‘The Church has refound its vigour’

16 November 2018

Madeleine Davies tours Norfolk with the Archbishop of Canterbury

TIM ROGERS

The Archbishop serves fish and chips at Great Yarmouth Minster

The Archbishop serves fish and chips at Great Yarmouth Minster

A COUPLE of months ago, Dominic Lawson speculated in The Sunday Times that Theresa May and Justin Welby had “each ended up where the other was meant to be”.

The Archbishop’s familial ties to Westminster are strong — his mother worked for Churchill, his great-uncle was a cabinet minister, his godfather was a junior minister, and his stepfather was a professional politician — and, accompanying him on a tour of the diocese of Norwich, I am struck by parallels with the campaign trail. There are a school and a hospital to visit, charities to endorse, press opportunities, and empathic conversations about communities under pressure.

The dynamics are different, of course: there are no votes to be won, and he cannot promise changes in policy. But the Archbishop is, as the diocesan Bishop, the Rt Revd Graham James, points out, second only to the royal family in precedence in the country. Self-deprecating humour remains the Archbishop’s hallmark, but, five-and-a-half years into his archiepiscopate, he occupies the public square with increasing confidence, the ire of commentators less water off a duck’s back than a spur to his flanks, it seems.

“Of course it’s right for the Church to speak on these issues,” he tells a BBC journalist during an evening Q&A. “Not to do so is to ignore vast chunks of both the New Testament and Old Testament, and rip them out of our Bibles.”



TIM ROGERSThe Archbishop is grilled by Andrew SinclairTHE diocese of Norwich is, Bishop James observes, like his native Cornwall: not a place that people pass through. A phrase uttered several times during the visit is “living on the edge” — incidentally the title of a recent Social Market Foundation report, which warned that the economic gap between coastal and non-coastal communities had widened over time, and low employee pay was “pervasive”. There are fewer clergy, too: 14 priests per 100,000 people, compared with 20 nationally (News, 27 April).

The St Nicholas’s Minster, Great Yarmouth, is both the largest parish church in the country and one of the most deprived parishes, ranking 124 out of 12,599, according to the Church Urban Fund. Two-fifths of children live in poverty, and the same proportion of adults have no qualifications.

At the Pathway Café, a Minster initiative, 60 people have already been served lunch: chicken curry or meatballs. On some days — lunch is offered three times a week — it is up to 100. It is a sight replicated across the country, not least in seaside towns, where churches are in some cases providing meals seven days a week (News, 1 December 2016).

Among those at the café today is Dzingi, originally from Swaziland, who moved to Great Yarmouth from London, where his asthma was worsening. “I like it, but I don’t like what is going on,” he explains. “There’s a lot of drugs and alcohol on the streets, and the police just seem to tolerate it.”

He’s baffled as to why children of ten or 11 are hanging around late at night, rather than at home, and notes too the lack of industry: “things just seem to close.”

The Team Rector of Great Yarmouth, Canon Simon Ward, was born in the parish. He is conscious of “colossal levels of deprivation, low levels of educational achievement, and poor levels of aspiration among young people.

“When you grow up in a community like this you do feel on the edge, like you are being pushed to the side,” he reflects. Many people who attend Pathway have held down all sorts of jobs, he adds, “and then something happens. It is a very fine line.”

Great Yarmouth was one of the pilots for the roll-out of Universal Credit in early 2016, the Archbishop tells me. The impact, Canon Ward says, has been “predictable”. The Eastern Daily Press published a two-year evaluation earlier this year: a rise in arrears was among the complaints. The council has reported “a worrying development in bullying behaviour” among private landlords. Its budget for housing support has been more than halved.

At an allotment run by the charity the Bread Kitchen, Mike Smith-Clare, the charity’s co-founder and a Labour county councillor, speaks of “cases of rickets” and “pre-Victorian living con­­­­ditions”.

It is encounters such as this, I think, that underpin the Archbishop’s political confidence. Stories make their way into speeches. Speaking to clergy in Lowestoft that evening, he admits that the day has brought home to him “the reality of evil”, from children at risk to those families “that are just battered from generation to generation: they are living right on the edge; anything small could tip them from difficulty to disaster.”

To the BBC journalist, who wants to know what has “depressed” him, he says: “It is pain, sorrow; just seeing what a mountain of suffering there is in so many places . . . and how the structure and unfairness of much [of what] we do in our economy and society is adding to that.”

 

IT IS easy to fall into the clichés of “faded grandeur” in places such as Great Yarmouth. Along the seafront lies the last surviving Victorian seaside cast-iron-and-glass winter gardens in the UK: one of our most at-risk buildings, the Victorian Society says, and in need of a commercial investor.

But there’s also a “really beautiful” boating pond, Ward points out, and Venetian waterways boosted by a £1.7m Lottery award. Tourism is still the biggest sector, responsible for almost a third of local employment, and, although visitor numbers have fallen from their 1970s peak, they still stand at five million.

At St Andrew’s, Lowestoft, the change manager for Lowestoft Rising, Phil Aves, formerly a police superintendent, believes that talking down the town (“extensively shabby, drab, and deprived, with little cheer on the horizon”, a Guardian guide states) is part of the problem: “We started to tell our children that it was not very nice to be here.”

TIM ROGERSThe Archbishop surveys coastal erosion, from the tower of St Mary’s Happisburgh

Established in 2013 in anticipation of “a public sector system about to come under enormous cuts and already not coping”, Lowestoft Rising is a partnership between the police, council and NHS and seeks to “encourage young people to aim high and think big”.  A main component has been bringing schools and employers in the area together, emphasising that jobs are within reach of school-leavers, some of whom have never left the town.

The charity’s website observes that “considerable resources” have gone into tackling the town’s problems, perhaps “inadvertently creating greater dependency and dis-empowerment”. People kept “doing things to” Lowestoft, Mr Aves said.

It’s a distinction — being with people rather than paternalistically doing things to them — that the Archbishop will reflect on later. The extent of the Church’s social-action projects — 13,100 at the last count (News, 9 November) — has prompted him to conclude this month that “We are doing more to love and help people in need than at any time since 1945.”

Whether this is cause of celebration or an indictment of government policy remains a fraught question. A report launched at Lambeth Palace last year challenged Christians to stop “hand-wringing and despairing” about the fraying condition of the welfare state, warning that “the danger is that, for all their growing social impact, churches become defined more by what they believe about the State’s role than what they believe about their own.” (News, 24 November 2017).

The Archbishop — who likes to warn that, “if Jesus isn’t at the centre of the church, we are simply Rotary with a pointy roof” — is impressed by a church that “engages people at their point of need, but being with them, not doing things to them, and is not ashamed of Jesus Christ. . . Far from being near the end of its existence, it has refound its vigour and compassion.” The clergy whom we meet certainly convey energy and confidence.

This is also true of the Archbishop’s own interactions outside church settings, and it is striking that, although just 1.6 per cent of people in Norwich can be found in church on a Sunday, he commands visible respect. Every venue is packed. He is applauded and waved off, and is occasionally asked for selfies. At Caister lifeboat station, when the Rector asks that people bow their heads in prayer, all respond dutifully.

But there are also signs that the country has changed in his lifetime. At Peterhouse C of E Primary Academy, in Gorleston, he takes care to preface his remarks with “Christians believe . . .”.

In recent years, concerns about low levels of educational achievement in coastal communities have been voiced, but Peterhouse is a success story. Placed in Special Measures in 2010, when teachers’ low expectations of pupils were among the concerns, it has since become a Church of England Academy, and this year secured a “Good” rating. OFSTED noted a “dramatic improvement”.

Getting the school’s culture and values right has been crucial, the head teacher, Ryan Freeman, explains. The proportion of disabled pupils and those who have special educational needs is more than twice the national average, and 60 per cent qualify for free school meals, compared with a national average of 13.7 per cent. A full-time safeguarding officer is employed, and there is even a school farm.

The school’s values, introduced in an assembly carefully prepared by pupils, include compassion, hope, and courage. Christians believe, the Archbishop explains, that “all these different values come from knowing Jesus.”

His sermon begins with stories about his “very stupid” dog, Bramble, to peals of laughter.

At St Mary’s, Happisburgh, life on the edge is a literal description. Coastal erosion threatens the church’s very existence: it has already outlived a prediction made in 1836 that it would be “engulphed in the ocean” by the 1950s.

The Archbishop offers a prayer of lament followed by the tolling of a single bell, and then a prayer of celebration, followed by a peal. He is full of praise for the “clear-sighted” Rector, the Revd Catherine Dobson.

The sea is both a giver and a destroyer of life. Fishing may have declined and the nation’s taste for “silver darlings” (herrings) may have faded — it used to be possible to cross the river at Great Yarmouth by walking from deck to deck of the fishing boats — but powerful sea winds mean that renewable energy is bringing new opportunities. Earlier this year, it was announced that Lowestoft would be the site of a £2.5-billion offshore wind farm.

TIM ROGERSThe Archbishop meets the volunteer lifeboat- men at Caister

The first people to follow Jesus were fishermen, and the peril of the waves, their elemental power, lends a natural quality to prayer for those facing them. Blessing the lifeboat at Caister, the Archbishop addresses God as the one who “rules over the seas”. A row of men in oilskins listen respectfully.

 

AT THE end of a relentless 14-hour schedule, the Archbishop shows no signs of flagging. Whether it is planting a shrub in a community allotment, or serving ufish and chips, he looks genuinely delighted. Whizzing along country lanes in the autumn light, he exclaims at the beauty of the churches that suddenly emerge from the flat fields. (“Glorious — that sense of space!”)

When asked at the end of the second day what has given him hope during his visit, he replies: “Almost everything.”

The question comes from Andrew Sinclair, a political correspondent for BBC Radio’s Look East, and interlocutor for the conversation “Archbish and Fish”, which has attracted a full crowd at the Minster.

There is little that the Archbishop has not been asked many times before: “Isn’t attendance declining?” “Is the C of E now the Labour Party at prayer?” The dynamic is not dissimilar to that of a government minister being grilled, gently, by a lobby correspondent.

I wonder what the repeated questioning about political engagement says about the Church’s place in the country, and how it’s understood by the public. A recent column in The Guardian by Simon Jenkins provides a provocative quote for Mr Sinclair: “God and the supernatural in all forms should be ruthlessly divorced from politics.” There is applause when the Archbishop suggests that Jenkins is “a brilliant writer but totally wrong”.

What about the suggestion, based on the percentage of residents ticking “No religion”, that Norwich is the country’s most godless city? Does it worry him?

“It is not my job,” the Archbishop insists. “My job is to deal with the present, and the future is God’s problem.” But, praising the diocese’s “utterly brilliant” Bishop, he speaks of a growth in attendance in the city since 2013.

“Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly to venture on wider seas where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars,” reads the diocese’s Mission Strategy 2021 Prayer.

“You cannot get away from God by being godless,” the Archbishop suggests. “It may be secular, but it is not godless. I do lose sleep over some things, but I do not lose sleep over that.” There is laughter and applause when he blames, instead, “too much cheese”. But he adds that his own mistakes are also a cause of occasional insomnia. 

Later, when reflecting on a nation over-awed by the economy — “another God that does things to us, to which we cannot pray and to which we are simply the sacrifice” — he admits that he, too, fell into this trap, during his time in the oil industry, “and it took me years to see how stupid and wrong that was.”

People warm to this confessional side, and there is delight when he makes his trademark self-deprecating jokes — noting, for example, that Archbishop Temple’s book is “a much better book than mine . . . cheaper, too”. It is a sign of someone comfortable in his own skin. I am reminded of his assertion, two years ago, when genetic testing revealed his father’s identity: “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics” (News, 15 April 2016).

He is similarly robust in his rejection of what he describes on the minibus as “golden-age syndrome”, noting that, even in the 1930s, William Temple was being asked why anyone should listen to the Church.

“It sometimes looked grander, but had no more influence than today,” he insists. “The Church’s influence is in the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church through prayer, through love for Jesus Christ and because of that through love for neighbour and enemy. When the Church lives like that it changes the world.”

There will be differences of opinion within the Church about this interpretation of the landscape. Last year, the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, lamented the passing of an era when the Archbishop of Canterbury was greeted by the Prime Minister, and a packed Cenral Hall, on his return to the UK (News, 10 November 2017). Some are impatient for the Church to free itself from the State and disavow claims to influence. The Archbishop is seeking a compromise, perhaps: as comfortable with people on the edge as with those in the corridors of power. Like Temple, he seeks to shape a country that is still willing to listen to him.

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