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Is God really calling clergy to the South, northern dioceses ask

19 July 2019

Workshop addresses how to revive the Church in post-industrial towns

An aerial view of re-development in Rochdale town centre

An aerial view of re-development in Rochdale town centre

ATTRACTING clergy to work in urban areas in the north is a big part of revitalising the Church in post-industrial towns, a workshop in Manchester heard at the start of this month.

Five northern dioceses were present at the meeting — Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, and Blackburn — which sought to allow clergy from across the Northern Province to share best practice and learning.

It was convened by the Renewal and Reform team, and dealt with the post-industrial towns in which 11.5 million people live.

The Archdeacon of Rochdale, the Ven. Cherry Vann, one of the organisers of the workshop, said: “We struggle to recruit clergy. God seems to be calling clergy south for some reason; we are lucky if we get one or two applicants for a post. That’s a real indicator of some of the challenges we face.”

She explained that the workshop had come about after conversations with other archdeacons and senior clergy about challenges in northern towns. “It’s the towns that were thriving in the Industrial Revolution, places like Burnley, Wigan, Sheffield, and Bury. . .

“We don’t claim all post-industrial towns in the Northern Province, but a lot of them are here, and they are struggling.

“Financially and socially, these towns are struggling right across the board. When you see that even McDonald’s has moved out of Rochdale town centre, you get the picture.”

She continued: “The towns are struggling, the churches are struggling too — we are left now with far too many buildings from the Industrial Revolution.

“We feel left behind, forgotten, and ignored. The towns are lacking capacity and investment to do anything that changes things. There needs to be a national strategy for moving clergy up north.

The Area Dean of Dewsbury, and of Birstall, in Leeds diocese, the Revd Simon Cash, agreed with Archdeacon Vann’s assessment: “It’s tough, ministry is tough up here, because we’re faced with declining numbers, along with the question of how we continue to resource the Church effectively, and how to attract clergy up here.

“Some of it is to do with a lack of investment in the north of England. The ongoing cost of running buildings with smaller congregations is also a problem. We’ve got to be thinking outside of the box on this.”

Those present at the meeting heard from those who had been trying something different, for example Liverpool diocese in Wigan.

The Revd Tim Montgomery, the director of Transforming Wigan, a seven-year £1.2 million programme to turn around the mission and financial strength of the town, was among those who spoke.

This week he said: “It’s about rebuilding the community, rebuilding the economy. Our objective here has basically been to transform Wigan, not just in the coming-to-church sense, but to re-engage the community in the new spiritual life of the Church.

“We have a vision that we will engage one in ten people in Wigan with discipleship. Part of it is making more lay leaders: we have 62 new lay leaders in Wigan, and the sense of working together is great.”

He explained that part of the approach is a restructuring of Wigan deanery, by absorbing all the town’s parishes into one benefice, with seven parish hubs. He said: “It’s not just a multi-parish benefice, because those don’t work.”

He went on: “The restructuring is the very last bit. It’s good for leaders, it stops the isolation, and brings more lay leaders into play.”

Mr Cash said that one new approach that he was trying in his parish was through using a bus. He explained: “In my own parish we’ve just bought a double-decker bus, and we’re going to take it into the estates in an attempt to capture people’s imagination.”

Archdeacon Vann said: “There is an image of the north that is completely false, and that needs to change. And obviously, part of that change is to get some real investment into the north.

“Through Renewal and Reform, the Church is absolutely committed to channelling money into the most needy areas. The problem is they also want to see growth, which is hard won. It’s hard graft, these towns are a context that needs real commitment, hope, and resilience.”

Mr Cash said: “It can feel like a downward spiral, but there are some chinks of light; there is some hope. We’re seeing God start to do some stuff.”

Mr Montgomery concluded: “It was wonderful that people got it together, as we were all pretty isolated. I would recommend more of these events where people share learning, and it was good that it was up north, not in London.”

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