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General Synod digest: Church to study its low profile in poorer areas

21 February 2020

Madeleine Davies, Hattie Williams, Adam Becket, and Tim Wyatt report from the General Synod in London

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

Canon Kathryn Fitzsimons (Leeds)

Canon Kathryn Fitzsimons (Leeds)

ON THURSDAY morning, the Synod amended and carried a diocesan-synod motion on poverty.

Canon Kathryn Fitzsimons (Leeds) introduced the motion from the diocese of Leeds, which asked the Arch­bishops’ Council for a study of why the Church of England was failing to attract people from poorer commun­ities.

She said that almost all the par­ishes in the Bradford deanery, where the motion had originated, were disadvantaged in some way. Her motion asked the Church of Eng­land to reflect on what it could learn from how Jesus crossed boundaries to reach the disadvantaged.

People in poorer areas did not see the Church as offering the same as Jesus had offered. She praised new schemes that channelled church money to poorer communities in recent years, but suggested that more needed to be done to bring about a culture change.

How could a Church that was packed with the affluent “identify credibly” with the disadvantaged in society, she asked. The motion had an even wider significance, she said, addressing those burnt out by a mod­­­­­ern consumerist society and its devastating impact on the planet. “Will there be reflection with, and learning from, disadvantaged com­mu­­nities about what the Church looks like, and how we together re­­flect the body of Christ?”

The Revd Dr Jason Roach (Lon­don) introduced two amend­­­­­­­­­ments, which would add new clauses calling for research into training more can­didates from poorer back­grounds, and deploying more resources. The Church of England was not as good as Jesus at attracting the poor, as the motion stated, he said, because the Church is not Jesus. His amend­ments would therefore also reframe the motion to speak instead of how the gospel was specif­ically “good news for the poor”. He also called for good practice from churches in poorer areas to be communicated across the wider Church.

Adrian Greenwood (Southwark), a member of the Archbishops’ Council, recommended a book by Andrew Bradstock, Batting for the Poor, about Bishop David Sheppard’s ministry (Books, 20 December 2019). In calling for new study and research, the Church must not forget the lessons of the past, he said.

Clive Scowen (London) dis­agree­d with Dr Roach: the Early Church managed to do what Jesus did. The poor of the day received Jesus gladly because of the Spirit-filled work that he did among them. They could do the same, he suggested.

Martin Kingston (Gloucester) reminded the Synod that the poor existed in the countryside, too. Too much of the Church’s money and ministry was directed to those like him — elderly and middle-class — instead of the rural poor. Dr Roach’s first amendment, re­­fer­­­ring to “good news for the poor”, was carried.

Canon Fitzsimons said that she was happy to accept Dr Roach’s second amendment, calling for more training and more resources for dis­advantaged communities.

Canon Kate Wharton (Liverpool) was delighted to back Dr Roach’s “excellent amendment”. If the gospel could not be good news among the poor, where could it be? And yet why did the Church’s leadership, lay and or­­dained, not reflect greater di­­ver­sity?

Canon Chris Tebbutt (Salisbury) said that resources could be released for this through clergy housing. He once lived in an enormous, sprawl­ing manor-house vicarage in the middle of a poor housing estate. A move to a smaller and more appro­priate vicarage enabled better out­reach to his parish. He asked that clergy housing not form a barrier to the good news.

The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin (Canterbury), warned that debate on mission got too bogged down in resources. People were the greatest resource — and the greatest turn-off to those who were poor. “Let’s get out of our comfortable zones and talking-shop, and live what it means to be the people of God.”

Dr Roach’s second amendment was carried.

The Revd Catherine Pickford (Newcastle) spoke to her amend­­­­­ment to insert a clause referring to the GRA:CE project, which explores links between social action and church growth. The GRA:CE project had been commis­sioned by the Church Urban Fund, Theos, and the Church of England, and would publish its conclusions, after three years of research, in No­­­vem­­­ber.

The Revd Lisa Battye (Man­ches­ter) said that she had spent much of her ministry working with the poor and homeless, and noted that the Church often reached people whom the State had aban­doned. Devoting more resources to the poor would inevitably mean the Church’s be­­coming more politicised, as you could not lead the poor to Christ without also addressing their phys­ical needs.

The Revd Brunel James (Leeds) believed that the main reason that few people came to church in his par­ishes was because they were too stretched by just surviving. The Church must have a realistic view of what success looked like in poorer areas; the spectacular growth seen in wealthier commu­nities would be rarer. The Church must constantly be battling against the social currents that concen­trated wealth and privilege in certain areas.

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, noted that the Synod repeatedly committed money for research and projects, but it rarely said what it would give up to fund that. He was grateful that Mrs Pickford’s amendment did not du­pli­­­cate research already being deliv­ered in the GRA:CE project.
Ms Pickford’s amendment was carried.

Canon Ruth Newton (Leeds) said that the Church had had to face some difficult truths. “It alienates the people it is called to stand along­side.” This included all minorities, such as those who were disabled: church buildings should be more comfortable.

Sarah Tupling (Deaf Anglicans Together) queried the word “disad­van­­taged”. Those who were poor, those who were deaf, or had other disabilities, were much more likely to be on benefits that had been cut recently. She spoke of barriers to employment, achievement, and education.

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North (Northern Suffragans), said that, in some ways, he hoped that the Synod did not consider this kind of motion, as he wasn’t sure that it really under­stood. He said that a Church for the Poor meant everyone trying their best. “Are we really ready to let go of power to empower others?” Oxford had four times as many stipendiary clergy as Blackpool, he said, which was the wrong way round. This mo­­tion would need a “changed evangel­istic approach”. The Church needed to become a Church for everyone.

The motion as amended was carried. It read:

That this Synod, call on the Arch­bishops’ Council to commission a study that:

(a) explores the reasons why the Church of England is generally less effective in communicating with, and attracting people from, more disad­vantaged communities despite the gospel being good news for the poor; and

(b) explores ways of addressing and reversing this situation, such as:

(i) actively seeking to select and train more people from disadvant­aged communities

(ii) deploying more resources into reaching people from disadvantaged communities

(iii) gathering and disseminating stories of good practice from churches working in disadvantaged commun­ities

(c) builds upon the work of the GRA:CE project in exploring the links between social action, discipleship, and church growth.

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