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A gospel big enough for Byker

10 May 2019

Madeleine Davies visits a church on an estate in Newcastle which is enlarging the place of its tent

North East News and Pictures

From left to right: Phil Medley, Dave Johnson, Phillip James, and Canon Stephen Herbert, at St Michael’s, Byker, last month

From left to right: Phil Medley, Dave Johnson, Phillip James, and Canon Stephen Herbert, at St Michael’s, Byker, last month

IN THE 1990s, Byker, in Newcastle, was familiar to millions of British children through Byker Grove, a BBC drama that tackled difficult subjects — drugs, abuse, homophobia — through the lives of a group of teenagers at a youth club that was run by beloved stalwart “Geoff”.

Whether it would still be standing today, after almost a decade of austerity, is uncertain. Last week, a parliamentary Select Committee warned that local authority children’s services were at “breaking point”. Cuts to Newcastle City Council have been twice the national average since 2010, and today it is battling a £20-million funding gap in the midst of an “unprecedented” rise in demand for children’s services: a 41-per-cent increase in the number of children requiring assessment, help, and protection over the past year alone. Between 2011 and 2018, funding per person under 18 fell by 40 per cent.

Addressing the General Synod’s debate on estates evangelism in February (Synod, 1 March), Izzy McDonald Booth, a fund-raiser for St Michael with St Lawrence, Byker, quoted a young person who had told her: “Please don’t leave us.”

She told the Synod about “hungry kids, bored teenagers, young adults who had few employment prospects”, a council that had removed all youth work and reduced social work, and police “reluctant to get involved in what they see as petty crime which plagues the neighbourhood”.

But she also described a striking image: a tent pitched in the middle of the “gutted nave” of the parish church, zipped up against the cold, and housing a congregation that had outgrown the disused bakery to which it had migrated. She spoke of young people interrupting orderly meetings (“We hope you’re not deciding what we need without us”), and an “energetic and passionate priest” who had a “huge heart for the marginalised”.

THE Revd Phil Medley, Vicar of St Michael with St Lawrence, laughs when I ask whether he is the priest referred to (“I don’t know”). When he arrived in Byker in 2013, the congregation was keen to move from the former bakery — now known as the St Michael’s Centre — up to the church. Built in 1862, its hilltop location offers a panoramic view across to the Tyne Bridge. Up until the 1980s, it had a large congregation — but redevelopment changed things.

In the 1960s, Byker was home to 17,000 people, who lived in back-to-back terraces. In the years to come, these were razed to make way for a huge regeneration project, which had the Byker Wall, designed by Ralph Erskine, at its heart. Stretching for more than a mile and designed to shield the estate from a motorway that was never built, it feels imposing, even daunting, from the outside — like the ramparts of a castle. But inside, you feel embraced by it, stepping into a settlement of brightly coloured, low-rise homes, with plenty of greenery.

ALAMYThe Byker Wall

As documented by the writer and historian Anna Minton, the council was not blind to the potential for dislocation in the early days of this regeneration. Wilfrid Burns, Newcastle’s city planning officer in 1963, foresaw a “devastating effect on the social groupings built up over years”, but concluded that this might be for the best, “when we are dealing with people who have no initiative or civic pride”.

By 1976, fewer than 20 per cent of the former residents were living on the estate. Mr Medley suspects that many of the former members of the congregation of St Michael’s were among those who left.

Meanwhile, the decline of local industry pushed up unemployment, and, in turn, deprivation and anti-social behaviour. The parish is numbered 73 out of 12,508 in the Church Urban Fund’s poverty rankings: 54 per cent of children live in poverty, and 37 per cent of people have no qualifications.

A community noticeboard outside the Metro station displays posters related to crime, including information about iWitness, a scheme set up by the Byker Community Trust, which can send a “professional witness” within 30 minutes.

The church building still receives “lots of abuse”, Mr Medley says, and there have been some “hairy moments” in youth work. “We’ve got to know the police quite well.”

BUT residents, including Mr Medley (who lives in a flat near by rather than the large house once occupied by the incumbent), express affection for the estate, which won the Great Neighbourhood Award from the Academy of Urbanism two years ago. The Byker Community Trust — a registered social landlord that took over running the estate in 2012 — seeks to invest more than £40 million in improvements by 2025.

Phillip James, a churchwarden of St Michael’s, who works for UNLOCK, which specialises in evangelism in urban areas, arrived after undergoing major surgery that affected his throat and shook his confidence.

“I stopped shouting at God and blaming God . . . and I came here,” he recalls. “I love being with the community and people.” He feels particularly called to spend time with “folk on the ground who might be afraid to come into church”.

“I love Byker — I always have,” says Jacqui Gilchrist, another churchwarden of St Michael’s, who has lived on the estate since 1982 and praises the close-knit quality of the community.

North East News and PicturesThe nave of St Michael’s, Byker, which contains a temporary marquee in which services take place

“It’s not all about money,” she observes. “I love the flat that I live in. . . It was like a little palace compared to all of the back-to-back houses, with all of the problems that we had. I love the heating system. I love the fact that the properties are light and airy.”

This year, for the second time, she is standing as an independent councillor (“the councillors seem to have forgotten us”). Discussing anti-social behaviour, she tells the story of the “notorious” Anthony Kennedy, known as the “Byker rat boy”, who hid in the Wall’s heating shafts when running from police during the 1990s. Last year, he was jailed for his 37th burglary.

School exclusions are not helping, she argues: “The school kind of wash their hands of them. But you cannot put kids on the scrap heap before they’ve even left to make their mark. . . What would you provide for young people who are not academically minded but who love tinkering? . . . Once you get a label of a bad parent or a horrible kid, there’s no getting past that sometimes.”

Nobody gets turned away by St Michael’s, though. “Why would we? Where would they go? . . . We’ve got not a lot, but it’s amazing what you can do with a cup of tea, a cup of hot chocolate, and a listening ear.”

IF IT came down to choosing between funding youth work and restoring his Victorian church building, Mr Medley would be tempted to opt for the former. For the past three years, MINE (Mission Initiative Newcastle East — set up under a Bishop’s Mission Order since 2010 — which brings together St Martin’s, St Silas, St Michael’s and St Anthony of Egypt), has employed Dave Johnson to coordinate this work. This year, enough money has been raised to run a DJ school

Like Mr Medley, Mr Johnson lives on the estate. He is candid about the challenges of the work: on one occasion, he had a rib broken, and he is aware that the older teenagers who come to the centre have been judged to be “unengagable by anyone”. Two days after the Church Times visit, he lamented on Twitter that a session with a bus, specially designed for youth work, had been “hijacked” by a small group “throwing stuff, trying to break the bus, harassing families”.

NORTH NEWS AND PICTURESFrom left to right: Canon Stephen Herbert, Dave Johnson, Phillip James, and Phil Medley, at St Michael’s

But he and his wife, Jen, are in it for the long haul. “The really good thing is, we’re the church — we are here whether we get the outcomes on the funding bids or not, which is just really freeing. Even if my role disappears, and all the volunteers disappear, we’ll still be living here; so we’ll still see them out and about.”

Much of his time is spent out and about on the estate. The gospel has to be “big enough for the young people we are with”, he says.

“These kids have experienced so much evil in their day-to-day life, some of which they cause to each other, but some of which is done to them. The whole light-and-darkness thing is really important. . . They don’t know if, when they go out, the wrong group of kids are going to be there, or whether their parents will be in the right mood. One went away, and, when she came back, her house had been torched. . .

“It makes the whole ‘Jesus loves you’ thing sound really trite. ‘You are a sinner and Jesus forgives your sin.’ Well, great, and they are aware. But ‘You are in a very broken world, and Jesus is God with us in that’ is a much more pressing bit of good news, I think — not to get rid of sin and forgiveness, but to regain those lost bits of the gospel.”

He has also been reflecting on visibility: “How much, in the Bible, Jesus looks at people — that idea of being looked at. . . There are so many young people who are really hesitant to give you their name, because they think you’ll grass them up; or they want to hide their face because what they are doing is shameful, and they kind of know it. But we are committed to knowing as many people as possible by name and apologising when we don’t know that.”

Justice resonates, too, “being able to say: ‘That thing that you experienced or saw, actually, God hates that, too,’ and redeeming the language of ‘God hates something.’”

The impact of the work isn’t always visible on the surface, he adds: a journey of faith may be “bubbling under the surface”, but the young people “really feel valued here. They feel from the congregation that they are welcome, they won’t be judged, they can be who they are.”

ALISHA MITCHISON, 20, is coming to the end of her first year of studying Mission and Ministry, with a focus on youth and sport, at Cliff College. She wants to “use sport to get kids into church”.

It is a hard task: for many, “they are just not interested.” Children associate church with “sitting down, reading the Bible, listening to sermons”, and attending would bring a risk of being bullied, because “that’s not what happens — it’s not the culture any more.”

Her explanation why it was different for her is simple: “I found Jesus.” But the Johnsons played a “massive part”, too. When Miss Mitchison started going to a house group at their house, she had no prior experience of church. She went to some Scripture Union camps with them, but remembers that she would “never ask any questions — even if I didn’t understand”. Mrs Johnson was the exception.

She recommends: “Just having people who love Jesus, who love young people, just constantly doing things, even if they get rejected and people are horrible to them, just keeping going. You need to be persistent.”

ST MICHAEL’S, BYKERAlisha Mitchison (left) at an activity centre with young people from Byker

Miss Mitchison was baptised in 2017 and preached at St Michael’s on Mothering Sunday (“My knees were going, I was so nervous”). It was 12 years since her brother had died: “It got me thinking about how his mam was feeling.” She preached about those for whom the day was difficult, including children in care. “Nobody thinks about them, about things like that,” she observes. “Everyone has different home situations.”

Mr Medley believes that Miss Mitchison will get ordained one day. She has already completed a one-year internship doing youth work with Mr Johnson, and both he and Mr Medley are quick to volunteer that she’s better equipped than them to reach the young people in the area.

“The kids are more my age, and I know how rough it is to grow up in that area,” she agrees. She wonders whether the Church needs to become “more modern” to appeal to them, observing that “Some kids can’t sit and listen for ages.”

When it comes to scripture, she has come to see the story of Jonah as a good teaching aid.

“If you read it, he realises what he’s done,” she explains. “He says sorry. If, when you are working in a place like Byker, and a kid’s naughty, you just shout at them, that’s not going to work. You have to sit down and talk to them, and try to get them to work out what they have done wrong and apologise. That’s the only way it’s going to work.”

She quotes the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself.

THE Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, has challenged the Church of England to reckon with its history of withdrawing from estates (News, 11 August 2017). The diocese of Newcastle could “easily” have shut down St Michael’s, Mr Medley observes; and yet it has maintained support, not least in clergy numbers. Today, between 40 and 50 people attend church on a Sunday, about half of whom are under 30.

“When you look at the congregation, you think, ‘This could come to pieces if one or two families moved out,” he says. “But that fragility is a bit of a gift; it keeps you on your toes, and open to what God might be doing here.”

A challenge in a parish in this context, not captured by Statistics for Mission, is that Sunday attendance isn’t possible for everyone: people may be working, sometimes at more than one job.

Two years ago, St Michael’s was granted £200,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund for urgent repairs to the roof and guttering. But the remaining fund-raising challenge is, you sense, a weight on Mr Medley’s shoulders.

NORTH NEWS AND PICTURESPhillip James, at a craft area at St Michael’s, Byker

It will take about £250,000 to restore St Michael’s fully, and he is conscious that the wells that can be tapped in more wealthy parishes — through local fairs and fetes, or wealthy contacts — are not in his orbit. It is “mad”, he believes, that funding organisations are as reluctant as they are to support heating — an obvious priority.

A quotation prominently displayed on the wall both at the centre and the church comes from James Hudson Taylor, a Yorkshire-born missionary to China: “There are three stages to every great work of God; first it is impossible, then it is difficult, then it is done.”

Down the road at St Martin’s, Byker, a decision was taken 20 years ago to replace a church built in the 1930s with a new building that also serves as a community centre, at a cost of £2 million. With a full-time nursery, café, and rota of activities, it is seems to be what Bernard Taylor had in mind in his review when he urged churches to forge partnerships and become “vibrant hubs at the centre of their wider communities” (News, 22 December 2017).

“In an area like this, where all the churches were in decline and very visibly so, physically and spiritually, we have turned it around in a way,” says the Priest-in-Charge of St Martin and St Anthony, Canon Stephen Herbert. But in a Church that “wants to do things quickly or get rid of things if they don’t work”, he is keen to emphasise that this has taken time. “This building was built 13 years ago, and it’s just now the congregation is showing signs of growth, and growth from some of the activities that are going on here.”

Both priests are supportive of the city-centre resource church down the road, created with the help of £2.6 million of Church Commissioners funding, but have questions about what it means to “resource”.

“It seems implicit that we are raising leaders in those areas who are going to go out to places like this, and I would want to say to the Church of England, why can’t you plant resource churches on estates?” Mr Medley asks. “All churches should be resourcing each other.”

KEEPING churches present in areas such as Byker is going to take “a big sacrifice” for the Church of England, Canon Herbert says. And raising up indigenous leaders — a prominent theme of February’s General Synod debate on estates — takes time.

He is conscious that, in the poorest areas, “where people have left the Church the quickest, it’s ‘Well, the Church doesn’t care,’ and I think historically there’s a lot of that. Once they see the Church active and doing things . . . people see that the Church is caring for people where the council is not.”

The Shields Road that runs past the estate is typical of many post-austerity high streets: bookies, charity and discount shops, and pawnbrokers. There is also a Bright House, where you can buy a widescreen TV for £1750 with an APR of 69.9 per cent.

Both men love living in Byker, noting its openness, positive spirit, generosity, and pride. But working in these parishes has also given them an insight into manifold injustice.

“Universal Credit — the system is so cruel, at least the way I perceive it,” Canon Herbert observes. “It’s unforgiving, it’s inefficient. . . We should say those things whenever we can.”

POVERTY in Byker is not new. In 1908, the Church Times described it as “poverty-stricken and overcrowded” and, in 1926, as a “densely packed slum”.

In 1932, one of Mr Medley’s predecessors, the Revd F. Baker, was a member of a committee of clerics appointed to examine unemployment and the effect of the Means Test.

“Our attention was first arrested by the almost unanimous request, on the part of the unemployed men, that what was really most needed was food,” the committee wrote. “The mothers are suffering from under-nourishment, particularly in families where there are several children.”

The committee sought radical change — “reorganisation of our industrial system as will allow of an equitable distribution of money and leisure” — but “emergency action” in the interim, including food distribution.

NORTH NEWS AND PICTURESSamantha Imerson (left) and Donna Hood at “Costa Byker” at the Community Centre

Today, half the children in Byker live in poverty, and life expectancy for men is ten years lower than in some other parishes in the diocese. The “communal kitchens” discovered in 1932 are still up and running today. St Lawrence Hall, an impressive three-storey structure built by the church in 1928, in the absence of parochial schools, is now the Byker Community Centre, where, today, Samantha Imerson and Donna Hood are running “Costa Byker”, using food donated by Fareshare and the West End foodbank.

“There is a lot of child poverty, food poverty, period poverty,” Ms Hood says. “There is a lot of hidden poverty; people are too ashamed to talk about it.”

But there is art, too. On the top floor, we find trapeze artists with their small son, and, on the bottom floor, a music group for people with disabilities. On other days, there are poetry workshops, and the work of a resident artist is displayed on the walls.

A relatively new development is the Church’s involvement in community organising, through Tyne and Wear Citizens. It was through a listening exercise that the relationship between a litter-strewn environment and mental health came to the fore. A big litter pick on a recent Sunday morning was a success.

“A lot of people in Byker are really passionate about politics, but they feel very disempowered,” Mr Medley says. “Organising enables people to take action.”


WHEN she was appointed in 2015, the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman, described how, when she was growing up on a council estate in London, “church didn’t touch our lives. . . We weren’t a church-going family, and the only church on the estate had a big fence; so I had nothing to do with it.”

The vision for St Michael’s, outlined in artists’ impressions displayed around its walls, is for a light, warm place — a safe space for the many young people in Byker in need of somewhere to go and find what Alisha discovered: “people who love Jesus, who love young people”.

The marquee pitched in the nave may only be temporary, but it brings to mind Isaiah 52.2: “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back.”

“All are welcome,” reads the sign outside the door.

Listen to Madeleine Davies talk about this feature on the Church Times Podcast.

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