Small-church network launched in deprived parts of Manchester diocese

14 December 2018

Church attendance in these areas has historically been low

DIOCESE OF MANCHESTER

Dr David Walker (third from left), with, on his left, the Revd Ben Woodfield, and the Revd John Brett, with other guests, at the launch of the Antioch Network, last month

Dr David Walker (third from left), with, on his left, the Revd Ben Woodfield, and the Revd John Brett, with other guests, at the launch of the Antioch...

A NETWORK charged with creating 16 small churches in deprived parts of the diocese of Manchester, where church attendance has historically been low, was launched at the end of last month at St Bride’s, Old Trafford.

The Antioch Network will come under the Church of England’s first diocese-wide Bishop’s Mission Order (BMO). Its churches will support each other, and also parish churches who wish to plant congregations of their own in similar contexts.

The two priests who will lead the network were licensed at the launch: the Revd John Brett, who served his title at Holy Trinity Platt, Rusholme, and the Revd Ben Woodfield, a pioneer curate at St Paul’s, Astley Bridge.

Mr Woodfield, who planted Oldhams Church in 2016 (News, 11 May), said that the aim was to create small congregations — “once you get to 30 or 40 adults you don’t want to get any bigger” — and nurture local lay leadership, to “give people space to grow in their own skills”.

At Oldhams, people who were new to church had been encouraged by seeing other newcomers joining in: “When someone stands up and is giving it a shot, someone else can come in and say ‘Maybe I could find my place here.’”

Another lesson, he said, had been “complete reliance on prayer. . . We didn’t really know what we wanted — we had lots of different ideas, and felt God asked us to put all that down and see what he was doing, and that has been true throughout.” The majority of people had joined Oldhams through “word of mouth”, including “a whole bunch of atheists”.

Although the BMO means that parish priests will not be able to “veto” a plant, Mr Woodfield emphasised that the network sought to work alongside existing churches: “We want to complement one another; we don’t want to be doubling up on anything. . . We are not going to wage war and arrive in someone’s parish if they really don’t want us to.” He said that parish priests would be encouraged to approach the Network for support and access to training.

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The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, said that before establishing the BMO, a consultation had taken place, and 40 parish churches had expressed an interest in working with the network.

Statistical data had highlighted that, in some areas, the Church had a “very poor reach”, including outer council estates with a mainly white working-class population, who felt “let down by Government and all sorts of institutions”, and multi­cultural, multi-ethnic areas. The Antioch Network would “reach out” into these areas with a “strongly relational” approach that was “very incarnational”.

Many of these areas would not be able to afford a stipendiary priest, Dr Walker said, and lay leadership would be an important element of the network.

The aim is to create 16 small churches (defined as “people, not buildings”) over the next six years, in the poorest areas and in those that currently have the lowest church attendance.

The Church Commissioners are investing £1 million from the Strategic Development Fund to support this work (News, 12 July 2018).

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