FOCUSED primarily on the needs of the wealthy, the Church of England is “complicit in the abandonment of the poor” and models the social inequality that it so often condemns, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, told an Evangelical gathering last week.
“Unless we start with the poor, the gospel we proclaim is a sham, an empty hypocrisy,” he told the New Wine meeting in Shepton Mallett, in a talk unsparing in its criticism of the Church’s structures, language, deployment, and culture.
“The simple and hard truth is that, in the poorest parts of the country, we are withdrawing the preachers,” he said. “We are seeing the slow and steady withdrawal of church life from those communities where the poorest people in our nation live.”
New Wine, a network of Evangelical churches, attracts thousands to its annual summer gathering. Bishop North has also attended the Keswick Convention and will address the Walsingham Youth Pilgrimage this week.
Noting “two decades of Evangelical ascendency”, he argued at New Wine that, despite the “vast and ever-growing industry” of evangelism, numerical decline had continued and even accelerated. “I want to suggest that the answer is quite a straightforward one. It’s because we have forgotten the poor.”
new winenew wine“If we want renewal, we must start with the poor,” he said. “And yet in the Church of England we have a mission approach that is almost entirely focused on the needs and aspirations of the wealthy. Rather than speaking good news to the poor, we are complicit in the abandonment of the poor.”
As evidence, 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.”
His use of the figures is likely to be criticised: spending per head reflects relative population density, and, under Renewal and Reform, efforts are under way to embed a “bias to the poor” in central funding. Dioceses in receipt of the new lowest-income-communities funding are expected to provide evidence that this is going to the poorest areas (News, 21 October). Bishop North has previously expressed concern, however, that “too much will be lost in the general budget to make a significant difference to the estates parishes” (News, 14 October).
He described in his New Wine address how, as as parish priest in London, he had thought of himself as “a subsidised priest, only able to minister because of the largesse and generosity of the wider Church”, but now believed that “it is the rich Church that is subsidised by the poor Church, because unless it is proclaiming good news to the poor, the Church is not the Church at all.”
It was, he told the gathering, “incredibly hard to attract calibre leaders to estates churches. 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.”
The difficulty of recruiting priests to deprived areas is a theme that he has previously expanded upon, as a member of the General Synod (News, 7 February, 2014). Last year, during a debate on evangelism, he accused the Church of abandoning the poor and taking a “preferential option for the rich” (News, 19 February, 2016).
He went on to join the Archbishop of Canterbury’s new task force on evangelism, and is working alongside the Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Archbishops’ Council, Dr Malcolm Brown, on an urban estates programme. Last year, he issued an encouraging update about its work (News, 14 October). Priests working in estates ministry welcomed a renewed focus on their mission (News, 11 November).
Dr Brown said last year that work was under way with the Church Commissioners to ensure that estates would “find their place” in the new funding streams, and argued that “relatively small sums . . . can make a disproportionately large difference,” and that the creation of a “centre of excellence for estate ministry” at a theological training institution was also under consideration.
Among the other objects of Bishop North’s ire was the raising of fees for weddings and funerals and the closure and merging of estate churches. He described church-planting as creating “white middle-class graduate church for white middle-class graduates”. The church-planting movement must “put the poor first rather than last . . . HTB, New Wine and many dioceses and denominations are developing church-planting strategies. But too many are aimed at the low-hanging fruit in fast-regenerating urban areas or university towns. I am astonished at the number of people Jesus is calling to plant new churches as long as they are in Zones 1 and 2 of the London transport system.”
A plant of St Peter’s Brighton on the Whitehawk estate was singled out as an “honourable exception”. The Vicar of St Peter’s, Brighton, the Revd Archie Coates has previously discussed the learning experienced during the planting process (News, 14 October).
Bishop North’s talk included vehement criticism of a wider failing of the poor. Grenfell Tower was “a charred and ruined symbol of the desperate inequality that blights so many lives” in which people were “manslaughtered . . . victims of years of rapacious under-investment, of corporate greed, of inept and corrupt local government, of a materialist culture that values human life only in so far that it is economically expedient to do so”.
In his prescription, he called for a re-evaluation of the Church’s proclamation: “If you turn up on an estate with nice, tidy, complacent answers to questions no one is asking, they will tear you to shreds. . . Simple formulae, or trite clichés about God’s love won’t do . . .”
In last year’s Sheffield Mission Lecture on Catholic evangelism, he called for Anglo-Catholics to embrace evangelism and drew attention to issues of comprehending “Evangelical jargon” (News, 3 March).
“The best person to speak the gospel into an urban estate is someone who has grown up there; so we need to be courageous and take risks in raising up a local leadership,” he told New Wine. “Catapulting in 200 white, well-educated, beautiful people from the nice bit of town will dispossess and disempower local residents. . .
“Our current structures for selecting and training licensed lay or ordained leaders are woefully unfit for purpose and deliver only white, graduate-class leaders. The time for tolerating this systemic failure is now over. We must take risks in raising up local leadership, leadership that cannot and will not speak the jargon-laden drivel of the contemporary Church, but will instead have the gospel energy to transform it.”
He warned: “The Church loves to rail against social inequality. And yet we absolutely model the social inequality we so often condemn.” There was a need to “marry together service with proclamation” and to abandon the “cult of the quick win”, which “makes people afraid of urban ministry”.
Among the examples praised for “passionate and committed Christian ministry, which has combined service and proclamation” was Freedom Church, planted by St Paul’s, Marton, on the Mereside estate in Blackpool ,and led by a pioneer minister, the Revd Linda Tomkinson. Bishop North described the love shown to a woman who had come to a stall at a car-boot sale in a state of devastation at her mother’s terminal illness. She was now “growing in faith” and rarely missed a Sunday service.
“I could tell plenty of stories like that: stories where people from hard backgrounds, living in the toughest parts of the country, have come to faith in Jesus Christ through passionate and committed Christian ministry which has combined service and proclamation,” he said. “What worries me though, and what I want to focus in this talk, is the stories I cannot tell.”
Read Bishop North’s talk here.
Correction: We originally incorrectly reported that Bishop North also spoke at the Keswick Convention, but he actually only attended.