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The Church Army: veteran of the mixed ecology

by
15 October 2021

The Church Army’s new chief talks to Pat Ashworth about its place in the Church’s future

Church Army

THE Ven. Dr Peter Rouch reckons that his feet have barely touched the ground in the four months since he became chief executive of the Church Army (News, 19 February).

Dr Rouch was formerly Archdeacon of Bournemouth, and comes to a position more traditionally held by a lay person.

He has spent a great deal of time familiarising himself with the organisation’s 30 mission centres throughout England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and has not yet had a chance to move permanently up to the Church Army’s base in Sheffield, where he cheerfully describes himself as a “Billy-no-mates in a bedsit” from Tuesday to Thursday.

The Church Army is a recognised mission community of the Church of England, though independent of it. There are profound similarities between his new and former position, he says: “You are coming at similar issues from a different angle. I am responsible for staffing, discipline, and recruitment, safeguarding . . . all those things are still there and have to be done.”

The difference, he says, though, “is that there is probably less established expectation around what you will do and what you will be, and that brings a degree of freedom with it — not just to me but to the organisation — to respond in creative ways.

“And we have that ability to do what a diocese can’t do — either on principle or because it has to wade through a lot of process and opinion and consultation in order to get there. I appreciate both those those things, to be honest.”

He was just back from chairing a board meeting for the Church Army’s Marylebone project in London, the city’s largest women-only homelessness project. It has emergency accommodation for 112 vulnerable homeless women, and its accompanying new Sanctuary, due to be launched fully this month, is believed to be the only drop-in centre that will be open to them for 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.

The project gathered pace under the interim chief executive, Des Scott, and has attracted what Dr Rouch describes as “a wonderful staff team: a mixture of Christians, people of other faiths and of no particular faith, all gathering around something that we all think is important to get right”.

It has also engaged the interest of a wide range of high-profile funding partners, including the Evening Standard, Barclays Bank, Paribas, and Selfridges, who were looking at the issues connected with homelessness and wanted to be involved in the communities where they worked.

“It’s a wonderful collaboration. I think it may be unique in the Church of England to have this range of partners, but I’d be delighted to be proved wrong,” Dr Rouch says. “People have complex agendas and a range of priorities, but they are keen on what we do and want to see it flourish.” The plight and vulnerability of homeless women has been exacerbated by the pandemic: many seek sanctuary on night buses, or sleep under railway arches.

 

IT IS possible to see results in this field of work, he says — “not as many as we want, and some particular projects are more challenging than others; but we do”. He refers to the Amber project in Cardiff, for young people aged between 14 and 24 and self-harming, who are either below the threshold for professional medical intervention or who have been waiting more than six months for access to support from the Child Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS).

“At one level, we supply a holding plan; on another, we create a community of young people who don’t feel so alone. These are children wrestling with who they are. We do drama and a lot of creative stuff with them,” Dr Rouch says.

I ask how recipients of services such as this view the Church Army. He replies: “The ethos of Church Army is so earthed. We don’t feel we have to confront people with a framework before we engage. We are just there for them: we have that ability to move into areas that are quite challenging.”

Not all of those who train with the Church Army ends up working for it: they can be found all over the place, Dr Rouch says. He had met the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, in Blackpool, the previous week, and admired the diocesan programme Empower, designed to enable people from marginalised backgrounds to train for leadership in missional communities in their localities. “I said: ‘I wished we’d thought of that.’ The Bishop said: ‘Well, the lad running it is from the Church Army.’”

The Church Army is a significant supporter of pioneer mission, particularly in areas of marginalisation and deprivation (and always in partnership with dioceses and with shared oversight). Despite the financial constraints, it is planning to launch three new mission centres in the next few months, and more beyond that, recognising a growing need.

It seeks the growth of new lay-led Christian communities in challenging areas. Used to planting mission communities led by lay people, the Church Army has always been part of a Church of England mixed ecology, Dr Rouch suggests. He worked on the C of E’s Transforming Effectiveness programme for several months before taking up his new position. In every conversation, people had raised the issue of sustainability, of “keeping going”, he said.

His background is at the Church’s Catholic end, “which, by reputation at least, tends to express more reserve about the idea of a mixed ecology”. he says. There is a presumption, he says, that “the Church of England is parishes, and that’s it. As an archdeacon, I love the parish system. I love the really fragile and difficult parishes.

“But the Church of England is not just parishes. We have always had, and still have, other ways of living the Christian life. It is a question of reality. The planting of religious communities in the Middle Ages spearheaded the growth of the Christian faith in England. Though we lost a lot after the Reformation, we continue to have bodies and communities which are part of the Church of England but are just doing it differently. We have always been a mixed ecology.”

 

THE Church Army is thus involved in the debate about the future of parish ministry. Dr Rouch is worried about the polemics of much of the debate.

“Fundamentally, I’m concerned about this conversation degenerating into debate that has ceased to be thoughtful and honest; about two things that ought not to be placed in opposition or cast as an either/or,” he says. “Second, I am concerned about it never progressing far enough beyond the recognition of complexity for concrete action to result.

“We serve and support those in need. We run refuges and recovery services for homelessness; we support teenagers wrestling with mental-health challenges; we live our lives beside, and in service to, women trapped in street prostitution; we feed the hungry; and, yes, we pursue a mixed ecology, planting new lay-led Christian communities, often in areas where the parochial ministry of the Church is most stretched or functionally non-existent.

“This is not a nil-sum game, in which the flourishing of one aspect of the Church’s life and mission is inevitably to the detriment of the other. When we send out evangelists, we do so in partnership with provinces, dioceses, and parishes, and sometimes work hard at the implications of that.

“A number of bishops who have spoken to me have indicated that they work with the Church Army because sometimes we can do things that their parishes do not feel able to. Yet they also partner with us because we are fully part of the Church. We get it, and can be trusted.”

The greatest threat to parochial ministry in England, he says, is not the spending priorities of the Church Commissioners, but “simple mortality. We are an older Church. Things may look slightly different in a well-endowed metropolitan parish, or some of the larger churches in our university towns; but in parish after parish, if we are honest, things are perilously stretched. Some investment might lessen the burdens, but it cannot fundamentally change this.”

He is still getting to grips with the breadth of the Church Army’s work. The biggest challenges for the organisation, he suggests, are related to resourcing, not to energy or creativity. “In common with the rest of the Church of England, a significant amount of funding for our centres of mission is coming from committed older donors.

“Where we are specifically seeking to create Christian communities, that funding is going to come from committed believers and Christian trusts. We share that anxiety with the rest of the Church of England.” As regards staffing resources, the growth in clerical vocations in the Church of England has meant that some who might have gone to the Church Army in the past are now being ordained.

Looking into the future, he says, it is a matter of “how we go up another gear”. But he is upbeat and relishing the job. “It’s a lovely organisation to be part of. The week before I took up the appointment, I went to the Wilson Carlile Centre [home of the Church Army] in Sheffield. The man on the door said to me: ‘This is the best place I’ve ever been.’ That said it all.”

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