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Cottrell backs plan for 2000 new church groups in poorest areas

30 November 2021

But the Church must first bridge the culture-gap, Archbishop warns


THE Archbishop of York has expressed his support for an aspiration to ensure that at least 2000 of the 10,000 new worshipping communities proposed in the next decade (News, 2 July) are established in income-deprived communities.

Speaking on Monday evening at this year’s Estates Evangelism Task Group conference, held at Swanwick, Archbishop Cottrell pledged to be “a strong voice to make sure that the funding that is available goes to support the poorest communities”, observing that the Church’s commitment to becoming more diverse in the next decade “must also be about the left-behind, white, working-class communities”. He remarked, too, that “we’re only just beginning to really address the race issues in the Church.”

He told the gathering: “I note one of your aspirations is to ensure that at least 2000 of the proposed 10,000 new congregations are located in income deprived communities, and I want to say I whole heartedly support that.” He noted that: “We particularly need to plant new churches on estates, because we know that, in terms of the ratio of clergy and resources to people, the poorer communities are the least well served.”

There was also a need to raise up “indigenous ministry” on estates, the Archbishop said, given that “the best people to minister on estates are people from estates.”

Archbishop Cottrell referred to decisions taken by the Prime Minister in recent weeks concerning the North (Comment, 26 November). And he acknowledged that within the C of E, often: “We forget the poor.” The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, voiced his concern that, when it came to the Church’s Vision and Strategy, “the poor are a bit buried away. . . My experience is that when things are buried away they get forgotten.”

The Estates Evangelism Task Group is a legacy of the Archbishops’ Evangelism Task Group, established in 2013 (News, 29 November 2013). Its aim is to see established “a loving, worshipping, serving Christian community on every significant social housing estate in England” (News, 1 March 2019).

Asked to speak on the Vision and Strategy for the next decade, a programme that he has led, the Archbishop began with stories about his time as a parish priest serving estates in south-east London and Chichester. He recalled starting a Sunday evening benediction in one church and noticing that children from the estate were drawn to it: “Something stopped them, something held them. They caught a whiff of the fragrance of the gospel in this weird and wonderful worship that was coming from somewhere else but, I think, smelled like home.”

He spoke of another young man who had joined a pilgrimage from Chichester to Canterbury for the physical challenge. Somewhere between the start and finish points, he had “stopped taking the piss out of the Church and the gospel and worship, and his heart started burning within him.” He was now serving as a priest in the diocese of Chichester.

But the Archbishop also remembered a mission in Middlesbrough where, during a karaoke night at the local pub, a man had asked him: “Why do you sing songs that nobody knows?”

“I found myself kind of making almost a public apology to the people of that estate who had been disenfranchised by their own church, that somehow our church culture had got so removed from their lives that there was no longer any connection,” the Archbishop recalled. “Perhaps there never was any connection — let’s not be too hard on ourselves. But there wasn’t a connection. It was just a foreign language to these people. And all I could say was: ‘I’m really sorry.’”

The answer was not to “change the words”, he emphasised. “If you are going to grow into the life of discipleship and come to know Jesus Christ as Lord, there are certain words you are going to have to encounter and learn, like ‘Christ’, or ‘salvation’, or ‘forgiveness’, or ‘sin’. You can’t get round that. . .

“But I do think we maybe need to learn some new tunes. We do need to find ways of interpreting and translating the unchanging message of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ into the cultures that we serve . . . We need to be open to the refining fire of the questions these cultures and contexts pose.”

Moving to talk about Vision and Strategy, he described how its focus on being “Christ-centred” had been shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic, “a great long season of being refined and stripped back. . .

“All the familiarities of church life have been taken away — even for the people of God, holy communion itself,” he said. “It was a very long eucharistic fast for the people of God.

“And in the long Covid of isolation and lockdowns, I think that what God has done in us is draw us closer to Jesus, recognising that, even though all the comfortable familiarity of worship and fellowship of sacrament . . . have been taken away, Christ is still absolutely fully present with us and for us.”

He acknowledged some current concerns. The Save the Parish movement (News, 4 August) was “really important” and “deeply heartfelt”, he said. “But there is a real danger in which it somehow sets up this false opposition between what we are trying to do — to actually plant new churches — and what parishes do. It’s all part of the same mixed ecology eco-system of a healthy Church.”

Parish ministry was in need of revitalisation, he said. “We know that in many, many places, parish ministry is really, really struggling; and partly it’s struggling because it has lacked vision and energy to adapt itself. . . In my observation of pretty much everything in the world, things survive because they learn how to adapt. . .

“I do want to see us experimenting much more, which means taking risks, which means there will be many failures, trying to find are there new and different ways of serving our communities.”

When it came to planting churches on estates, this didn’t mean “building great big buildings, putting a vicar in, and then hoping people will come to church. . . Even if we had the money, I don’t think we would be doing that. We are going to try new things.”

Asked about making vocations more accessible to people from estates, he noted that “a lot of it is happening under the radar”. In some dioceses, people were being ordained without having gone through the Bishops Advisory Panel process (News, 25 June). “It just didn’t feel that that was the appropriate way forward for those people and I think we need to do more of that.”

He was also challenged on the cutting of posts in dioceses (Features, 10 September), in tandem with a push for more vocations, and a sense that the “mixed ecology” required lay people “who are going to be able to work for nothing”. His questioner observed: “Where we are from, where we are working, people need a job. They need to be paid. It’s middle-class people who can afford at 50 to be giving up all their time, because they are director of a company and only work two days a month.” She noted that in the wake of a boom in vocations after the publication of Faith in the City in 1985, “a lot of people couldn’t get a job after their first curacy.”

In his response, the Archbishop suggested that it was “very hard to know what the picture across the whole Church of England is”. But he acknowledged that many dioceses were “facing pretty severe financial challenges, and having to make some very, very hard decisions”, including planning for a reduction in stipendiary posts. Highlighting the “vast and shocking” disparity in diocesan wealth, he suggested that “we need to try to take a whole-church approach to this.

“But I won’t pretend to you that that’s going to be easy.” He added that there were “still a lot of vacancies”, recalling that, as a bishop, he had noticed many more applications to posts in Berkshire than in Liverpool.

In his final answers, the Archbishop observed that “very few churches pay for the ministry that they receive.” This was the “nub of the financial problem”, and was true in very affluent as well as more deprived areas. “I think on the whole we can be pretty mean.”

During a visit to a big shanty town in Nairobi, he had found: “They paid for their ministry. . . We have to face up to this, that we are not a generous Church. . . Generosity is not measured by how much you give, but how much is left after you have finished giving, and we need to do more teaching on that.”

Asked about Establishment and the C of E, he remarked: “It has brought us great privilege and great position; but it has come at a cost to our spirit, and I think we are beginning to face up to that at the moment.”

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