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Book review: Finding the Treasure: Good news from the estates, edited by Al Barrett

30 June 2023

Lyle Dennen considers how churches on estates faced the challenges

FINDING THE TREASURE, edited by Al Barrett, is a gripping and powerful collection of essays on the experiences, insights, theologies, hopes, and griefs discovered in and by the people living and working in varied housing estates across this country. These reflections from the Church of England Estates Project would in the past perhaps have been referred to as urban ministry, or about areas of deprivation, or even by some as a revised Faith in the City.

This present collection is imaginative and profound. The subtitle is Good news from the estates. The vision for this project comes from Bishop Philip North, who challenged theologians to work over a significant period of time with local practitioners — clergy, parish lay leaders, and members of the wider community. It was an exercise, fundamentally, in listening to locals as they told their stories and gave their insights, only then going on to reflect on that together.

Ann Morisy, the well-known community theologian, in the foreword, says of this book that it gives value to the unnoticed and undervalued when the Church engages with seemly unloved places. She speaks with profound conviction for all those who are in unloved places, facing multiple overwhelmings.

The first estate considered is Wythenshawe, on the margins of Manchester, which has a population of around 100,000, fiercely proud of its neighbourhoods, and, at its core, significant poverty. The church and community developed a weaving project that included a wide range of locals. Through people’s stories were discovered the insights that obstacles could block and cause residents to stumble, but could also be negotiated deftly, and strengthen and define.

The second was Twydall, which is a semi-detached and terraced housing estate near Gillingham, Kent. The church community were tasked to ask the question what the good news might be in Twydall. For 18 months, they spoke with local people in homes, in church, in schools, and in pubs, about hopes, fears, and challenges of living on the estate these days. They discovered that people had things to say that are worth hearing. They put together a strong Declaration, which focused on spiritual significance for estates of the small congregation.

The third was Rubery, which is between Bromsgrove and Birmingham. It is on the borders of everything — physical, emotional, and economic. Their project definitely did not want someone from across the border to come to “fix” something. Instead, they put together two events, with wide participation, placed under the flyover, and combining art, food, and lots of music. They were called Flash Floss Feast and Funky Flyover Fandango. It was to shine a light on what was already there: community, creativity, and desire.

Another, in south-east London, is Eltham, which is a White working-class estate that has struggled to integrate other cultures and ethnicities, and is associated with the killing of Stephen Lawrence. Another estate, quite different, is Durrington, a suburb of Worthing. But both these estates tried, in creative ways, to break from the division between the local church and the wider community, through reaching out, care, and beauty.

The Ven. Dr Lyle Dennen is a former Archdeacon of Hackney, in the diocese of London.

Finding the Treasure: Good news from the estates
Al Barrett, editor
SPCK £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.69

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