“The church on our outer estates is dying and is dying very quickly. The conclusion is an obvious one. We are all leaders of a church that has taken a preferential option for the rich.”
“The battle for the Christian soul of this nation will not be won and lost in Kensington or Cobham or Harrogate. It’s out on the estates where life is hard and where church life is fading fast.”
These comments were made by the Rt Rev Philip North, the Bishop of Burnley, as part of a report on evangelism at the recent General Synod of the Church of England.
He also pointed out that the Church’s claim to have a presence in every community was not true. “The church is not present in every community and the places where we are least present are the poorest — the outer estates of our towns and cities.”
In the last five years church attendance on estates, already half of the national average, has fallen 8.3%, compared to 2.3% nationally. Yet national spending on ministry is £7.90 per head of population, rising to £23.88 in rural areas, but on the estates it is just £5.09.
This decline has been common knowledge amongst Urban Mission practitioners for many years. It is good that the C of E is showing some concern at the top (it has long been there at parish level), and there will be a day conference on March 1st in York to discuss what the Evangelism Task Group has made a “priority”. It’s something, but is it too little, too late?
The bishop’s comments were featured in The Times. The evangelism report can be downloaded here (section on estates: p15).
As a P.S. to the last blog, the above is the title of an article in the EA’s Idea magazine about their survey on poverty (more here). Interesting stuff and stats with encouraging percentages of evangelicals and their churches active with poverty-related projects. However, near the end is this telling quote from one of the survey’s respondents: “Most Christians seem to move into the nicest area they can afford to get away from anti-social behaviour and working class people. Then they come to church and talk about wanting to reach everyone.” What about our urban presence? How much of our ministry is “doing for” (episodic, from a distance, reaching down), and how much is “being with” (incarnational, from beside, reaching across)?
This is the title of an article in today’s Times. According to a recent report* poorer areas and areas outside of London and the South East have far less charitable activity going on to tackle social problems. Blackpool, in the bottom 10 deprived locations, has 47 charities, equivalent to 1.7 per 1,000 people. Hackney in London, with similar levels of deprivation has 449, or 3.9 per 1,000 people. The Cotswolds, 263rd out of 326 in the index of deprivation has 6.6 charities per 1,000 people. This speaks of where people with resources, time and motivation tend to live. No double there are social problems in the Cotswolds, but it would be interesting to compare them with Blackpool. Or Ardwick, Manchester. As the article says: “Charities say that they are less bureaucratic than the government and closer to the people who need the help most. However, by being based in affluent areas and focusing on the problems there, this argument is undermined.”
More evidence of deprived (mostly urban) losing out to affluent (mostly suburban). I wonder if the pattern for church-based charitable activity (or any activity) is any different… How many are actually “closer to the people who need help the most”? That’s a survey waiting to be commissioned. Any takers?
[*Ironically, the report comes from the London-based Centre for Social Justice, an ‘independent (hmm) think-tank’ founded by Iain Duncan-Smith while in post-Tory-party-leader wilderness. Good that they’re exposing stuff like this. Could the founder please take note?]
A couple of weeks ago we had a baptism at church. it was of a 5 year old from a local family from the estate, quite a number of whom came along in a mixture of suits and night-out outfits. The adults looked uncomfortable and seemed a bit unsure of what to do (as I would in, say, a betting shop), but relaxed as the service got under way (we do a good welcome and have an informal and light way that helps make people feel at ease). The men appreciated several comments about England’s World Cup performance, and everyone had fun when the big water pistol came out so the blessings of baptism could be shared! After the baptism itself and a few songs, the children were encouraged to go out and join in the Sunday school. Then, as the minister began a short talk, those still in the room, almost as one, got up and walked out. I don’t think any offence was meant (or taken) – it was just a case of “our bit is over, let’s go to the pub for the party.” The children that had gone out to Sunday school were collected and off they all went.
We have been here before, but not this blatantly as we note the degree to which local culture is now alienated from what goes on inside that building where the church meets on a Sunday morning. It may be the last gasps of folk-religion (get the child ‘done’), but I wonder if the requests we still get have more to it than that, as the sense of wonder at the miracle of new life turns into gratitude and a desire to somehow involve God. We want to help people to express that, but we also need to re-think how we handle services that include a local thanksgiving or baptism. Locking the doors is probably not the answer!
Recently I heard a presentation about a local Enterprise Network. It was a forum for businesses in a deprived area of the city to come together to help and support each other, and at the same time jointly deliver community projects, creating jobs, skill-training and mentoring opportunities. Knowing the area in question I named several big companies who are based there and asked if they were part of this network. After a smile and a pause, the answer was along the lines of, er, not really. With a couple of exceptions the big outfits tend to not get involved and in some cases seem to have their own programme of community support. It was mostly small businesses who were involved in and benefitted from the network, and in turn brought benefit to the local community.
Some years ago I was involved in a network of local churches. The idea was to bring churches together to give mutual support and encouragement, enable good communication and sharing and create a basis to work together on particular projects or initiatives, so enabling growth of the Kingdom of God in the city. After all, as John says, it is when we love one another that people will KNOW who it is we follow. After a time I found that there was a tendency for the bigger churches to not get involved in joint programmes, or not to promote or attend meetings or events designed to encourage and support each other or mission and ministry across a wider area (or that, dare I say it, would take their members away from the home programme). On the whole it was the smaller churches that came and found them useful. I use “tendency” and “on the whole” as there were exceptions, but it seemed that those who were big enough to be self-sufficient, were just that and did their own thing.
A recent report in the Church Times showed that C of E clergy are at least twice as likely to apply for vacant posts in the South East as in the North. The report was picked up by the Independent under the title “Go spread the word of the Lord? Only down South, say choosy Church of England clergy” (with some interesting comments at the end!). I wonder how much more this is the case when inner-city or overspill estates tare taken into account? One startling comparison mentioned was between an estate parish in Hartlepool that took two and a half years to fill, and a rich area in Paddington which had over 120 applications.
Before any other denominations get ideas, a 2011 study of Methodist ministers showed 6% living in the bottom fifth of most deprived postcodes. (Michael Hirst, “Location, Location, Location,” Methodist Recorder, 10/5/2012, 8). Many denominations are simply largely absent in the inner-city.
Yes, in deciding where to live there are important considerations to be made and costs to be counted – family welfare probably coming top – but isn’t the theory here that as Christians the call of God on our lives is number one? And that is where as well as, in fact often before, what. If God has actually ‘placed’ his people in their locations, as some claim, then that doesn’t say much for his “bias for the poor”. Maybe it is time to come clean and admit that for most of us most of the time, in practice, we choose comfort and convenience over call, and our leaders are only partly to blame, as we are very willing to follow their example. We fail God in all sorts of ways, and he still loves us and is prepared to work with what we manage to offer him. That said, Suburban Drift, Redemption and Lift/Leave, the assumption of aspirational middle-class values, call it what you will, continues unchallenged in our churches.