after 15 years in this job, it is hard work bringing the Kingdom of God to an outer estate. In my early days, the New Wine UPA forum/network was crucially helpful, and it continues to support me.

“The gospel of Jesus is good news, not good advice; and, because it comes with power, poorer people can see its effect. We do see local people coming to faith, and being set free from depression and addictions. About 20 per cent of our congregation members have no Christian background, and that is a challenge the wider Church will face if demographic trends continue. What estate churches have learnt, albeit often on a small scale, about relating to the culture and winning people for Christ is something they can offer.”

He welcomed Bishop North’s emphasis on combining social action with evangelism. “Interestingly, my observation is that poorer people instinctively know that is what we should be doing!”

There are signs that the national institutions are responding to the concerns expressed by Bishop North, who is working alongside the Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Archbishops’ Council, the Revd Dr Malcolm Brown, on a programme for urban estates (News, 14 October). Under efforts to embed a “bias to the poor” in central funding 25 dioceses have received funding for lowest-income-communities, and some of the Strategic Development Grants awarded by the Church Commissioners have gone to projects involving low-income communities. In Rochester, money has been allocated to establish a church-plant in Chatham town centre, “an area of significant social need and inequality”. In the diocese of Portsmouth, Harbour Church, funded by a grant, is in one of the most deprived parishes in the country (News, 2 September).

“Many of our congregation come directly from that area,” the Vicar, the Revd Alex Wood, said. “We don’t want to be a church of middle-class people who serve the poor; we are a church of the poor.” The church runs social-outreach programmes, including City Women, which works with women who have faced domestic violence and sex-trafficking, and Street Outreach, offering practical help to homeless people.

The Commissioners’ grant was also used to fund pioneer ministers, including Barney and Sara Barron, who are serving in Leigh Park, Havant, which is thought to be the biggest council estate in Europe.

 

Letters

Listen to an interview with the Bishop of Liverpool on this week’s episode of the Church Times Podcast: www.churchtimes.co.uk/podcast.

 

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