Bishop Philip North’s address to New Wine and his passionate advocacy for ministry among the poor has attracted a lot of discussion. Many responses have been written, and like many prophetic words, Bishop Philip’s arguments can be challenged at various points. But certainly what he wrote resonated with me in many ways.
Admittedly I am not a vicar on a Northern housing estate. But I have been an inner-city vicar in Plymouth for nearly 15 years, and, as the Church Urban Fund pointed out several years ago, in every part of the country there are significant pockets of deprivation only a few miles from the most affluent areas. The issues surrounding estate or inner-city ministry are too important to be reduced to a simple north/south argument, and really are relevant everywhere.
Let me identify a few of them:
Leadership training. I think it is very easy to criticise theological training as failing to equip ordinands for future ministry. But I think the arguments are more complex than that. I trained full time at a theological college in Oxford, in a very nice part of the city, and I received an excellent academic education. And over the years I have become more and more grateful for the foundations that were laid. I am a firm believer in the principle that to present something simply you have to know it deeply, and we must never make the mistake of reducing the content of training in order to focus more on the context.
But having said all that, it has been a hard struggle learning how to apply my theological education to my current ministry. I believe white middle-class graduates such as myself can minister effectively in these situations, but it took me years to realise I was as much involved in the process of Bible translation as a missionary on a foreign field. So I had to look hard at the way I communicated. Having an Oxbridge education meant I tended to focus on abstract concepts and presume a level of academic education among my hearers. I had to learn to inhabit the world of those I was serving, and to be willing to really listen and learn from their experiences. I also had to look afresh at Scripture and relate the good news of Jesus in new ways to the culture around me. All this has been a long, hard process where I am sure I made many mistakes along the way, and I am still learning. But just as when a Bible translation is finally complete, there does come a time when you realise that through you people are by God’s grace hearing and responding to the good news, and when that happens, it is real affirmation of your calling.
Buildings. Bishop Philip is surely right to draw attention to the state of many churches in less affluent areas. Nothing drains a church more than an unusable building. When I arrived, the heating and electricity at St Michael’s had been condemned and there was mould growing over all the wars. The original church had been destroyed like so much in Devonport in the raids of 1941 and it had been hastily rebuilt after the war with little concern for quality.
Fortunately Exeter diocese approached the whole question of buildings in an imaginative way, by partnering with a local housing association who would lease the whole site, redevelop it for social housing and provide a new place of worship as part of the deal. All this was done on a cost neutral basis for the church concerned, and although the process of redevelopment could be long and arduous, the results have been of immense benefits to the churches in question.
Clearly here there is a model other dioceses could follow, although I realise that the economic situation is now very different from when the process in Exeter diocese started in 2002, with the other church in my parish, St Barnabas. The one issue in Plymouth, however, arose from the fact every parish received a new building, whether there was a viable congregation or not, regardless of the size of the parish. So there are a number of tiny congregations worshipping in new buildings in small parishes, and from my own experience the size of these buildings do not allow for substantial growth. We are still in the process of deciding whether it is possible or realistic to extend St Michael’s.
Diocesan expectations. It is always dangerous to talk about numbers but very roughly the size of our congregation here is about the same as it was 15 years ago. However about three quarters of the original congregation have moved on or passed away, so even though numerically there may seem to be little growth, plenty of folk have come to faith. Ministry in the inner-city or outer estate often feels very unstable and there is a constant turnover of people.
Here in the diocese of Exeter there is an expectation that all churches have to be part of a mission community of a certain size and income. Even with new people continuing to come to faith, we are not likely to reach that size and income. So over the past 15 years I have faced the constant prospect of pastoral reorganisation. The benefice was suspended from 2000 to 2015, and there is still no clear way ahead. The favoured solution is to merge with a neighbouring benefice, even smaller than ourselves, with a very different understanding of theology and mission. I struggle to see however how such pastoral reorganisations can advance the gospel, and concerned that a scheme like this will only lead to further decline.
Church culture. I already touched on this when talking about leadership training, but I am talking here about an even more pervasive issue. If the church ever connected with folk in the inner-city, it was several generations ago. It is generally seen as a middle-class institution speaking a foreign language, expecting those who attend to have a certain level of literacy and to know how to participate in its ceremonies. There is an automatic cultural barrier which prevents folk from connecting with the church, and indeed several times I have spoken to people on the streets who have been surprised they are allowed to go to church.
Ours is a liturgical church with Biblical preaching, and I am keen to affirm a distinctive Anglican identity. However it has also been necessary to remove so many of the barriers that cause the culture of the church to become more an obstacle than an aid to a personal relationship with Jesus. So on a Sunday morning, I make it clear that if you can’t read, that’s fine. If you have mental health problems or learning difficulties, you are still loved and accepted as a member of Christ’s body. Indeed, I believe that the primary way the church will reconnect in the sort of area I serve is simply by being a community that reflects the love of Christ. That does not mean, however, we simply affirm without providing challenge. Our aim to say to whoever comes in through our doors, “Neither do I condemn you.. Go now and leave your life of sin” and to pray that we might show to each individual both the appropriate level of acceptance and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
However, despite all this, I still find at St Michael’s the perception of the church in general or the “diocese” very negative. This is hardly something to wonder at, because so often the issues that preoccupy the national church have very little relevance to life on the street, and the discussion are couched in language and procedures that are only accessible to a few. Even the eighty page minutes of a diocesan synod are hardly something anyone round here is likely to read, mark and inwardly digest, and discussion of a carbon Eco-fast for Lent, for example, doesn’t really mean that much when folk are struggling to pay their electricity bill all year round.
Leadership. What keeps the church going in tough areas are a number of willing volunteers who give so sacrificially in so many ways of their time, their money and their energy. I am so grateful to all those at St Michael’s and St Barnabas who have served in so many ways and I hope they know how thankful I am to them. But despite all their hard work, what inner-city estates often lack are those with gifts of leadership. I have often heard calls for mission communities to raise up lay leadership, and discover vocations in the congregation. The blunt reality is, that there aren’t that many with such gifts around. Ours is not an area where folk will come forward for ordination or reader training, nor are there going to be many retired or self-supporting ministers able to help out. So while I long for more labourers in the harvest field, so often I find myself working with limited resources. This inevitably affects how much work the church can do in the local area.
Focus of ministry. When I arrived at St Michael’s there was the remnant of a social project in the one useable area of the church. It had been set up a few years earlier when funding for a community development worker had been forthcoming. But the funding had dried up and it was being run by some very dedicated volunteers who were doing what they could to keep it going. In addition, it had been set up with the model that the project was a gift to the local community and it was inappropriate for me to come in and share my faith there.
There can be a huge expectation that an inner-city minister will devote his or her time to social projects. But my experience reveals two flaws with this expectation. First of all, it is possible to spend all your life chasing funding which may only last for a few years, and then run out. Secondly, there can often be an unhelpful and artificial divide between social action and proclamation of the gospel so that one takes place to the detriment to the others.
Unless the church remembers its primary calling, there is a danger it becomes just another voluntary organisation seeking to do good, but without the resources or expertise of other organisations. So from day one the focus on my ministry has been on preaching the word of God, recognising that the ultimate need for each person in the parish is for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This doesn’t mean that I have ignored the very practical needs of those to whom I minister. I have become very involved in ministry amongst adults with learning difficulties and in seeking to address issues of mental health, for example. But the preaching and teaching of the Word has to be the primary focus, with the expectation that when it goes forth, it does not return empty. Of course, in such an unchurched area, this rarely means there is an immediate or visible response. You need a strong belief in the grace of God to keep persevering at times, yet gradually you do start to see God’s word beginning to take root and real transformation to take place.
Clearly there are no simple or easy solutions to any of these issues. If there is any kind of answer, it must be that there is greater communication and openness between churches in more affluent areas and those in less affluent areas. I can well identify with Bishop Philip North’s story about the poor being subsidised by the wealthier areas. It would be a start, at least, if real, effective links could be developed so that those who give the most understand where their money is going, and develop a heart for urban mission. It would also help if parishes in poorer areas better explained the work they were doing and why it was so important. To this end I hope that Bishop Philip’s words are not seen as isolated prophetic word but the start of a conversation that ultimately will benefit and strengthen the life of the whole Anglican church in this nation, and good news is preached to the poor.