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Bias to the poor? We’re not seeing it, those ministering on estates tell Synod

27 February 2024

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North, introduces his motion on estates evangelism

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North, introduces his motion on estates evangelism

THE Church must tackle with urgency “the structural and financial injustices that prevent flourishing and sustainable worshipping communities on every estate”, the General Synod agreed on Monday.

During a debate that concluded with a unanimous vote in favour of establishing such communities, clergy and laity who serving on estates spoke candidly about the challenges they faced. In Wythenshawe, one of the largest estates in Europe, stipendiary clergy numbers have more than halved since 2019.

Back in 2019, the Synod commended the vision of the Estates Evangelism Task Group (EETG) — now chaired by the Bishop of Barking, the Rt Revd Lynne Cullens — “to see a serving, loving and worshipping Christian community on every significant social housing estate in the country” (News, 1 March 2019).

The motion put before the Synod this week asked members to dedicate themselves afresh to the goal. An accompanying paper by the task group challenged the Church to “increase the pace of change required to have a true and sustained ‘bias to the poor’ culture evidenced through intentional strategic decision making and resource allocation”.

It is estimated that one quarter of C of E parishes either contain 500 or more social-housing homes and/or are in the bottom 20 per cent for income deprivation. The 2021 census indicated that more than two-thirds of the population live in these parishes, including two-thirds of those aged under 19. There are currently more than 1300 parishes in the first category with “no Church of England worshipping presence directly on the estate”, mapping suggests.

Monday’s motion was introduced by the Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Phillip North, who reported that that, while there had been advances since 2019, including new churches planted of all traditions, there had also been setbacks: at least ten estate churches had closed in the past five years. The real-terms freeze in Lowest Income Communities Funding (LICF) (News, 8 November 2019) had posed a challenge to dioceses, as had the wealth disparities between them (Comment, 7 July 2023).

“How can it be fair that estates parishes in the north are paying more in parish share than wealthy communities in the south-east simply because of the historic endowment of their dioceses?” he asked. “The time for excuses is over. We need a new and just financial settlement across the whole Church.”

Since the 2019 debate, dioceses in straitened financial situations have made further cuts to stipendiary clergy posts. In the diocese of Manchester, such posts have been reduced from 201 to 175 in recent years. Parish share receipts fell from £7.3 million in 2016 to £5.7 million in 2022 and the diocese is running a budget deficit of £1.3 million. But it has also invested in estates, securing the Church’s first diocese-wide Bishop’s Mission Order to establish the Antioch Network, which plants churches in areas of deprivation, such as estates (News, 13 July 2018).

During the debate, Abigail Ogier spoke of the “signs of renewal” in Wythenshawe, where she serves as a licensed Reader, including people who are pursuing vocations in ministry. But she also emphasised the importance of supporting the existing clergy, reporting a more than halving of stipendiary clergy there since 2019.

After sharing the testimony of a man who had come to faith after first visiting a church food pantry, the Vicar of St Bede’s, Bolton Le Moors, the Revd Vincent Whitworth, urged the Church to “increase our financial investment in estates ministry. . . For too long we have tried to do it on the cheap.”

The Archbishop of York admitted that he was “deeply concerned about how we fund ministry”. The diocese was “really, really struggling” to fund ministry in Hull and Middlesbrough.

While speakers acknowledged sources of funding from the Church Commissioners and others, they also pointed out its limitations. The Revd Mark Miller, Vicar of Stockton, in the diocese of Durham, described as a “disgrace” the fact that only 61 per cent of LICF was reaching the most deprived communities (News, 11 March 2022).

The Chote review of LICF reported that the funding was supporting at least 1700 parishes, with each allocated, on average, £14,000 (“roughly equivalent to a quarter of the cost of a clergy post”). The amount allocated to the 25 per cent poorest communities had risen from 35 per cent of the total in 2017 to 56 per cent in 2020.

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesAbigail Ogier (Manchester)

In an emotional speech, the Team Rector of St Michael’s, Stoke, in the diocese of Coventry, the Revd Claire-Louise McArthur, spoke about her role as Area Dean of Coventry East. It had the fastest-growing population of any deanery. It was also the most densely populated and most deprived in the diocese. Yet it was served by the least number of clergy per head of the population. Parish share to pay for stipendiary clergy was limited.

While grateful for LICF and Strategic Development Fund money, the challenge of recruitment remained, she said. Every church in the deanery had been in at least one interregnum in the past ten years. One vacancy had been advertised four times, and within the next year five further posts would need filling. “House for Duty posts we can’t fill, as the houses are not in desirable locations,” she reported.

”One of the reasons we can’t recruit is because of the safety of clergy living in these places. Our homes are broken into, cars are stolen, drug-taking and prostitution in our gardens. Our children can’t walk to the local shops after dark. We have verbal abuse when we stand up to people.

“I need Synod to acknowledge how tough inner-city ministry is, and the needs are not getting any less. More investment is required to support clergy and the parishes that we serve within. We need to identify and train clergy, and importantly, those who have a shared understanding or empathy of how difficult life in these areas is.”

Her speech highlighted both the extent of the challenges of ministry and the joys to be found. “We walk alongside those who are most struggling, to clothe their children, to heat their homes,” she related. “We welcome the refugee, the misplaced, those running from domestic violence, the lonely, and the isolated. It breaks my heart, the ministry that I do. I have lost count of the amount of times I have had a call or a message, to say, ‘I have no food, I have no electricity, I have 86p left till next week.’

“But we have joy, too. We have a new service in one of our churches made up of refugees and asylum-seekers who are getting to know Jesus. We are running local Alpha courses, we are baptising people, we are walking alongside those grieving in our funeral ministry. . . God is in the midst of us.”

The motion — amended four times — includes a commitment to “the formation of young people from estates and low-income communities” and to “raise up and support a new generation of lay and ordained leaders from estates and working class backgrounds”. Ministry Council data suggests that, last year, 25 per cent of candidates for ordained ministry were from working-class backgrounds, compared with 39 per cent of the wider population.

Many speeches in the debate came from clergy who had themselves grown up on estates, including the Assistant Curate of St Nicholas’s, Worcester, the Revd Fraser Oates, who had grown up on the Dewsbury Moor estate, once the site of an enormous police operation in the search for a missing girl, Shannon Matthews, where the community had stood “shoulder to shoulder”.

“We must understand that trust is paramount,” he warned. “Only authentic incarnational, committed expressions of ministry will suffice. . . We need to radically rethink our inherited rhythms of discernment, training and employment.”

Canon Jane Richards, Assistant Curate of St Andrew’s, Leytonstone, in the diocese of Chelmsford, offered advice to those discerning a call to ministry on estates: “Don’t make assumptions about us based on what you see or what you think you see: our lifestyles are often rooted in necessity, not choice,” she said. “Listen to us and hear what we are saying. Ask us what we know we need, rather than imposing what you think we need.

“Don’t judge our intelligence by the level of our formal qualifications. Some of the most inspiring Bible studies I have attended have been led by people who know and love scripture deeply but have been nowhere near a theological college. Be prepared to relinquish power that you may take for granted. . . Jesus is already present on our estates. He always has been. He always will be. Let’s work together to bring his love to those who are yet to know him.”

Billy-Jo O’Leary, a licensed lay minister in the diocese of Rochester, told the Synod that the work spoken of in the motion was already under way: her presence was testament to this. God had called her here, “but he sent me another gang to get me here: the Church.”

Bishop North’s call for a new financial settlement comes as the Archbishops’ Council prepares to consider the findings of Diocesan Finances Reviews, carried out in partnership with an accountancy firm, BDO. Data collected indicates that, at the end of 2022, there were about 6500 stipendiary clergy in full- and-time posts paid for by dioceses. A central goal of the Renewal and Reform programme was to secure a “stable pool” of 7600 full-time clergy (News, 23 September 2016).

Further findings are due to be put before the General Synod in July. The chair of the Finance Committee of the Archbishops’ Council, Carl Hughes, confirmed in a written answer that the next phase of work would consider “what changes to financial flows within the Church might be proposed (including but not limited to Diocesan Apportionment and Lowest Income Communities Funding).” Last year, he spoke of expecting “significant change in the basis of funding flows across the Church” (News, 14 July 2023).

In the same year, the General Synod considered the Diocesan Stipends Funds (Amendment) Measure, which is designed to enable dioceses with historic wealth to give financial help to those without, transferring money through the diocesan stipends fund (News, 17 February 2023). The diocese of Oxford has allocated £1.5 million of its income from land and investments to support the five most financially disadvantaged Church of England dioceses in the period 2025-29 (News, 1 December 2023).

Nevertheless, this week’s General Synod has heard warnings about the parlous state of diocesan finances, and calls for the Church Commissioners to draw on their assets of £10 billion to relieve the pressure on them.

During a debate on clergy pensions on Monday, the Revd Barry Hill, Strategy Development Enabler in the diocese of Leicester, said that the BDO review was expected to identify “significant financial deficits in many dioceses, probably in total running well into eight figures”. Noting the reduction in giving, and parishes struggling to cover their ministry, he suggested that the Church Commissioners be invited to take on responsibility for post-1997 clergy pension contributions. This would save the average diocese about £1 million, or about 15 clergy posts a year, but would cost less than one third of one per cent of the Church Commissioners’ asset base, he said.

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