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General Synod digest: Life is hard on estates; money is scarce, members hear

01 March 2024
Geoff Crawford/Church Times

Synod members vote nem. con. on Monday for a recommitment to supporting estates ministry

Synod members vote nem. con. on Monday for a recommitment to supporting estates ministry

THE General Synod voted unanimously to refresh the Church’s commitment to estates ministry and evangelism and call on the whole Church to address hindrances due to structural and financial injustice urgently.

Introducing the debate, the Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North, told the Synod that, a year ago, he had visited a new church on an estate in Blackpool, where he had found a family “bound of poverty and fear”. The Sunday service was the only time the mother left the house. Returning that Christmas, Bishop North learned that the mother had a full-time job; the father had come to faith and had embarked on the diocesan M:Power course, which formed leaders from urban backgrounds; and the “once shy” little boy was taking part in the nativity play. This transformation had been possible, he said, “because of a loving, serving, worshipping community confidently present on that estate”.

The Bishop reminded the Synod of its commitment, five years ago, to establishing such a Christian community “on every significant social housing estate in England”. There had been advances in church-planting across the traditions, but also setbacks — at least ten estate churches had closed in the past five years, and at least 850 estates were not currently served by a Christian community. The Synod was being invited to recommit itself.

“Jesus brought about a transformative ministry by going to the marginalised places and the people living in poverty, knowing that when you do that, the rest will catch up. Just like cultural transmission, gospel transmission runs from poor to rich,” he said. “If we can renew church life on our estates and in our deprived communities, we will renew it everywhere.”

The Synod had a commitment to racial justice, he said: 85 per cent of the UK global-majority-heritage population and two-thirds of young people lived in estates and lower-income parishes. These areas should be priorities, he said.

The real-terms freeze in Lowest Income Communities Funding had posed a challenge for dioceses, as had the wealth disparities: “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? The time for excuses is over. We need a new and just financial settlement across the whole Church.”

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesThe Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North

Bishop North went on to praise the “fresh energy and vision” of the chair of the National Estates Evangelism Task Group, the Bishop of Barking, the Rt Revd Lynn Cullens. Dioceses needed to think about ways of forming lay and ordained leaders from working-class backgrounds such as hers, he said. “I’m convinced that there is an underground army of evangelists out there which a culturally middle-class Church is simply missing.”

Finally, he said, the motion would give the Synod an opportunity to thank all who ministered on estates, doing work that was “utterly beautiful” in the face of numerous challenges. “We must act now to reverse the slow erosion of Christian life on our estates.”

The Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Williams, spoke about his mother, who had experienced a “profound life change” when she became a Christian after leaving school at 16, when she was living on an estate. As a young mother, she had not been a typical candidate for ordination, but had been ordained deacon in 1983 and, later, priest. She had become the first female incumbent in the diocese on an estate close to where she had grown up. Bishop Williams underlined the value of estates ministry as “an integrated part of a diocesan vision”. In his diocese, an internship was enabling young people from a variety of contexts to train together. “We should be careful not to segregate people in their formation,” he said.

The Revd Mark Miller (Durham) had a parish that was the 30th most deprived in the country, he said. His church had been due close in 2007 but had been brought into renewal by his predecessor and was now thriving, supported by SDF money, particularly in children and young people’s ministry. “Ministry in these areas is amazing but very, very hard, and resources are not properly allocated,” he said. He noted that of the £100-million Low Incomes Communities Funding, only 61 per cent was reaching the most deprived communities — “that is a disgrace.” He urged members to ask their dioceses where such funding was going.

Paul Waddell (Southwark) then moved an amendment to commit the Synod to “doubling the number of young active disciples”. He attended St Francis’s on the Monks Hill estate, Croydon, a congregation that, he said, had gone from being “small, white, and old” to younger and more diverse, with a majority-GMH congregation. Through grants, they had secured a youth worker — but the cost of employing one was high for most estate churches, he said. Youth work needed to be prioritised.

Supporting the amendment, the Revd Jonathan Macy (Southwark) served a large parish with a high percentage of social housing. Half the parish did not have UK passports, he said, but it had one of the youngest demographics in the UK. A typical Sunday congregation numbered 60, of whom about one third were under 18. He was generally the oldest in the room, and he wished that he had more older people, he said, who often served as the “engine room of the church”. A youth worker would be welcome.

An air cadet had asked Canon Andrew Dotchin (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) whether he could shadow him for work experience — and, two weeks later, had askedto be baptised, after meeting an eight-year-old at Messy Church who was due to be baptised. The cadet’s mother was now due to be baptised on Easter Day. “Just wind up young people, and let them go.”

The amendment was carried.

The Revd Dr Sean Doherty (Universities and TEIs) moved an amendment to strengthen the motion to “support” as well as “raise up” leaders. Simply inviting people into leadership did not necessarily work, he argued. There was a need to bring a different approach, using different language, rather than one based on “middle-class assumptions”. He drew attention to the recent Living Ministry study on working-class clergy (News, 16 February).

Abigail Ogier (Manchester) spoke of Wythenshawe estate, where she was a licensed Reader and where signs of renewal were emerging. Four people had taken the Foundations of Ministry course last year, and three had gone on to train as authorised lay ministers; but they needed ongoing support. There was also a need to affirm and thank existing leaders. She reported that stipendiary clergy in Wythenshawe had more than halved since 2019. “They are tired, and we need to value them wholeheartedly.”

The Revd Lis Goddard (London) said that her church had leaders who would never lead other churches. It was a congregation of about 70. Pictures were used as illustrations to aid those who could not read. It had “gifted evangelists able to lead in all sorts of ways”. There was a need to consider how to enable these people to train for leadership, given that existing training seemed to rely on reading books.

The amendment was carried.

Another amendment from the Revd Fraser Oates (Worcester) sought to insert a commitment “to invest[ing] creatively”. Estates, he said, “stand shoulder to shoulder through fear and distress”. “We must understand that trust is paramount. Only authentic incarnational, committed expressions of ministry will suffice if we are to share the gospel and make disciples in these places. . . We need to radically rethink our inherited rhythms of discernment, training, and employment.” The Synod, he suggested, was given statistics that made it “shudder, only for us to stoically carry on doing what we’ve always done”.

Geoff Crawford/Church TimesAbigail Ogier (Manchester)

The Revd Chantal Noppen (Durham) had worked on estates in the north-east for a decade: “I have learned far more from those I have been called to serve . . . than I have ever learned from a lifelong place in the C of E and being an Anglican,” she said. “They have taught me who God is, how God is, and why God is.” One parishioner had told her that the pandemic was the first time someone had described his job at the supermarket as important, and that he mattered. “Why was it not the Church?” She described it as a “challenging” ministry, but “We need to catch up with God on this.” There was a need to provide more resources, and to start to listen “to what it means if you work on a zero-hours contract”, among other challenges.

The Revd Matthew Beer (Lichfield) said that the problem was not only funding for posts, “but the willingness of people to discern a call to these estates. There is stigma surrounding ministry and evangelism on these estates.” He worried that a friend who lived on an estate, a single mother of three, who was a joyful and natural leader, would not be put forward for ordination “because of her circumstances”. Some potential leaders might not be able to read or write, he said, or might have criminal records, or might be too old. “We need this new radical new inclusion.”

David Ashton (Leeds) ran an over-60s group: one that was often missed out when evangelism was discussed, he said. He spoke of widows on estates with nobody to speak to after their children had moved away. During Covid, he and his wife had delivered roses, eliciting tears: “Someone from church had come to be with them.” He emphasised that it was not just the young, but the old, who needed God’s love.

The amendment was carried.

An amendment from Mr Waddell requested that the Estates Evangelism Task Group work alongside diocesan vocations advisers, the 30,000 Project, and other related bodies, “to ensure that priority is given to the formation of young people from estates and low-income communities” to serve as leaders for children and young people.

The Revd James McCluskey (Chelmsford) recalled growing up on an estate in Colchester, with a background that included a “very disturbed history of family life”. He and his sister had pulled faces at a Palm Sunday procession, but the church had been friendly towards them. “This was a parish in the 1980s engaging in evangelism in one of the largest estates.” This year was the 35th anniversary of his coming to faith in that church: St Margaret’s, Berechurch.

Canon Jane Richards (Chelmsford) spoke as a “council-house kid” who grew up in estates in Scotland and England. She recalled kneeling at the mercy seat of the local Salvation Army citadel, at the age of ten. She welcomed the use of the term “economic marginalisation”, which was “objective”, rather than “deprived”, which was “demeaning. I do not feel deprived. I have, however, at times, felt ignored, judged, and patronised by those representing various agencies, including the Church, who believe they know what is best for my community.”

While she supported the motion, she advised those discerning a call to estates ministry. “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. 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. . . We welcome your guidance and your skills, but allow us to be visible as leaders.”

The amendment was carried.

Continuing the debate on the motion as amended, the Archbishop of York spoke of a predecessor, Vernon Harcourt, known as the last aristocratic Archbishop, who had planted 111 churches in the diocese of York in response to the massive population growth across the industrial north. Archbishop Cottrell was concerned by the pull of secular culture, including the sexualisation of children, and the polarisation of society.

“Yet we have been given . . . the great medicine of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which speaks to every heart,” he said. “We need to do in our day what our predecessors did in theirs.” This meant planting churches. He continued: “I am deeply concerned about how we fund ministry.” The diocese was “really, really struggling” to fund ministry in Hull and Middlesbrough.

The Dean of Bristol, the Very Revd Mandy Ford (Southern Deans), warned the Synod about “short-termism in our commitment to this work. We have been here many times before.” She had worked in a world of three-year grants that “came and went, often without making lasting impact. Lasting social change takes time to achieve and to become sustainable.” She urged members to ensure that, “as a Church, we retain our commitment to the poorest in our nation for the long term, not just for a season.”

The Revd Claire McArthur (Coventry) said that Coventry East, of which she was Area Dean, had the fastest growing population of any deanery, and was the most densely populated and deprived in the diocese. It was also, however, “served with the least number of clergy per head of population”, with a limited parish share to pay for full stipendiary clergy, she said. Much fell to lay leaders and volunteers.

“We are grateful for the LINCs and SDF money, but we have a problem in recruiting clergy into our deanery. . . All of our churches in our deanery have been in at least one interregnum in the last ten years.” In order to pursue the motion’s commitment, the Church needed to “invest and identify and train potential leaders”.

Billy-Jo O’Leary (Rochester) had grown up on an estate. “I am not lacking in anything; I have everything and more,” she said. Welcoming the motion, she said: “Your Church has already done it; we are here.” She paid tribute to all who had supported her in training for authorised lay ministry, and the women who had served as mentors.

The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, said that there was a challenge to “reimagine and renew our commitment to estates evangelism”. The diocese had appointed a Dean for Estates Evangelism, who had undertaken a wide range of visits to estates parishes, which he recommended. He also spoke of the lay pioneers’ course, Magnify, and the ideas gained from other dioceses, including York and Blackburn.

The Revd Vincent Whitworth (Manchester) gave the testimony of “Steve” — an ex-army man living with health issues. He had become a Christian after attending the Alpha course, and had told Mr Whitworth: “Becoming a Christian hasn’t changed my personal circumstances. I still have significant health issues and am still skint. But what has changed my life is Jesus. Knowing Jesus is with me gives me the power to face my daily challenges. Jesus has changed everything for me.”

Estates ministry had the potential to transform the nation, Mr Whitworh suggested. But “we need to increase our financial investment in estates ministry. . . For too long, we have tried to do it on the cheap.”

Prebendary Amatu Christian-Iwuagwu (London) recalled serving on a housing estate near Wembley, where gangs would meet. He was a visible presence, with a clerical collar. He recalled that one time a young man had come to him to confess to a killing, and had asked the priest to take him to the police station

The Revd Roger Driver (Bath & Wells) was disappointed and frustrated, he said, because he felt that significant progress had been made in the 1980s, when the report Faith in the City had emphasised the duty to serve the poor, the needy, and the marginalised, but this seemed to have been “sidelined” over the years. In Bath & Wells, he said, priority parishes were called Magnificat parishes: “Hidden pockets of poverty and deprivation in rural areas and seaside towns are in our sights.”

The motion, as amended, was carried by 364 nem. con. It read:

This Synod:

(a) dedicates itself afresh to the goal of achieving a loving, serving and worshipping Christian community on every significant social housing estate to mark the fifth anniversary of Synod Motion GS 2122

(b) commends the work of all who minister on our estates and gives thanks for those Dioceses who have responded positively to the 2019 Motion

(c) calls on all Dioceses to include in their strategic mission and ministry plans the goal of planting and renewing churches on and/or doubling the number of young active disciples in social housing estates/other economically marginalised communities;

(d) calls on the whole church to address as a matter of urgency the structural and financial injustices that prevent flourishing and sustainable worshipping communities on every estate (for example the financial inequalities between dioceses and the distribution of LInC Funding);

(e) commits itself to taking the necessary steps to raise up and support a new generation of lay and ordained leaders from estates and working-class backgrounds (by for example addressing the recommendations of the Ministry Council’s Report Let Justice Roll Down) at all levels in the church, including a commitment to invest creatively in local and grassroots forms of ministry and leadership training;

(f) requests the Estates Evangelism Task Group to work alongside diocesan vocations advisers, the 30,000 Project and other related bodies to ensure that priority is given to the formation of young people from estates and low income communities to serve as children’s and young people’s leaders, as well as in other forms of Christian ministry.

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