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‘Welcome home, Sexy’: how Bradford won City of Culture 2025

09 June 2022

Toby Howarth celebrates his city’s success, and the Church’s part in it

Toby Howarth

People in Bradford city centre celebrate the announcement last week

People in Bradford city centre celebrate the announcement last week

“THE winner of the UK City of Culture 2025 is Bradford!” The Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, surprised us by not pausing between “is” and “Bradford” when she made the announcement last week. There was no pause, either, between those words and the roar that greeted the news from the crowd gathered, hearts in our mouths, to receive it.

I cannot remember being hugged by so many, as, together, the realisation dawned that our trajectory as a city and district had just shifted. It was as if we had been paddling our canoe along a river and were now caught up in a fast, new current.

“In the welfare of the city shall you find your welfare,” Jeremiah wrote to God’s people exiled in Babylon. During the bidding process, and now, as we prepare for 2025 and beyond, we are asking, as religious communities and specifically as the Church, what this welfare means for us. Bradford’s bid follows four invitational themes.

City of the world

Bradford is where Yorkshire meets 170-plus cultural heritages from around the globe. City of Culture will tell stories of individual and community journeys that have contributed to Bradford’s story. Historical and contemporary, these are stories of trade and empire, grinding poverty and spectacular wealth, the breaking up of old identities and the forging of new ones.

Part of that global heritage is about religious faith. Bradford is a city where “we do God” (and is therefore a great place to be a bishop). I am privileged to have a place on the district’s senior leadership team, along with the President of the Council for Mosques, and colleagues from the council, health, education, police and fire services, business, and the voluntary sectors.

During the past four years, as chairman of Bradford’s Stronger Communities Partnership, I have worked with many others to encourage “intercultural” (rather than “multicultural”) spaces, and opportunities for people and communities not just to live alongside each other, but to engage with one another’s lives and stories.

We would not have won the bid without the Bradford Literature Festival, chaired, until recently, by our diocesan bishop, Nick Baines. This festival loves to explore faith, and its climactic celebration next month will be a sharing of religious music at the cathedral.

It was a joy for me to volunteer at and to be asked to speak at our outdoor “Big Iftar” event, hosted by Muslim friends offering food and friendship to hundreds from different faiths and none. One of our inner-city churches has taken on an “intercultural worker” to help the congregation to engage with its diversity of languages and heritages.

Coming of age

The age of Bradford’s population was another factor in us being awarded the 2025 title. The city is full of young people without power or voice, whose stories are seldom told. City of Culture is less about getting them to visit an art gallery and more about bringing accessible circuses of music and food to the middle of the neighbourhoods in which they live, celebrating and reflecting the stories that they want to tell.

At our best, churches are spaces where young people find that they are loved and valued. One of the best parts of my job is looking young people in the eye during a confirmation service and saying, “God has called you by name. He has made you his own.” But our churches are not always the best at listening to the passion of young people for justice, equity, and change.

Everything is connected

Born In Bradford is one of the most ambitious longitudinal studies in the world, focusing research on 13,500 families over the past ten years. We know, as a district, that only by bringing together data from health, housing, law enforcement, business, and the voluntary sector can we address the complex and stubborn problems that we face.

City of Culture, the lead judge, Phil Redmond, says, is about the well-being of the city and district. Art and culture are entwined with science, which connects with business and technology. The impact of City of Culture is designed to be economic, social, reputational, and about confidence.

The Church of England has invested millions of pounds into the city, partly in and through parish churches, and partly by planting a resource church in what was an old nightclub (News, 19 July 2019, 29 April). Like much-needed dental work contributing to a smile, Fountains Church, Bradford, gleams in the city centre alongside the National Media Museum, the Alhambra Theatre, and the old Odeon, soon to be resurrected as “Bradford Live”.

“Welcome home, Sexy”

The fourth theme picks up this piece of graffiti that greets train passengers clanking into Bradford Interchange. As Richard Shaw, who led the Bradford bid team, says about that scribble, “It’s cheeky, powerful, Yorkshire. It speaks of family, food, friendship, welcome. The bid team didn’t write it; it’s there on the wall.” With the parable of the prodigal in our back pocket, we are on home turf with that one.

Dr Toby Howarth is the Area Bishop of Bradford in the diocese of Leeds.

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