MANY clergy working in multi-religious areas say that their congregations are not enthusiastic about interfaith work, and are “overwhelmed, insecure, and inward-focused”, a report on the Archbishops’ Council’s Presence and Engagement (P&E) programme says. It will be debated at the General Synod in York.
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 and 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 and 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 and E clergy and C of E schools as “energising”. Encouragement was also to be gained from cathedrals, particularly urban ones, and P and 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 area.
P and 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 programme Near Neighbours, delivered through P and 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, which can present challenges, the report says. Evangelism and conversion in multi-religious contexts are often linked to migration, as in Stockton, where the parish church has 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.”
The report recognises the range of perspectives about appropriate evangelism, acknowledging tensions between maintaining positive interfaith relationships and offering an invitation to the Christian faith. 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.
To read the full report, visit www.presenceandengagement.org.uk.