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Shenfield, place of trophy houses and Alpha families

08 December 2017

Last week, Madeleine Davies visited Blackpool, the most deprived parish in the country. This week she goes to Shenfield, in Essex, one of the least deprived


Contrast: a Tudor house in the parish

Contrast: a Tudor house in the parish

THE news that St Mary’s, Shenfield, is one of the least-deprived parishes in the country does not seem to come as a surprise to its parishioners.

The Church Urban Fund defines it as the country’s third least-deprived parish. (The first, West Leake, in Southwell & Nottingham, has a population of less than 500, so “the data may be unreliable”. The second, St Mary’s, Twyford, in Winchester, does not have an incumbent at present, and declined to be featured.)

“You’ve only got to look at the house prices round here,” the organist and choirmaster, Suzanna Brooks, points out. Like many other residents, her family moved here because of the commute: London Liverpool Street is 25 minutes away, and when, from December 2019, the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail), is fully open, 12 trains an hour will run at peak times.

MADELEINE DAVIESRays of sunlight: the 13th-century St Mary’s, Shenfield

Prices have shot up in recent years: the average house is now going for £500,000, or £275,000 for a flat (more than the average house in Britain).

A recent Evening Standard guide suggested that the area appealed to “those who aspire to an affluent, suburban feel”, promising a place “classier than many other Essex towns” with “big, detached trophy houses on wide, leafy streets”. The seven-figure budget required to consider the Hutton Mount area is mentioned as one of the few downsides.

Another draw to the parish is the church primary school, St Mary’s, established in 1865 and rated “Outstanding” in its last Ofsted report.

“We don’t have trouble filling our places”, Judith Gupta, a senior leader at the school responsible for worship and RE, reports. Although eligibility includes living in the catchment area, she is conscious that many of the younger worshippers at the church are there to meet attendance criteria.

“They tend to sit on this side,” she says, gesturing to the left of the aisle, “which I think is a shame.” She has also noticed that many like to sit and talk in the creche during the service, and she is unsure what to do about this, “without putting people off, or looking as though we were kind of shoving the Bible in front of their face”.


THIS morning, all the aisles are packed with her pupils. The whole school attends assembly at St Mary’s twice a month, and today, while the winter sun streams through the window of the 13th-century church, two tiny girls, introduced as “Guardian Angels”, announce “the Lord is here”, securing a dutiful reply.

This term, the school has been learning about the value of service, and hands shoot up when the Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Chris Mann, asks for examples. “Serving God” is volunteered. “Serving other people”; “Helping another person when they need help”. We turn to “The Servant King” in our hymn books, and tiny, enthusiastic voices fill the nave. Then hands are straining in the air again, heads craning, as Fr Mann seeks volunteers who want him to wash their feet. Serving others can be done in “just ordinary things”, he explains. “If you see something you can do that would help, why not do it?” We say the Lord’s Prayer, memorised, hands tightly pressed together.

Pupils here have “confidence in abundance” Mrs Gupta says, once all the classes have filed back to their classrooms, a few metres away. She believes that the values taught by the school are “really embedded: you see it in their RE; you hear it in what they say”. The intake is “very white, middle-class”, and, although Shenfield has “always been very affluent”, as a teacher at the school for 30 years, she has observed that children are now “very cocooned”.

Madeleine Davies/Church TimesAffluent: a private green near Shenfield station

The school puts an emphasis on charities and fund-raising, including collections for the foodbank in Brentwood; and the children “understand that there are people in need”, she thinks. “But they don’t particularly come directly in touch with it.” And, while the parents are “very generous; they are aware that they do have a lot”, there is also an intensity to their children’s lives which means that “they almost don’t have time to be children”.

About half are being tutored privately, she estimates, and, for the past three years, breakfast and after-school clubs have been established — “not for feeding their children because they don’t get a breakfast, but because the parents are going to work”.

Many of the children have been baptised: “They think of that as part of their passport to St Mary’s”; and confirmation, offered in Year 6, is increasingly popular. But church was different when she was growing up, when more people went because “going to church was part of what they would do on a Sunday”. Now, it is competing with shopping and sport. “But then you get people who will come at Easter, who will come at Christmas.”


AMID a debate about numerical decline, the attendance at St Mary’s is strong. Average Sunday attendance is 193, and, last year, there were 34 baptisms. This Thursday morning, the congregation for the 11 a.m. eucharist has brought together elderly worshippers, who sit in the choir stalls, and young mothers, one of whom reads from the lectern with a baby on her hip. Five of these young women have been confirmed recently, and coffee and cake after the service — an idea of Mr Mann’s wife, Heather — has helped to build a little community. “They have also discovered that we don’t mind babies and toddlers and noise,” he explains, later.

Today, there are Celtic Circle prayers from Pauline Sweetingham, who asks that we might “follow you in the small details of our lives”, and find ways to support the vulnerable, “including the poor”.

Sitting down after Mrs Mann’s excellent walnut cake, Pauline recalls how, after being confirmed and married at St Mary’s, she returned, after many years away from churchgoing: “When my mum died, that was the last of my family, and I was quite struck with the way that the church came and supported me, even though I had not set foot here.”

MADELEINE DAVIESReturn: Pauline Sweetingham, who joined St Mary’s after years away

It was an encounter at a “Mind Body Spirit” exhibition in Brentwood that ultimately prompted her return. A man running the Church Army stall showed her the “Jesus deck” — a pack of cards depicting Bible stories. She picked out two: the instruction to “Feed my sheep”, and the verse describing Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life. “And I heard this distinctive voice say: ‘Go back to church, you know it makes sense.’”

With a more Charismatic faith than before (she feels that the Holy Spirit has given her “a real experience of sensing God’s love for me, and everyone else”), Pauline is now heavily involved at St Mary’s as a chorister and lay minister. Although she feels that the church is limited by its facilities — a small kitchen, and no hall — she is confident that its services are done “really well”, and believes that Fr Chris, who arrived last year, has brought “an extra dose of reverence and beauty”. She mentions his use of the Stations of the Cross, at which children were invited to say prayers and readings.

She is also training to be a street pastor, and believes that it is vital that the Church goes out into the community — “I do not believe that we can just hold services and people will come” — and nurtures the faith of its lay people. The programme School for Disciples, created by the diocesan Bishop, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, is “brilliant”, she reports.


THERE has been a church at Shenfield — the name derives from the Anglo-Saxon for “good lands” — since at least 1249. Each of the north-aisle columns was hewn from an oak tree; and carved into the 14th-century stone font is a “green man”, with leaves instead of hair. At the back is an alabaster carving of Elizabeth Robinson and her baby: her death in childbirth united the families of her husband and father during the Civil War. Near the vestry is the tombstone of Ebenezer Jones, a Victorian poet whose Calvinist upbringing was preserved in verse by John Betjeman.

Among Mr Mann’s predecessors is Samuel Harsnett, a witchcraft sceptic who went on to be an Archbishop of York; and Nathaniel Ward, a Puritan who wrote North America’s first constitution in 1641. The patrons for the past century have been the Courage brewing family, benefactors to the village for centuries (the weathervane of the church is the family’s trademark cockerel). The total income in the parish last year was £215,028, and its contribution to the parish share was the highest in the deanery.

Fr Chris arrived after spending a year as a chaplain in Abu Dhabi. “I think you are very aware, being here, that there is not a lot of deprivation, not within the parish boundaries,” he observes over lunch at the 16th-century Ye Olde Greene Dragon. It’s an “active topic” at the school, where a recent assembly explored the unfair distribution of wealth.

Yet against a backdrop of debates about whether the Church has “abandoned” poor areas (News, 11 August) he is conscious that “there are questions around spiritual need everywhere. It’s a cliché, really, but the best defence against God is a nice car and a comfortable house. And there’s a lot of that. But it doesn’t actually lessen the spiritual vacuum, or need; so, if you have an opportunity to put something spiritual in front of somebody, we should be doing it.”

There is also a duty to influence the children who attend the school, who have “pretty good life chances” and are likely to grow up to be leaders, he argues. “Unless you want a sort of godless managerial class . . . I have always believed that those who lead should have a sense of public service, not just political power; so if we can bring children up with that sense that they are privileged, that they have responsibilities, that they can give out and make other people’s lives better, well, that is really worth doing.”

This is not “over and against what the estates do”, he says. “It’s another side of the coin. We cannot abandon any part of our nation. We are the Church of England.”


CERTAINLY, the contrast with St Peter’s, Blackpool (Features, 1 December), is stark. Where Lytham Road is populated by boarded up shopfronts, you reach St Mary’s via Tudor houses — real and mock — and the 17th-century former residence of the Courage family, now a residential home.

Madeleine Davies/Church TimesRooted in “good lands”: there has been a church at Shenfield since at least 1249

The poverty rate for children in the parish stands at three per cent, compared with 61 per cent at St Peter’s. Boys born in the parish can expect to live for 16 years longer than their counterparts in Blackpool. Just 14 per cent of people have no qualifications — a third of the proportion in Blackpool — and almost half have a degree. Average weekly earnings are close to double those in Blackpool, at £611. Last week, the annual Social Mobility Commission report warned that “London and its hinterland are increasingly looking like a different country from the rest of Britain.”

“Brentwood is affluent with no areas of deprivation,” Essex County Council’s borough profile reads. It describes the area as home to “career builders, legacy elders, Alpha families”. Nationwide, it has the highest rate of pupils’ attending a good or outstanding school, and the second-highest rate of life satisfaction among residents. Rates of treatment for drug or alcohol misuse or children in care are among the lowest in the country. “Our borough is a great place to live, work, and visit; with strong, healthy and vibrant communities along with a beautiful green environment to enjoy,” the local council’s plan says. “We want to keep it that way.”

Yet wealth cannot shield people from suffering, Mr Mann points out. The visit that he makes to families before a funeral “doesn’t seem wildly different, no matter where you are. . . I did one just up in Shenfield Place, a big house and all the rest of it, but there is the same devastation, the same emotional attachment and need.”

Although he is conscious that the school is an “enormous catalyst”, he is reluctant to judge people’s motivation for coming to church. “If people come, should we care why? Good grief, they are coming through the door. It’s a gift; so respond! And, after all, it’s up to God really. It’s God’s job.”


IN FACT, some families do “stick”, after admissions have been secured. In recent years, Suzanna has championed the musical life of the church, starting both a children’s choir — largely composed of her own children and those of three other families, and rehearsing once a month — and a “middle choir” for parents, who rehearse once a week, in addition to a long-standing “senior” choir. Both are voluntary.

MADELEINE DAVIESPrayer and action: Mollie (left) and Eileen, leading the Mother’s Union meeting

Growing up at Greenstead church, where she sang and learned to play the organ, she believes that it is “really important for children to learn about a range of music and their historical links. . . And I am still really excited that I can teach the middle choir an anthem that’s been being sung for 300 years.” The sheet music itself is often 100 years old, priced at 3d.

Although she thinks that her own children are conscious that their church attendance is unusual among their friends, she feels that Mr Mann’s assemblies, a simplified form of the eucharist, will ensure that, if pupils did attend on a Sunday, the format would not be alien. It is unlikely, she thinks, that a youth group will be established until the children of volunteers reach their teenage years, but she is pleased that children are trained as servers, and that the “brilliant” bell-ringing team has welcomed her eldest daughter and four other young teenagers. The 1200-strong congregation across three Christmas services suggests that “people want the church to continue”, she suggests.

Down the road, in the parish hall — built on land donated by the Courage family, and opened in 1922 in thanksgiving for peace after the First World War — prayers for Malawi are being said by members of the Mothers’ Union. “We were beginning to get the image that all we did was sit and make cakes,” Mollie, who chairs it, explains. “People have no idea that it’s a worldwide organisation and has millions of members.” Yet it has been “shouting about FGM for years”.

This afternoon, we are debating faith in action, putting quotes on the topic in order of preference. There is an overwhelming approbation for the utterances of Mother Teresa (“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love”; “We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.”)

It is a nice echo of Mr Mann’s words to the children in the morning: the possibility of ordinary acts of service. “You don’t allow people to fall between the cracks,” he reminds the room, when members are asked to define how they bring light to the parish.

Nevertheless, Mollie is finding it difficult to keep up with all the people who need visits. The memorial notice of one of her “indoor members”, Win, is prominently displayed on the trestle table in front of her. The most important thing for younger members is “the opportunity to share and talk”, she says, “which is exactly what Mary Sumner set the whole thing up for: to talk over problems.” We each light and take home a tea light, pledging not to “hide our light under a bushel” in Shenfield.


“ST MARY’s is sort of chocolate butterscotch,” Mr Mann says. “It’s firm at the centre, but very difficult to know where the edges are, because it sort of melts into the community.” Among those he sees occasionally are the fathers who attend the Dads’ Network Association, which meets every other month. Politics and fast cars are among the topics of conversation. (His own two-seater Mazda was a 60th birthday present.)

He has noticed that fathers will sometimes come to church on their own, or bring their children (occasionally before flying off to work overseas), and will readily process around the church dressed as shepherds and Wise Men at Christmas. They’re “very community minded”, he says.

Although St Mary’s has attendance numbers that others might envy, he regards debates about how to “save” the Church as “self-obsessed”. “The C of E is a fantastic organisation when it stops thinking about itself,” he explains, over a pint. “The idea of a Christian presence in every community, however difficult, or thin, is a wonderful vision. . .

“We have a fantastic gospel, which is not our own, and we have a distinctive C of E take on how to be a part of this nation. . . Church growth is God’s business. . . Our job is to be in the communities, to be a Christian presence, to live it out and be beacons of hope and love in the community, and no amount of anxiety about the Church of England is going to save it.”


FOR all the marked differences in the social profile of the parishes, visitors to St Mary’s, Shenfield, and St Peter’s, South Shore, would be struck by what they have in common. In both churches the Peace is observed faithfully at a morning mid-week eucharist. The elderly women defined by Dr Abby Day as “Generation A” are prominent in the churches, but they are joined by others in search of community: young mothers at St Mary’s, and young people exploring service and ordination at St Peter’s.

Madeleine Davies/Church Times“A dose of reverence and beauty”: the Priest-in-Charge, Fr Chris Mann

Both churches are led by priests devoted to a geographically defined space, in areas marked by transience: the pull of work in London, the rootlessness of those without family or homes in Blackpool.

The clergy and parishioners in both places were willing to be candid about the challenges and joys of parish life in a society where the place of faith has changed dramatically within the lifetime of the congregation.

Neither church expressed anxiety about the future. Instead I witnessed a commitment to the “ordinary” acts of service celebrated by both the Mothers’ Union and pupils at St Mary’s, and the simple proclamation by the Revd Tracy Charnock 250 miles up the road: “We come together equal before Christ, and Christ blesses us.”

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