EMPOWERING those who have left school with few qualifications and low confidence is part of the Church’s work in coastal communities, a conference at Lambeth Palace heard this week.
Against a backdrop of calls to “liberate” the laity (News, 27 January 2017), clergy serving parishes in deprived seaside towns discussed how training, funding, and theology could serve those who were “shut down” at school, or who were contending with financial hardship.
The discussions took place at Lambeth Palace, at the Coastal Towns Conference, convened by the Renewal and Reform team and attended by 70 clergy, teachers, and lay leaders from coastal communities in 15 dioceses. While emphasising the variety among England’s 174 coastal communities, a strategy analyst at Church House, Tom Conway, drew on data from the Office for National Statistics and the Social Market Foundation to highlight the challenges. Eighty-five per cent of the communities have an average salary below the UK mean, and 25 per cent of the local authorities with the lowest educational levels are on the coast. There are also fewer clergy: 14 priests per 100,000 people, compared with 20 nationally.
At a workshop on leadership, the Team Vicar in the Great Yarmouth Team Ministry, the Revd Jemma Sander-Heys, spoke of an “enormous skills-gap”. Great Yarmouth has the lowest percentage of people with higher-education qualifications in the country: 14.2 per cent, compared with a national average of 27.2 per cent.
She was conscious of a lack of confidence, despite the prevalence of gifts. “People who are fed a vocabulary of failure, and who are warned against taking risks and [are] often put down, will not risk developing their gifts — may even come to believe that there are no gifts in their identity,” she said on Tuesday. “And people who are afraid of risk will warn others of potential risks and failures, perpetuating a climate of anxiety and fear. . . It is a cyclical illness, and only divine hope, supported by community, enables people to break out of that cycle.”
The opportunity to gain work experience at the Pathway Café, run by the Team Ministry, was one of the practical ways that the Church could build confidence, she said, and so was making the Minster “as accessible and open as possible, constantly reminding people from across the community that they are entitled to be there and use that glorious space”. But she heard, too, “a wake-up call to the Church and to the nation that we have reached the point of inequality in society when liberation theology is really what is needed. And the need applies not simply to coastal communities, or ‘parishes like ours’, but to people all across the country.”
Questions of training and theology were explored further during the workshop. William Bullin, of St Leonards-on-Sea, who observed that “people have been shut down in schools from a very early age”, spoke of a need for “people who understand the form of learning which works in those communities. . . A Platonic theology has dominated, and that style really doesn’t enable ordinary local people to say ‘Well, what does that mean when they are trying to shut down my pier?’ or ‘We can’t afford to heat our homes well, or feed our children.’”
Funding for those working for the Church should also be considered, he suggested: “If you want to release young mums to be able to work with mums and toddlers, and there are no wages, there needs to be a mechanism to supplement their income.”
An example of an empowered laity was given by the Revd Nick Nawrockyi, an interim minister at St Francis’s, Cleethorpes, which serves a growing housing estate.
Threatened with closure during the diocese of Lincoln’s now heavily criticised “New Era” strategy (News, 28 September, 2012), it was led by the laity between 2008 and 2016; a priest was occasionally “parachuted” in to preside at the eucharist. “Those eight years were not a time of decline . . . but a time of transfiguration, and a discovery of new life and also the possibilities of every member ministry,”Mr Nawrockyi said.