IN 2013, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, told the General Synod about his former parish on a large Hartlepool estate, which had been vacant for more than two years.
“Compare that with a recent vacancy in a richly endowed parish near Paddington, which attracted 123 firm applicants, and you will see the true measure of the spiritual health of the Church of England,” he said.
Five years later, he believes that, after years of being complicit in the abandonment of estates, the Church of England is “back”.
“The Holy Spirit is doing amazing things on the estates of this nation, and we are joining in,” he told a meeting of the National Estate Churches Network at St Francis at the Engine Room, on Wednesday.
Launching a strategy that includes an aspiration to have a “thriving, growing, loving church on every significant estate in the country”, he highlighted new church-plants, including Freedom Church, planted by St Paul’s, Marton, on the Mereside estate in Blackpool (News 4 August 2017); Oldhams Church, in Bolton (News 11 May); and St Cuthman’s, on the Whitehawk estate in Brighton (News 11 November 2016).
Recent visits to theological colleges had left him “overwhelmed by the enthusiasm that many of them have to serve in areas of deprivation”.
Speaking a week after the Prime Minister acknowledged that social housing had been “pushed to the edge of the political debate”, he suggested that estates had “taken a real hammering” over the years.
“Residents suffered disproportionately from the economic crash, places of engagement such as shops, pubs, and children’s centres had disappeared, housing stock had been allowed to deteriorate, and many estates dwellers felt marginalised and overlooked.” Evidence that the Church was “complicit” in this included the closing of estates churches and the withdrawal of clergy over the past 20 years.
Shortly after the announcement that she was to be the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman recalled that, growing up on a London council estate, “Church didn’t touch our lives. . . The only church on the estate had a big fence; so I had nothing to do with it.”
Things had changed, Bishop North said this week. He noted increased morale among “remarkable church leaders” on estates — “skilled at relationships, not typically Alpha-male leaders” — and noted that individual dioceses were also doing “very imaginative stuff” through funding provided by the Church Commissioners.
Recent strategic development grants include £1.54 million given to the diocese of Blackburn for its work on outer estates (News 15 December 2017). Last week, it launched M:Power, a school of urban leadership, at St James’s, Lower Darwen, which was “a year of focused formation aimed at people from non-professional backgrounds who have the capacity to lead and plant, but the sort of people the Church has all too often overlooked”. Similar schemes are planned in London and Birmingham.
Bishop North has previously spoken of the need for people who could “sing the gospel to the local people in a language they could understand” (News, 14 December 2017). This week, he rejected a “false binary” of either middle-class people serving on estates or raising up leaders from within them.
Other grants include £2.14 million for a project in Manchester to establish 16 new small churches on estates and in deprived communities (News 13 July), and £1.69 million towards Exeter’s plan to reach the 19,000 people who live in the outlying older estates of west Plymouth (News 10 August).
Having warned last summer that church-planting was creating a “white middle-class graduate Church for white middle-class graduates” (News, 11 August 2017), Bishop North noted that the Vicar of Holy Trinity, Brompton, the Revd Nicky Gumbel, had “recently expressed his desire that every HTB Resource Church should plant as quickly as possible into an estate”.
Acknowledging that many plants came from Charismatic Evangelical churches, Bishop North suggested on Tuesday that, while “the Evangelical establishment needs to be aware of the way in which Catholic evangelism is different”, there was a “pipeline problem” among Catholics in the Church, despite the fact that church- planting was “absolutely the DNA” of the Catholic tradition. “It is something we really urgently need to recover.”
This week’s strategy has been produced by the Estates Evangelism Task Group (News 14 October 2016). Among the four strands is “Theology and the public voice”. Bishop North suggested on Tuesday that there was a danger of “simply not connecting to the needs and aspirations” of people living on estates, and “teaching a gospel that does not make sense to them”. It was not a question of “middle-class people bringing Jesus to the estates”, because “Jesus is there.”
Six pairs of theologians and estates practitioners have been commissioned to work on a theological foundation over the course of two years. Among them is the Revd Dr Carlton Turner, a tutor at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham.
“Ministry on estates pushes the boundaries of language and doctrine,” Dr Turner said on Tuesday. “Such uncharted territories, where the Church is familiar yet very strange, force us to re-examine what we mean by cross, glory, repentance, or lament. In such a context, such words or concepts are stripped of their privileged position within formal theological discourse and are forced to be re-encountered: the Jesus story is forced to be reread.”
The power of ministry on estates was to be found here, he suggested. “Ultimately, we are forced to re-imagine church again. So, do estates need a distinct theology? Not so much. I think that theology needs the distinctiveness of estates, so that it remains lively and sharp. Theology, in my mind, needs estates as much as estates need theology.”
Another strand concerns leadership and vocations. Bishop North has previously raised concerns about bias in the selection process (News, 27 April).
“What we really want to do is enthuse,” he said on Wednesday. “I spent most of my ministry as a parish priest on large estates, and I did so not because I am some hair-shirted hero, but because I loved every second of it.”
The plan envisages both plants and help for existing estate churches to grow. “A church might not necessarily mean a building,” Bishop North said. “I mean a joyful, Christ-centred community of people who exist to serve and proclaim. . . If we can share the good news of Jesus on the estates through our service and our compassion, then the whole nation will sit up and notice.”
The strategy includes plans to “engage with Government and structures of power”.
Last week, Theresa May became the first Prime Minister to address the annual meeting of the National Housing Federation, where she announced an extra £2 billion of funding for housing associations.
“For many people, a certain stigma still clings to social housing,” she suggested. “Some residents feel marginalised and overlooked, and are ashamed to share the fact that their home belongs to a housing association or local authority. And, on the outside, many people in society — including too many politicians — continue to look down on social housing, and, by extension, the people who call it their home.”
In a response, a correspondent to The Guardian argued that, “the depressingly long waiting-lists for social housing occur because most people in housing need view social housing as the great prize, not a stigma.”
The Revd Linda Tomkinson, is a Pioneer Minister at Freedom Church, Mereside, in Blackpool.
“WE FOCUS a lot on building relationships and spending time with people on the estate, particularly connecting over hobbies,” she says. The week begins on Sunday at 7 a.m., when she sets up a prayer tent at the local car-boot sale, followed by a “very relaxed, informal eucharist service” at the community centre in the afternoon. Other activities include a community gospel choir — “a great way to see confidence being raised and reaching out to the community” — which has led to people being baptised and confirmed; Men and Shed — “they make stuff with wood”— and a Bible study and youth group.
Two and a half years ago, a single neighbour joined Mrs Tomkinson and her husband for a service in their living room. Today, up to 35 people attend on a Sunday. Having grown up a council estate, she is conscious of bringing an understanding of “how tough life can be. . . We deal a lot with people who have issues with their families; so we focus on church family. That is massively important for people.”
She believes that a change is taking place in the wider Church: “It would have been so easy to just amalgamate our estate into another parish. . . But they have decided instead to invest in something which they know may not ever make a full parish share.” Today, she finds that people are visiting, aware that “estate churches are rich in mission and fresh ideas”.
The Blackpool Ministry Experience is run from the estate, and last week three young people moved in. Local leaders are also being encouraged. Lack of confidence arises, she says, “because we are dealing with people who have faced rejection and judgement in lots of different walks of life. . . It is important to say, ‘You are worth something, and you are more than capable.’ The adversity they have had to deal with in their lives has taught them life skills that people with an easy life have never had to face. The resilience they already carry is incredible: it is just being able to shape that.”
The Church’s motto is “Everyone is welcome; nobody is perfect; and everything is possible.”
The Revd Steve Tennant is the Assistant Curate of St Cuthman’s, Whitehawk, in Chichester diocese, one of the most deprived parishes in the country. Five years ago, 25 people from St Peter’s, Brighton, established a church-plant there; today, about 70 adults and 25 children and young people worship on a Sunday, of whom about half live on the estate.
He is conscious of a historical perception that the Church “either wasn’t open or was not approachable”, and believes that, now, “people’s hearts are really warm towards the Church. . . I feel like we are passing the test of time. A lot of things have come into communities like this and spent the money they have and then gone out after couple of years. We have been here for five.”
Churches considering planting onto estates should “get to know your community, fall in love with it, work out what are the real needs within that community and in looking to meet those needs bring Jesus into the heart of it,” he suggests.
“We need to be confident and to re-interpret those ways that we have done church [before] to both both authentic . . . but also to be approachable and engaging to the communities we live in. . . having the confidence to try new things, be willing to fail and learn lessons and then go again.”
He recommended “taking enough risks as you reach out to be willing to try things and allow God’s spirit to move.”
Here more about this story on the Church Times Podcast: