MANY clergy working in multi-religious areas say that their congregations are not enthusiastic about interfaith work, and are “overwhelmed, insecure and inward-focused”, says a report on the Archbishops’ Council’s Presence and Engagement (P&E) programme that will be debated at the York Synod.
The programme was initiated in 2005 to support and resource parishes where more than ten per cent of the population self-identified in the census as being of another religion. Anxiety about demographic change and a lack of desire or capacity to engage with other faiths were identified, leading to the establishment of a network of interfaith advisers, and the setting up of four P&E centres, in Leicester, Birmingham, West Yorkshire, and Greater London.
A climate of fear after the Brexit vote, the Government’s promotion of “British values” as a unifying code for people of all faiths, and the priorities of the Church of England’s own Renewal and Reform programme have all given added impetus to the work. The report draws on clergy experiences of evangelism and witness, expressed during a research project in 2016.
Clergy working in these areas face significant challenges, and there is a need for honesty about the health of inner-city churches, the report acknowledges. A combination of migration and property prices means that in many P&E parishes, the majority of worshippers no longer live there. “Where less affluent congregants remain by necessity rather than choice, unsurprisingly they struggle to embrace the Church’s changing role in diverse communities,” the report suggests.
It continues: “Many clergy are excited about the opportunities multi-religious contexts provide for building relationships and sharing faith, but find this attitude is not shared by their congregations.” The background research concluded that many characterised their congregations as “overwhelmed, insecure, and inward-focused”, and thus found their own sense of calling and excitement “tinged by sadness”.
Schools offered some of the most fruitful opportunities for engagement: the report describes the relationship between P&E clergy and C of E schools as “energising”. Encouragement was also to be gained from cathedrals, particularly urban ones, and P&E is “keen to explore the part they can play in modelling fruitful encounters between the faiths”.
While the Church in its current form may not be renewed, there is potential for creative initiatives to develop, the report says. Christ Church, Sparkbrook, for example — in a district of Birmingham where 80 per cent of the people are of other faiths — closed its Sunday congregation in 2012 and established The Sanctuary, a missional congregation to pray and serve the local area.
P&E affirms its commitment to enabling Christians to “build bridges and engage with their neighbours of other faiths for the common good”. The government-funded Near Neighbours programme, delivered through P&E by the Church Urban Fund, encourages interfaith social action and interaction. Initiatives such as the weekly Memory Café at St Cuthbert’s, North Wembley, have flourished: here, elderly people from diverse backgrounds have been brought together, and the church has become the heart of its community.
Some congregations now include large numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers; growth that has given a new lease of life in some instances, but which can present both practical and theological challenges, the report says. Evangelism and conversion in multi-religious contexts are often linked to migration, as in Stockton, where the parish church has welcomed and baptised 200 Iranians in the past five years.
“Their presence is a great joy and their faith a deep encouragement. It also brings challenges, particularly the practical and spiritual support of those seeking asylum in the UK, and balancing the needs of new believers with those of existing congregations,” the report says.
“Helping people navigate the legal system is time-consuming for clergy, and many people choose to live elsewhere once they are granted leave to remain. . . This type of growth is exciting but costly and transitory.” Pressing concerns are also identified about the availability of materials in other languages.
The report recognises the range of perspectives within the Church about appropriate evangelism, acknowledging tensions between maintaining positive interfaith relationships and offering an invitation to the Christian faith. It describes P&E parishes as “fragile eco-systems which are easily disrupted”. The parishes also face a clergy-recruitment challenge, and the report highlights the two-fold task of ordaining people both to and from these parishes.
Parish feedback. Those challenges resonate with the Revd Dr Anna Poulson, Vicar of St John’s, Southall Green, which is also home to one of the four P&E centres. Her husband, Mark, now the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Secretary for Inter-religious Affairs, was vicar here for 14 years, establishing the Faiths Forum, and the work was pioneered by Prebendary David Bronnert.
For 20 years, and latterly through Near Neighbours, they have been running projects such as teaching English to Muslim women. Messy Church attracts 180 children, about 90 per cent from non-Christian backgrounds. There is a busy congregation on a Sunday, but as many and more through the buildings during the week. Funding from Near Neighbours had made a huge difference but what was really needed, she said, was people power.
“The report makes clear the dearth in religious literacy. A lot of Christians just don’t know how to speak with people from different faith backgrounds — we need to equip people with really basic skills,” she said. “We need people with passion and a heart, willing to live intentionally in an area like Southall, who will bolster that work. And we need people intentionally ordained into these parishes as well. One of our passions is growing vocations within our parish and congregation. We want the Church in this area to survive and grow.
“We find that people of different faith traditions are very welcoming of the Church’s presence. They respect it and want the Church to be the Church: for us to be as passionate about our faith as they are passionate about theirs. It’s not about watering it down but being distinctive: being ourselves but unified within that difference.”
The Revd Omid Moludy is a mission support priest for cultural diversity in the diocese of Manchester and Priest-in-Charge of St Aphrahat the Persian Sage, Stockport. He had major concerns about the lack of advice, guidelines, and any national plan for independent churches wanting to join the C of E and become part of the Anglican community while retaining their identity and being “united but not uniform”.
He also emphasised the need, highlighted in the report, for clergy-training in cultural awareness and trauma. “We have many asylum seekers joining our churches. Lots of them are hurting; many were raped when they fled their countries,” he said. “How do we deal with them? They won’t go to counsellors: they trust the Church to help them but our priests don’t have the training in this or in the legal issues around asylum.”
The Revd Alistair Helm is Vicar of St Paul’s, Manningham, one of the most deprived P&E parishes in the country. Ninety-three per cent of the 23,000 population here are of other faiths and the Bradford church is a visible presence with its tall spire. “This is our mission field: we’re here to bless and serve the community. It’s about building relationships so that people trust us,” he said. Most of his church activities — he cited the chat and cooking session, “Scones and Samosas” — were attended by Muslim women, who found it a safe space and could see how Christians lived their lives. Conversation series, such as “Prophet Tales”, illuminated common understanding between faiths.
The mosque hosted the deanery synod last week, in the worship hall. “They brought us curry at the end, when they broke their fast,” he said with pleasure, acknowledging good support from the diocese. It would be harder for clergy with young families in a place such as Manningham, he suggested, “and it’s tough for my wife, on the front line”.
The Vicar of Handsworth, in Birmingham, the Revd Douglas Machiridza, had no doubt about what could happen if the Church did not maintain its presence in every community. It took commitment and resilience to face the challenges highlighted in the report, he acknowledged, but if the Church was not evident in multi-religious areas, then Christianity could become a minority religion or even be wiped out.
“Our role as witnesses of the gospel is to be seen interacting with each and everyone who lives in our community,” he said. “We are invited to so many functions in so many places of worship and we make a point of accepting them all. That way, just by being there, we continue to interact with everyone who is different from us.”
More resources — attractive publicity in particular — and more manpower were crucial, Mr Machiridza said. “We need to be able to go into prisons and schools. You have to attract the right people with willingness and heart, and you have to be patient. We want to learn from each other so that we can live peaceably together. This is the most important thing the Church should invest in now.”
Read the full report at www.presenceandengagement.org.uk