General Synod: estates evangelism

01 March 2019

‘Renewal starts with the poor’

iStock

A housing estate in south London

A housing estate in south London

ESTATES MINISTRY should be part of dioceses’ planning and their funding bids, and the voices of people on the estates should be heard and heeded, the General Synod has said.

It carried a motion from the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North (Northern Suffragans), committing the Church to a vision of Christian presence on every estate.

Introducing the motion and the Estates Evangelism Group’s General Synod paper, Bishop North first urged members to vote against it “if you are not up for the implications”. He listed examples from church history to prove that “anyone who is serious about the proclamation of the gospel starts with the poor,” from the apostles to St Vincent de Paul. “If we want to see a nation coming back to Christ, it will begin amongst the poor.”

Estates were “joyful places to live and to minister”, but life for residents was getting harder: “The four horsemen of the apocalypse — Universal Credit, low-paid work, food poverty, and austerity — plague many lives.” And the Church had been “pulling away, closing churches, withdrawing clergy”.

The vision was to have a loving, serving, worshipping Christian community on every significant social-housing estate in the nation. This was not “an impossible pipe dream”. A vote in favour of the motion would have implications for every parish, deanery, and diocese in terms of finance, deployment, and training. “It will present awkward challenges to those sitting on historic assets.”

He was “utterly convinced”, he said, that “the renewal of Christian life in our nations is not just possible: it is inevitable. . . because Jesus is Lord, and, since he is Lord, a distracted nation will one day discover anew his beauty and his truth. . . That renewal will begin, as it always does, with the poor. . . The only question left is this. Will the Church of England be there to join in?”

The Revd David Tolhurst (Durham) described arriving, aged 12, at a Baptist church, and being greeted as “one of the kids from the estate”, having attended at the encouragement of his Boys’ Brigade leader. The church nurtured his faith. He and his wife brought up their son on an estate in Darlington. In his deanery today, he said, he had seen a church grow, after children on the estate had their request to join a midweek eucharist met.

On another housing estate, local leaders were being raised up. He read out some quotes from his area. Marjorie, a churchwarden, said: “God is not done with us. We are still here; we are trying to be faithful.” Carol said: “God loves me, and I am starting to believe that and that has changed everything.” Kayleigh spoke of learning that “God has an interest in my life and wants good things for me.”

The Revd Dr Jason Roach (London) mourned the loss of John Richards, who was stabbed and killed a few metres from his front door. Such tragedies had led him to set up a mentoring and leadership scheme in partnership with London City Mission. In estates up and down the country, people who had had no contact with the Christian faith were coming to church, and this shouldn’t be surprising: “When we take the Good News to the poor, they often lap up these promises of beauty out of ashes; joy out of mourning.”

His plea was for careful thinking about measures of success: Sunday attendance was not a good measure: many found it difficult to attend, owing to mental-health issues or childcare challenges; people found themselves “arrested and assaulted and afraid and addicted and stabbed”. A better measure was mid-week discipleship.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullaly, said that the aspiration of the motion would be met only if “we are willing to be changed.” Raising up leaders would mean changing discernment and training, not just providing more flexible pathways, but different ways of funding and investment in educational formation.

Ministry was demanding, and there was a need to think about how to enable families of clergy to stay on estates: “Change really comes about when people remain.” The Synod had a “bias to the liberal middle classes and those that can afford to be there”.

Emily McDonald (C of E Youth Council) wanted to see the the Synod 100 per cent in favour of the motion. She was from Doncaster, one of the most deprived dioceses in the country, and was going through the vocational discernment process. Many of the programmes that she had looked at before were not financially viable. Her parish has two different churches: one affluent middle-class resource church, and one deprived estates church, which had not been given a long-term funding solution. This church needed hope, she said: “It is not an attractive prospect to give up an incumbency in an affluent suburb to go to a financially struggling part of the country.”

It could feel very patronising to “ship in” a middle-class person “who think they understand how it is to live the daily lives of the people in this community.” Many people were not able to fulfil the vocation to ministry, because they “do not fit into a box”. She urged the Synod to support the motion so that people of different backgrounds could fulfil their calling.

The Archbishop of Canterbury supported Bishop North “entirely” about the Synod’s not voting unless it understood and wanted what it was voting for. “We will have, if we vote for this motion, a more successful church. Not bigger, successful, but holier successful . . . It won’t be more sensible but it will be more godly. it won’t be more strategic but it will be more obedient.”

The Synod should not vote for the motion because it signalled virtue: “That is to instrumentalise the estates, when we are not called to do things to or for them, but with them. If we vote for this motion, we will get a different Church.”

This included demanding money from across the Church: “a Church for England and with England, not just the Church of England.” This good work would “bleed” into every part of the country, he said, and “become the reality of the Church of Jesus Christ”. The Church would become “less tidy, less controlled, less comfortable”.

The Archdeacon of Bournemouth, the Ven. Dr Peter Rouch (Winchester) agreed, and said that, when he served in a deprived place in Manchester, people spoke of him carrying out a Good Friday ministry. “No, it was Holy Saturday,” he said.

Chris Pye (Liverpool), a Reader, welcomed the report, but asked whether the Church had time to wait for its conclusions and actions. “We are at the top of the deprivation scale; we have a vision in our church to serve and evangelise our community, but is that going to be sacrificed on the altar of parish share, when time talents and money are used exclusively to raise cash and not to share the gospel?”

The Church needed to show poor parishes how to cope, or they would disappear. “We need help, perhaps not in the diocesan structures: they are too bureaucratic.” He suggested that richer parishes help.

Isabella McDonald-Booth (Newcastle) described an image that inspired her faith every day: a closed church on Byker Wall estate, a deprived estate in Newcastle which had reopened in a former baker’s shop; the elderly were struggling to reach out to the young. Today they were struggling to fit everyone in the bakery. “We looked at the old church — all that space,” she said. They moved back in and pitched a tent to keep the heating in, as the church was so cold.

“Young people kept on and on at us: can you help us?” She continued: “The people are passionate about their estate, but they need hope, and we can give them that. . . If we are serious about our faith, these are exactly the places we need a presence in.” She was saddened that there were so many vacancies on poor estates. She concluded with the words of a young person, who had told her: “Please don’t leave us.”

The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, looked back at a time when churches were first established on newly built estates. There was government willingness to tackle housing need, and the Church’s willingness to respond, he said. Those now-forgotten clergy, Readers, and Sunday-school teachers presented love and care. “We need to seek out ways to renew that spirit of human value. They did it then: let us do it now.”

In a maiden speech, Jacqueline Stamper (Blackburn) supported the motion and the resources to carry it out. She was a churchwarden of two of the most deprived parish estates in the diocese. “I would like to focus on the leadership strand. I am excited that dioceses such as Blackburn, Liverpool, and Manchester are active in estates ministry . . . but here is the challenge: who is to decide on the spending?” Confidence needed to be built to take on leadership in estates parishes.

The Revd Mark Murthen (London) grew up on the Ferry Lane council estate in Tottenham, as a member of a Roman Catholic family. When the parish priest stopped holding mass in the community centre, sending a van instead to pick people up, that meant something, he said. There was no contact from the C of E school, even though it was much closer.

Today, things were different. On the estate on which he had trained in Chelsea, there were two worshipping communities, including a church-plant. Middle-class Christians had chosen to leave other places to be part of that community, and “get stuck in”. It was supported by a wealthy church in partnership with the diocese. It had been a “wonderful training ground”, he said.

Canon Kate Wharton (Liverpool) wanted to encourage dioceses to “share stories of life and hope, which can be seen in the most deprived communities”. There was a need to find culturally appropriate ways to minister and spread the Good News.

The Revd Professor Martin Gainsborough (Bristol) said that there was a need to “think radically” about deployment. There had been a pattern of withdrawal from estates: four stipends had become four half-stipends in one area in his diocese, without comparable retreats from wealthier parts of the city. “Are we willing to take the difficult decisions to deploy there rather than here — even in face of opposition, which is highly likely?”

Heather Black (York) recalled that, in February 2016, the Bishop of Burnley, in arguing that the C of E did not have a Christian presence in every community, had referred to the Brambles Farm and Thorntree estates in Middlesbrough. The good news was that this was changing: a couple of years ago, they had made a commitment to meeting to pray on this estate every day. “The Holy Spirit was stirring many hearts. We were no longer going to accept a situation that tens of thousands of people have no church or effective Christian presence.”

Fr Terry had pitched a tent in church, fasted, and prayed, and, through “quite miraculous provision”, a van was provided, and since then he had been out on the estate three times a week, sharing coffee and Jesus. They were looking forward to the arrival of Church Army evangelists to build on these foundations.

Canon Rosemarie Mallett (Southwark) served in the parish of Angell Town, in Brixton. She wanted to draw attention to the importance of working in partnership with others, particularly schools. “We are not alone in this work. . . If we think we must do it by ourselves, we will struggle.”

The motion was carried overwhelmingly. It read:

That this Synod, committed to the Church of England’s vocation to be a Christian presence in every community, and noting the historic marginalisation of social housing estates in the policies of both church and nation:

a) commend the vision of the Estates Evangelism Task Group to see a serving, loving and worshipping Christian community on every significant social housing estate in the country;
b) urge every diocese to build ministry and mission on estates into its mission strategies, clergy deployment plans and SDF funding bids; and
c) give thanks for the Christian leadership offered by people from estate communities and calls upon the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners and the NCIs, through their work under the Renewal and Reform programme, to enable the voices of people from estates and other marginalised communities to be heard and heeded in the life of the Church of England.


Click here to read about other General Synod debates and motions

Forthcoming Events

21-22 February 2020
Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature
For 2020 the Bloxham festival celebrates ‘The Power of Love’. Book tickets

26 March 2020
Theology Slam Live Final
Competition opens in November - more details coming soon. Read about the 2019 final

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)