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Millions given to help revitalise Kent churches

25 March 2024

Diocese of Canterbury awarded £3.2 million for a five-year programme of church-planting


Sunset over the bay in Margate, Kent

Sunset over the bay in Margate, Kent

PARISHES in Margate, in Canterbury diocese, rated as one of the most deprived areas in the country, are among the recipients of the latest tranche of Strategic Mission and Ministry Investment (SMMI) funding.

In total, the diocese has been awarded £3.2 million for a five-year programme of church-planting, or setting up new congregations and revitalisation, it was announced on Friday.

SMMI is a new funding stream through which the Archbishops’ Council allocates funding to dioceses (News, 18 March 2023). It replaces Strategic Development Funding (SDF), Strategic Capacity Funding, and Strategic Transformation Funding. It includes a £340-million Diocesan Investment Programme for the current triennium (2023-25), comprising a £100-million of Lowest Income Communities Funding (News, 7 November 2019), and a remaining £240 million fund for which all dioceses can bid. Bids must be in line with the priorities of the overarching Vision and Strategy priorities for the 2020s.

In Margate, the funding has enabled the appointment of the Revd Mark Nelson as Priest-in-Charge of Holy Trinity, now designated a “resourcing church”. A press release says that the church would be “working in partnership to revitalise the neighbouring parishes of St Paul’s, Cliftonville, St John’s, Margate, and All Saints’, Westbrook” — parishes currently without an incumbent and with low attendance relative to the population. The money would be used to pay for ministry — both lay and ordained — as well as work on buildings.

The plan is in partnership with the Revitalise Trust (formerly the Church Revitalisation Trust — a charity established to “further the church-planting activity which was previously undertaken by Holy Trinity, Brompton”). On Friday, the Archdeacon of Canterbury, the Ven. Dr Will Adam, said that the parishes were “keen to work together in mission to Margate”, and that the trust brought “significant knowledge and expertise”.

Mr Nelson is currently a curate at SAINT, a group of churches in east London spanning the dioceses of London and Chelmsford (St John’s and St Luke’s, Hackney — one benefice since 2019; St Leonard’s, Shoreditch; All Saints’, West Ham; and St Mary with St Edward, Leyton) where “revitalisations” are under way. The incumbent is the Revd Alexander Gordon, who became Rector of St John’s, Hackney, in 2016, after serving his title at Holy Trinity, Brompton.

St Paul’s, Cliftonville, under the leadership of Canon Patrick Ellisdon (incumbent from 2004 until 2023), started a café-style church, Ignite, in 2008, which became the blueprint for a group of seven new worshipping communities, served by missioners, now present in areas of deprivation around the diocese. The £1.4-million project received an £887,015 SDF grant in 2018 (News, 13 July 2018; Interview, 16 September 2022)

A second SMMI-funded project in north Maidstone will seek to develop the partnership between St Luke’s — a Charismatic Evangelical church which, under the leadership of the Revd Gareth Dickinson, has trebled its congregation over the past three years to about 150 people — and St Faith’s, a church on a housing estate that has recently had a new bespoke church and community centre built.

Although Canterbury is the oldest diocese, its assets are among the lowest per capita: £2.31, according to 2021 figures. Only Liverpool is ranked below it (95 pence). Archdeacon Adam said on Friday that its only historic financial assets were clergy housing and a “very small” amount of glebe land. All costs must therefore be covered through parish share.

The diocese has significant levels of deprivation. Holy Trinity, Margate, is one of the most deprived parishes in the country: almost one third of children are recorded as living in poverty.

The SMMI grant follows the launch of a diocesan strategy, Changed Lives; Changing Lives, which includes plans to double the number of children and young disciples, launch 200 new Christian communities, and see every parish, benefice, and deanery “showing signs of revitalisation”.

A 2021 diocesan strategy paper highlighted a 15-per-cent fall in attendance over the past ten years, and set out plans to balance income and expenditure from 2022. It diagnosed a “historic over-reliance on stipendiary clergy”, and forecast a shift to less paid ministry and leadership, warning that, “with declining attendance and declining finances, the same level of stipendiary ministry is not financially sustainable across the diocese”.

On Friday, Dr Adam said that the strategy had “evolved” since 2021. There was no diocesan policy to reduce spending on stipendiary clergy, and numbers had remained “broadly similar. But our financial situation dictates that we have carefully to consider the affordability of posts when vacancies arise. We are seeking to grow the level of lay ministry and self-supporting clergy to work alongside our stipendiary clergy. . .

“The story here is about drawing in much needed investment to support growth in our mission, rather than trying to balance our financial books.”


Other awards

Bubble Church, a 30-minute Sunday church service designed for babies, toddlers, and young families, has been awarded a further £145,423 to fund two support staff, and to help churches in lower-income communities with start-up costs. First set up at the Ascension, Balham Hill (part of the Holy Trinity, Brompton network), during Covid restrictions, it uses puppets and songs to help to tell Bible stories to young families and talk about the Christian faith.

The Vicar, the Revd Marcus Gibbs, reported last year that more than 100 people were attending the service, 80 per cent of whom had never been to church previously. He had seen the number of infant baptisms “explode” — to 20 in the previous year — and families stay for the following service. “We’ve started with who they are, and how we can bless and meet their needs at this moment in their life,” he said in an online video.

Bubble Church received £250,000 in 2022 for expansion, since when the number of churches participating has grown from five to 30.

The Strategic Mission and Ministry Investment Board has also made an award of £45,000 under its People and Partnerships Fund to the Gregory Centre for Church Multiplication, for “research into how local churches support the living out the Christian faith in everyday life”.

The diocese of Hereford has been awarded £457,630 to help to pay for a series of “hubs”, or centres, to support rural parishes in outreach to children and young people. This will be piloted in two market towns, hosting youth and community workers and providing training in youth ministry while working in partnership with other programmes.

Hereford’s “Vision for the 2020s” listed a series of challenges facing the diocese. There were “very few children at most acts of worship on a Sunday”. Outside urban centres, the average Anglican was aged 72. With an annual deficit of £1 million, only 55 of 72 stipendiary incumbent posts were affordable, it said.

The grant follows an award of £525,000 in SDF funding in 2017 towards a £1.05-million five-year project to place intergenerational missioners (IMs) in six parishes in the diocese. Goals included a plan to “reach 1800 unchurched people with the gospel of whom 450 will be new disciples. At least half will be young people and adults under 35.”

A review conducted by RSConsult Ltd was published in 2022. It concluded that the project “cannot be described as having generated a step-change in mission. The growth in disciples is modest, the impact on the churches is mixed, and the initiative demonstrates fragility in the ability to sustain it both behaviourally and financially.

”However, it has had a catalytic impact on both diocese and churches and the points of friction are key missional topics: what the Church is here for, how best to live out faith, outward vs inward facing views and relationships with the community. It is highly unlikely that these issues could have been tackled as straightforwardly without the use of a missioner-type role, be that an existing church leader or an implant. An agent of change is needed to kick-start the germination process of growth.”

The review heard that more than 1900 unchurched people had been “reached” (62 per cent of whom were under 35), and 195 people had “become disciples” (43 per cent of whom were under 35). Of the 195, 120 were estimated to have become members of a church, though the report said that some had “struggled to integrate into the existing Anglican community”. In addition, 16 new worshipping communities had been established, most of which met monthly.

It set out a number of learning points. “Bringing into roles people who are not ordained, are much younger, who bring different backgrounds and experiences and whose outlook is different from the dominant clerical mindset can be very helpful,” it suggested. But this was also a source of tension. In the three market-town areas involved, none of the IMs completed their term. In six of the seven placements, there were “significant frictions in the relationships between clergy and the IMs”.

The review also reported “a very mixed response from churches not just in terms of growth but also from the existing congregants — some positive but others negative despite the commitments made by churches at the start of the project. In some cases, congregants simply do not seem to have understood how to engage effectively with the new relationships that the IM activity generated.”

Around the Church, it suggested, there was “a significant challenge in ageing churches because of resistance to the sorts of changes needed to engage younger adults more effectively”.

For their part, IMs reported that “mission is about building relationships with people through relevant service and activity. The trust and strength of these relationships build the bridge through which discipleship can develop. This is not well understood nor practised in many traditional church settings.”

The review also recorded that “targets were felt by many to be high or not in their gift to reach despite these being understood upfront — notably the numbers who become disciples — and these aspects were energy-sapping.”

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