On the estates

One of the wonders of the English language is that the same word can mean such different things.  Sunday evening used to hold the treat for me of watching ‘Downton Abbey’, what Lady Mary was getting up to, the wonderful Dowager Duchess of Grantham and all the rest of them.  But every so often they would leave the comfort of the dining or the drawing rooms and visit the estate.  Kind words, jars of jam, a caring look would be shared with the tenant farmers living in their beautiful tied cottages.  Idyllic.  But when Synod debated Estate Evangelism yesterday we were not thinking of Lady Mary out on the estate but the other use of that word – those big areas of social housing that dominate may of our industrial and post-industrial cities and towns.  When they were built they were often given names that suggested a more bucolic image than their reality – Blackbird Leys on the edge of Oxford comes to mind – but life on our estates can be desperately difficult yet have a deep beauty as well.

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There are lives behind the windows

The Bishop of Burnley, with his usual enthusiasm, introduced a debate that was aimed at encouraging the church to reengage with these estates.  Many still have church buildings but with few priests or other ministers and often small and struggling groups of people trying to keep things going.  The thing is – and we have to be honest here – we have let down the people who live on our estates.  When I was ordained people wanted to go to a parish in the north, people looked forward to being in an estate church.  It was where the really gritty work could be done. ‘Faith in the City’, published back in 1985 much to the annoyance of then then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, encouraged the church to put resources into the inner cities.  The Church Urban Fund was created, things happened.  And then the fire went out and it was no longer sexy or attractive.  Priests do not in general apply for jobs on the tough estates, they want to live and work in nicer places where more people may go to church and its easier to produce those good metrics that show growth that the Church of England demand of us.  So we have added to the marginalisation of those communities that are on our estates, the marginalisation which has been reinforced and made worse through years of austerity, the diminishment of Local Government and the disgraceful way in which the benefits system has been changed. It all adds up to a very sad story of abuse.

Yet in the debate we heard really good stories of places where work is going on and communities are being supported and encouraged.  We heard about places where congregations are growing through the committed ministry of lay and ordained people together – but often struggling to find the resources that they need.

We were reminded that it was with the poor and the marginalised that Jesus began his ministry.  His ministry was with those who had nothing. The ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ which Luke gives us in his gospel says it all

[Jesus] unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4.17-19)

Working on estates in east Leeds taught me what treasures there in those places, treasures of faith and commitment, treasures of skills and imagination but also a need of encouragement where often confidence is lacking or has been beaten out of people by the system.  What we committed ourselves to yesterday when we voted for the motion before us was to put our resources, of every kind and at every level, back into this area of our mission to and for and with these communities.  But that will be a challenge to all of us and not least to priests to hear the call to minister in such places and have the courage to respond.  Their courage will not go unrewarded.

Lord Jesus,
you embraced the poor
and made them rich.
May we do as you did.
Amen.

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