IN THE diocese of Blackburn, we were thrilled when Freedom Church, Mereside, won the Parish Pixels photo competition run by the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group (News, 21 February). The work that Linda and Pete Tomkinson have led on the Mereside estate in Blackpool has been an inspiring example of estates ministry, and the prize money is a tidy sum for a church with very little resource.
It’s not hard to see why this particular photo won a competition determined by a popular vote. It feeds into a narrative that was always attractive to certain traditions and that the Covid lockdown has amplified. Who needs buildings and all the old-fashioned trappings of inherited Church, the photo says to us. We can be church anywhere, even outside the door, even in the midst of decay, even sitting on the ground. It seems to symbolise the humbler, simpler, more accessible Church that many wish to see emerging from the crisis.
But there is another way of viewing this photograph, for which an understanding of the back story is necessary.
St Wilfrid’s, on Mereside, closed six years ago, because the buildings had decayed beyond the point of safety and the congregation had dwindled away. Sometimes, struggling churches need to die in order for there to be new life, and Freedom Church has been wonderfully brought to birth over those years.
But it is deeply fragile. These people are sitting on the ground because they have nowhere to worship. They are outside the locked door of their church hall, because it is all but impossible for them to raise the funds required to reclaim their buildings. Their priest is sitting among them, but ministry in such communities is hard to sustain.
SEEN through that lens, this photo starts to symbolise for us something much more challenging: it is a potent depiction of how we, as a nation and as a Church, are treating deprived urban areas and estates. They have been locked outside the door. They are cast down, sitting on the ground.
Years of an austerity project that we now know to have been pointless political posturing have left our estates hammered by a lost decade of under-investment, the residents marginalised and ignored. A culture of low pay leaves people locked out of the economy, as companies choose to pass on profits to shareholders and executives rather than distributing them to the employees who generate those funds in the first place. Consequent food poverty, spiralling debt, and the utter indignity of the foodbank keeps many poorer people on the ground, like beggars, dignity gone.
The accelerated spread of Covid is the fruit of all this: a pandemic which has become a poverty-ometer as it moves virtually unchecked through our nation’s poorest communities, fed by low-quality housing and preying on the pre-existing health conditions that poverty inevitably causes.
And the Church, rather than being prophetic, has too often been complicit. We deploy about three times more stipendiary priests per head of population to the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge than to the northern urban areas: a potent symbol of our corporate priorities.
Last year, the General Synod voted to have a worshipping Christian community on every estate (News, 1 March 2019), but we are still waiting to see how that vote might translate itself into strategy, and Covid will provide plenty of excuses for more delay.
Well-endowed dioceses, charities, and parishes hold on to their assets with the tenacity of a child clinging to its teddy bear for reassurance that it’s safe. We’re happy to shove a cut-price can of baked beans into the foodbank collecting-basket, but shy away from the prophetic call to name and shatter unjust structures, or to relinquish power so that others might be empowered.
THIS is a wonderful photo, and I am very glad that Freedom Church topped the poll. But I don’t want to see these beautiful estates Christians sitting on the ground. I want them to stand up, raise themselves high, and sing to all of us the Kingdom song of justice.
I don’t want to see them locked outside of their own building. I want to see them kicking down the doors and coming right inside, included and at the heart of Church and nation, using their gifts to lead, to challenge, and to transform. The gospel vision is not about the poor being looked after, patronised, and kept in their place. It is about liberation and change, the mighty put down from their thrones and the humble lifted high.
And the Church can lead the way. As we discern together what shape of Church is emerging from this crisis, why don’t we do what Jesus did and put the last first? Why don’t we invest back into the communities we have left behind, and, like every successful renewal movement, find the Good News on the margins and among the poor? Why don’t we release leaders from our estates communities who can teach us how to be the Church?
If we want to be a simpler, humbler, poorer Church, the people who can teach us are here in this photo. We just need to stop looking and start listening. Let them stand up and kick in the doors.
I am very grateful to the Revd Linda Tomkinson for her inspiration in writing this.
The Rt Revd Philip North is the Bishop of Burnley, in the diocese of Blackburn.