“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)?
A recent survey by Greg Smith (an old friend of Urban Presence) for the Evangelical Alliance on evangelical views on poverty makes interesting reading. In this blog Greg reflects on the findings. There is much to be encouraged about in terms of how much more holistic most evangelicals now are in how they see the Mission of God and the numbers involved in practical ways in social action. Stats include 87% believing God is on the side of the poor and only 11% believing faith in God = financial prosperity. However, the vast majority (and I include myself) are not poor themselves and only one in ten are “intentionally living in a poorer area in response to God’s call”. Not a lot of urban presence then, though 10% isn’t actually that bad a number. I would be interested in a breakdown of how many years, as I think a long-term commitment can be important (but then I would think that!)
Perhaps something to work on is shown by evidence that evangelicals have bought into media narratives on domestic poverty which tend to soft-pedal structural and societal causes and focus on individual failure. Hence there is a lot of Good Samaritan tending for the casualties, but a need for more action on fixing the lighting on the Jericho Road. Nothing wrong with the former of course but as Jim Wallis said: “You can’t keep pulling bodies out of the river and not send somebody upstream to see what or who is throwing them in.”
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!
Quite often when I attend Christian conferences and leaders’ meetings I will automatically do a quick scan for urban practitioners or ministers of urban churches who I know to see how urban issues are being represented. What I also note is the representation of ethnic minorities, women and younger delegates. What cannot easily be noticed is representation of those from the working classes and those who recognise that heritage as their cultural identity. Some do come from that background but had to go through such cultural transformation to engage in Christian ministry that their roots are not easily detectable.
Years ago I took a fellow Church Elder along to a Leaders Day organised by a group of ‘New Church’ leaders. There was not a dog collar in sight but as he scanned the room he asked me, ‘Is this their uniform?’ What he had noticed was the ‘smart casual’ lighter coloured clothes of a large group of middle-class ‘House Church’ leaders. This Elder was a working class man who held a significant role in his industry’s trade union. He had come to faith within the past decade and had grown in that faith and demonstrated spiritual maturity and wisdom. What troubled me as much as his evident discomfort was his apparent disappointment, possibly that there were no others like him. If the difference stopped at the clothes people wore this would not be such an issue, but there were more aspects to this than that.
Observations like these suggest that unless the Church in England recognises that the working classes are predominantly absent from the Church, that it is a significant problem and they need to address the issue of working class cultural exclusion, people of working class culture will never become more than an unidentifiably negligible element of the Church.
Derek Purnell (from the introduction to the book “Speaking the Unspeakable”. Email to find out more.)