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Future of the Church is in the north, webinar hears

03 December 2021

The event, “Is God Northern?”, was hosted by the Centre for Religion in Society

The event, “Is God Northern?”, was hosted by the Centre for Religion in Society

CHURCHES in the North of England point to the future for the Church elsewhere, it was suggested in an online discussion hosted by York St John University last week.

The event, “Is God Northern?”, hosted by the Centre for Religion in Society, heard from the authors of a new book, Fuzzy Church: Gospel and culture in the north of England (Books, 13 August): the Revd Dr Nigel Rooms, a researcher with the Church Mission Society, and Dr Elli Wort, a director of studies at the Church Army.

Although in many places in the north the Church was “struggling” and churches were closing, they had discovered that “something is happening: people were finding new faith in Christ and becoming Christian,” Dr Rooms, who previously co-edited Northern Gospel, Northern Church (Books, 29 April 2016), said. In this sense, the north was “at the forefront of the future. . . That same effect is going to happen all over the country in time. . . There’s a real sense in which we can actually learn something really beautiful from these kind of churches that are trying new things.”

The book’s title came from a quote from a church leader, Dr Rooms said: “Essentially, when she noticed that actually people were joining her church and finding faith, she couldn’t really tell when it was happening. It was just that at one point they weren’t, and somehow then they were. At the fuzzy edge of the church, at some point, they kind of flipped over into faith.”

This was common to all the churches studied for the book, “in contrast to churches that have what we might call a thick boundary around them where there is quite a big jump to make from being out and then being in. That can be very off-putting to very many people.” Fuzzy churches were “being changed . . . by the people who are coming in. . . They are not just fixed in their little club, sealed off from their northern context.”

Dr Wort noted that, in many instances, the worshipping community studied had emerged “after something had died. A church had closed or there was one instance where the church building had closed and the last churchwarden threw the keys at the Archdeacon . . . but a new something had grown up in its place.”

She reported learning that the term “flourishing” was “a really unhelpful one to use”. One bishop had told her: “Well, there is this church where something is happening, but it’s not flourishing — in fact, it’s really quite fragile, and I would rather you didn’t actually go and research there, because I think what is happening is so fragile that I don’t want a couple of researchers turning up and poking into it.”

The panel rejected “essentialist” descriptions of the north, but spoke of their appreciation of the work of Dr Kate Fox, a poet and comedian also on the panel, who said that, while the northern identity was sometimes stigmatised, “because of the attachment to these positive values of authenticity, community, humour, lack of pretension, there is potentially capital gain to be made in northernness.”

Dr Wort noted that a northern tendency to “truth-telling” felt “very Jesus-like . . . There’s something about that directness, that bluntness, which is something to be treasured, to be honoured.”

In answer to the event’s title question, all answered in the positive. “We can only know God through our own contexts; and so, of course, God is northern,” Dr Wort concluded.

Dr Rooms drew attention to the disparity in the number of clergy applying for jobs in the south-east and in the north (News, 7 February 2014), suggesting that it might be time for some bishops to say: “Well, I’m sorry, but you need to move north, mate.”

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