Saturday 16 November 2013

Urban Ministry; Not the End of an Era.

Giles Frasers' article in the Guardian Why the Writing Could Be on the Wall for the Church of England in the Inner City here is important and is, I fear, quite likely to be overlooked as we stampede toward discussions about women bishops at the General Synod of the Church of England. Giles draws attention not so much to the situation of inner city parishes (and, of course, they are all different, some flourishing and others in apparently terminal decline) as to the changing attitude of the whole church to its commitment to city ministry.

I was at theological college in Durham in the late 1980's around the time of the Faith in the City  report that so much displeased Margaret Thatcher. Part of my training was spent living and ministering in the parish of Gateshead near Newcastle. I then served as a Parish Deacon, funded by the Church Urban Fund, in a very large urban parish in Nottingham and taught at St John's College Nottingham which, I like to think, instilled in its students a sense of responsibility for urban ministry. You would have been hard pressed to get through a course without at least thinking seriously about it.

The truth about urban ministry is that you will probably be working with very small congregations of 20 or fewer people in areas where there are glaring  and urgent social needs. You will be part of a tiny group of dedicated Christians who do not have a great deal in the way of resources or skills to promote themselves, their communities' needs or their causes. Often, they have vast wisdom, humour and sheer commitment and stickability but, like everyone, they have their limits beyond which they cannot be pushed. You will live in places where personal safety can be an issue and where, if you have children, they may attend schools that do not have a high level of academic achievement. One of my urban colleagues was burgled 80 times in 10 years. He used to joke he kept a packet of biscuits on the kitchen table with a note saying 'Welcome, please help yourselves.' I was burgled 5 times in 3 years and my husband (this was before we were married) had his windows shot out with an air rifle and his fence repeatedly stolen for firewood. A local pub dealt in arms, drugs and prostitution and, one memorable summer, there were three shootings and an arson attack on the estate in just a few months.  The Community development worker, 7 months pregnant, was threatened at knife point by an irate parent. Yet...I've never actually felt personally safer in terms of being able to call on neighbours for help. I've never known my neighbours so well nor enjoyed life so much as in that deeply urban parish. I've also never known such generosity - 20% of church income was given away without a murmur, share was somehow paid, money came miraculously through the door on Christmas Eve 'for the children of the church', people would share their homes with someone who was evicted at the drop of a hat because they knew what it felt like to be thrown out of your home. It was different from the parish described by Giles. We didn't have any listed buildings. But we had workers to pay and land to maintain. We raised over £10,000 a year towards the salary of a Community Development Worker and to support volunteers. 

Recently, in the Diocese of Ripon and Leeds, we have had a strong commitment to fund the share (payments from the parishes to the central Diocese) across the whole diocese so that the less well off parishes can be provided with resources, primarily clergy who, significantly, tend to be one of the few professionals living in the urban areas they serve. We've done quite well at cross-fertilisation between the urban and rural areas in what is one of the most urban/rural diverse dioceses in England. Yet even here, I feel, the message is not getting through as well as it used to. 

As the Archdeacon, until recently, of a very rural area, I have huge sympathy for rural clergy who are grappling with the challenge of serving 8-12 different communities and churches. But as a former parish priest, I feel I have, ultimately, to speak up for our commitment to urban parishes where (in my own experience) there may be as many as 40,000 souls living. I don't want to belong to a Church of England that does not recognise its responsibility for caring and being active in these kinds of city parishes. After all, that would be to dismiss a large proportion of the population. We may have to jettison buildings, think about church very differently and get away from models of ministry that are dependent on ordained ministers, but we cannot move away from our responsibility to fund ministry in these areas without ceasing to be a national church and without failing in our call to respond to the situation of people we live alongside. 

For ways you can gain insight, fund projects or think about urban life and ministry, go to the Church Urban Fund website here 

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