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Reclaiming the Fens again

16 November 2018

Ely diocese has been granted more than £2 million increase churchgoing in its market towns. Andy Walton reports


Huntingdon town centre

Huntingdon town centre

APPROACHED by train, Huntingdon appears without much fanfare. The flat-as-a-pancake Fenland fields give way to the town very gently. There is none of the awe-inspiring grandeur of Ely near by or Peterborough, with their imposing cathedrals, as you step on to the platform. Neither is there the bustle of Cambridge, with its dynamic mix of academia and business. Alighting at the town on a Sunday in mid-September is a quiet, almost sleepy experience.

As in provincial towns across the country, Sunday seems to mean shopping. Not far from the station is Aldi, its car park filling up even before the doors open. A little further on is Lidl, with a queue of ten or so people waiting for the doors to open at 10 a.m.

But a bit further on from the station, preparations for another opening are taking place. At St Peter’s School — a series of squat 1960s buildings — there is coffee to brew; and there are chairs to put out, and a myriad of other jobs associated with starting a new congregation. What it lacks in aesthetic appeal is compensated for by the warmest of welcomes from the team at this newly minted church-plant: Christ Church, Huntingdon.

A firm handshake from David Casey, the churchwarden, awaits me at the main door. “We’ve got people from all kinds of church backgrounds — very few who, I think, would own the title ‘Anglican’ — who’ve obviously come along this morning and felt very much at home,” he tells me later.

The only paid member of staff, the Minister-in-Charge, the Revd Charlie Newcombe, comes to say hello, fresh from pre-service prayers. “I haven’t got my skinny jeans on today: these ones are quite baggy,” he jokes, a nod to the sartorial reputation of young Evangelical clergy.

Christ Church is, like many plants, born of a big city-centre church: St Andrew the Great, Cambridge, where Mr Newcombe was Assistant Curate until this year. It has a committed core of about 30 adults who are helping to get it off the ground.

KEITH HEPPELLThe Revd Charlie Newcombe

What is different is that, instead of planting into an area rich with students, or a middle-class suburb, as has often been the pattern, Christ Church is deliberately placed by the diocese in an area of “relative church weakness”.

“I hadn’t heard of Huntingdon before I moved here,” Natasha Clark, a 26-year-old Australian who is leading worship, says. “My family, no one, understands how I ended up here. Sometimes, I don’t understand how I ended up here; but they’re really excited for us being a part of a church where we feel really loved.” Like most of the planting team, Mrs Clark came via Cambridge to Huntingdon.

Mohammed [not his real name] is a man of South Asian origin who came to faith at St Andrew the Great, and has become part of the planting team.

“I live in Huntingdon, a couple of months now,” he tells me. Like many others, he is making a significant sacrifice to be part of the initiative. “I’m still working in Cambridge. I’m a night porter in a hotel. I have to travel every night from Huntingdon to Cambridge.

“Today, I have the last bus leaving from Huntingdon at half four. But my shift starts at 11 o’clock. . . So, for me, it’s a hard thing to travel . . . but I didn’t sacrifice anything. Christ sacrificed for us — he gave his life. No one is bigger than that.”


THE service at Christ Church follows a format similar to that of many other conservative Evangelical churches. Modern songs are interspersed with notices, prayers, and a testimony slot in which we hear from a forklift driver who described his conversion to Christianity after reading St Mark’s Gospel. The only recognisably liturgical parts of the service are the words of the Common Worship confession and Collect.

About 65 adults and 25 children made up the congregation, and they sing with gusto and chat enthusiastically over Fairtrade coffee afterwards.

Those pioneering the new work at Christ Church are not here just for the short term. They have up-ended their lives, sold houses, moved children out of schools, and made a commitment to their mission by moving en masse to a place that, many freely admit, was not part of their plan.

“It’s hard leaving a place,” Alice Gilbert, says. She is 30, and moved to Huntingdon six weeks before this with her husband, John, and two small boys. John’s commute into Cambridge is a new burden to them. “We’ve had a really happy time in Cambridge, and we’ve got lots of friends there. But we’ve really enjoyed settling here. We really like the town. It’s wonderful as a young family: there’s lots of opportunity to meet other new mums and toddlers.”

The other half of the congregation have not come so far. Junior McDougald, who is 43, was a professional footballer and actor. He now works for Christians in Sport. Because he grew up in the area, he has been drawn to the new plant. “It’s not about religion: it’s about relationship, and getting to know Jesus,” he tells me (that is a phrase on many people’s lips here). “That resonated with me: that was my life story. I wasn’t interested in religion.”

Like others, he is impressed by the commitment of the newcomers. “Being a local lad, you want youngsters to aspire to living and going to places like Cambridge. You’re desperate to get away to embark on careers, from council estates and stuff like that. But to see individuals come from Cambridge — it shows a real heart, and that they’re serious about it. It’s pretty special.”

KEITH HEPPELLChrist Church, Huntingdon, gathers on Sunday


THE plant in Huntingdon is just one element of an ambitious plan for the market towns of Ely diocese, backed by £2.13 million from the Church Commissioners, after a successful bid for strategic development funding (News, 13 July).

The bid document, Changing Market Towns, notes that these places are “facing multiple challenges”, and pledges to turn them “from areas of relative church weakness to relative strength”. Currently, Sunday C of E attendance stands in Wisbech at 0.5 per cent of the population, and in Huntingdon at 0.3 per cent. The average across market towns is 0.9 per cent. Church attendance in Cambridge is three per cent.

Why is it such a challenge to get people through the doors of a church? Canon Mike Booker is the Bishop’s Change Officer, and runs the Market Towns initiative.

“The Church of England does fairly well in small communities, but, in larger places, the link between church and surrounding town is less strong,” he tells me. “We also missed a trick when the new housing estates went up all round our market towns in the post-war housing boom. The assumption was that people could come in to the church in the town centre, but they didn’t.

“Added to that, in the diocese of Ely, all our market towns are well away from the affluent Cambridge area.”



HUNTINGDON, the birthplace of Oliver Cromwell, and is home to 24,000 people, and not obviously a place of deprivation. But alongside the affluent areas containing large detached houses there are parts of the town with significant needs.

“The market towns of the diocese are also areas of relative economic deprivation, separated geographically from the affluence of Cambridge,” the funding bid states. “Isolation and disillusionment was expressed in the overwhelming support for a Leave vote in the 2016 EU referendum, in contrast to levels over 70 per cent for Remain in the south of the diocese.” Huntingdon voted Leave by 54.2 per cent.

St Augustine’s, Wisbech, is one of the most deprived parishes in the country: 30 per cent of children live in poverty. It is in this town that the diocese is planning to establish a Learning Centre “to deliver culturally relevant and geographically accessible lay training and to develop local ordination training”. The town will also have a new pioneer curate, as well as a youth worker.

Plans for Wisbech include a fresh expression (“involving significant numbers of new disciples”) and a “flourishing new congregation on the Waterlees estate”. The school is to have continued funding for a families worker, taking over from the Mothers’ Union.

Sue Squires-Dutton is the present holder of the post, and it can be hard, she says. “The biggest challenge I face is battling against people’s poor perception of Wisbech. Families have low expectations for themselves.” Through after-school clubs, coffee mornings, and one-to-one meetings with families, she is offering pastoral care to people who would not necessarily cross the threshold of a church building.

Will it lead to growth in disciples, though? Ms Squires-Dutton reports already having one baptism — of a member of the school staff — and speaks of being “a consistent and openly Christian presence in the school, nurturing children, guiding and encouraging them in their early steps of faith”.

An evangelism coach will start work in January, Canon Booker confirms. “And much of her brief will be to work alongside clergy and lay workers to make sure that we stay in touch with that process, and link all that we do into a journey of faith-discovery and growing faith.”

Initiatives are also planned for March, Chatteris, Littleport, Ramsey, Downham Market, Ely, Soham, Whittlesey, St Ives, and St Neots. How have the targets set by the diocese filtered down to those on the ground?

Mr Newcombe says that he hasn’t spent a lot of time thinking about it. “I’m not really into numbers,” he tells me. “Something I’ve been really struck by in Ephesians is that it’s the maturity of the body that really needs to grow as well as numbers. We’d love people to join us, but success is faithfulness and fruitfulness.

“I pray that many people will come to know and love the Lord Jesus, but, as ever in harvest work, the results are up to God.”



NEW staff — many of them lay — will use up almost 90 per cent of the £4.36-million cost of Changing Market Towns (in addition to Strategic Development Funding, the diocese is spending £2.23 million). For some clergy, the diocese’s plans will mean change of a different sort. A significant strand is pastoral reorganisation — including the removal of small villages from market-town benefices — and “early exit”.

“Early exit is to allow clergy who are not flourishing to move on,” the bid explains. “This will be a process of negotiation, the outcome of which cannot currently be predicted with certainty. The project financial plan includes sufficient funding to cover a number of outcomes.”

Canon Booker says that he realises that this will not necessarily be popular. Early exit, he says, is “intended for a small number of cases — that’s all we can afford — either where clergy are really struggling with their emotional or physical well-being, and would be grateful for the opportunity to make a change in life, or where major church decline or the urgent desire from a colleague to be able to retire have pointed us to the need to make that possible.

“The housing issue does mean that, in every diocese, there are clergy who would really like the opportunity to step down, but just don’t see how it can be done.”



STRATEGIC Development Funding is a competitive process. Ely is rolling out its plan against a background of Church-wide debate over allocation of resources, models of ministry, and measures of growth.

The Archdeacon of Huntingdon and Wisbech, the Ven. Hugh McCurdy, speaks positively about the prospects for growth, both in new church-plants and in existing congregations. “We’ve got to engage in a new way with people,” he says. “Nobody is saying we’ve got to move away from [standard parish models]; we’ve got to honour the past and look to the future, and engage with people in a new way.”

How are the plans being received in the towns themselves?

Canon Richard Darmody is the Rector of the Ramseys, which will receive a new intern and community mission worker, and seeks to attract 100 new worshippers across fresh expressions and existing churches by 2021. “Our hope is that more people will become disciples of Jesus Christ, and that the parish church will show generosity as it reaches beyond its walls. . .

“As clergy, we feel affirmed, and wish that this sense of vision and commitment to the parish’s mission had come long ago.”

The idea that action should have been taken before now is not lost on Canon Booker. He expresses frustration with the lack of engagement with modern housing estates, pointing out that, in all the market towns of the diocese, only one estate has a church built in it after the Second World War.

When asked why fresh expressions are needed in towns that already have parish churches, he says that much depends on the church. “We’re working with the existing parish church to plant new congregations in each town where there is the strength to support that, and bringing in outside support where the local church cannot provide the strength needed to be a planting base itself.”

The Vicar of St George’s, Littleport, the Revd Howard Robson, is “very excited and hopeful” about the proposed new children-and-families worker. “As the church is no longer the automatic go-to place for many people — two, maybe three generations unchurched — the church now needs to go to them.”



INCREASED funding means increased scrutiny, and Ely had to put numbers into its bid: 3.25 per cent of the population to be “committed to involvement in the life of the Church” by 2025; a 1.5-per-cent increase in attendance at “inherited-mode” churches; and “780 new church attenders across the towns involved” within three years, 370 of whom are expected to attend fresh expressions; and 220 to attend church-plants.

Canon Booker is phlegmatic when asked about the challenge ahead. “There may be an element of transfer growth, but my visits to a number of towns now leave me increasingly convinced that more flourishing churches mean more Christians.

“It’s not just about numbers,” he says, but “numbers are important, because we are looking for numbers of people on a journey of faith, not just numbers on seats.”

It is a concession, and the diocese says that it is looking into qualitative evaluation; but the methods of judging success still seem too blunt a tool, especially listening to churchgoers in the area. Alice Gilbert, whose young family is one of those starting a new life in Huntingdon, says: “It’s tempting to measure success in numbers, but, actually, it’s not about that. It’s about what happens in people’s hearts.

“For me, I’ve got to get to know people and love people first, and share with them the hope that I have.”

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