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.

Faith and friends

This morning began in our small group conversations, talking and listening.  As I suggested in an earlier blog the subject we were talking about was not contentious but it was nevertheless very helpful.  The task we had was a simple one – to talk about how we came to faith and specifically what age we were when we made a commitment to Christ; what have been the fruitful and energising experiences we’ve had of evangelism and what have been the challenges to that. As is important in these conversations we were operating in a framework which created a safe space to speak openly about our own story.  So I can’t attribute anything to anyone in the group but what was fascinating, and especially around the subject of coming to faith, how similar many of the stories were.

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All Saints’ Wigston Magna where I came to faith

 

The common factor for many of us was the importance of family, Sunday School and day school in sowing the seeds of faith.  It was in childhood that many of us first experienced faith, whatever then happened later on.  I was taken to church from being quite young, my mother taught us to pray and prayed with us every evening and we went to Sunday School.  The latter didn’t do much for me but church did. It was the liturgy that set my heart on fire.  How old was I? About 5.  I joined the choir when I was 7 and by then my faith was as alive as I think it is now.  I say this with no sense of pride but it is just as it was.  The smoke, the ritual, the music it was all transporting, a glimpse of heaven.  It set my heart on fire then and the embers still glow and I thank God for that.

But given that this was such a formative time for so many of us, what does that say about what we do now with children and young people? In the debate that followed after the Group Work on the report of the Evangelism Task Force we were being encouraged to get excited about the possibilities of evangelism and made aware of the challenges – not least with young people and not least in the inner-urban and outer-urban estates.  It was an excellent morning and there was a lot of passion in the Chamber that I hope, and pray, converts into real action.  After all perhaps we, as it says of Queen Esther in the book that bears he name

‘have come … for just such a time as this.’ (Esther 4.14)

The afternoon began with a debate on the proposed agreement – the Columba Declaration – between the Church of Scotland and the Church of England.  Though they are Presbyterian and we are episcopal we have things in common, not least that we are both national, established churches on the one island. But the factor which caused all the heat in the Chamber and which had caused something of a ‘Twitter-storm’ when news of the agreement first broke is the presence in Scotland of the Scottish Episcopal Church.  What did it say about our relationship with SEC to be going into this relationship with CoS? The need to work for Christian unity is a dominical command, the disunity of the church is a visible scandal and a barrier to mission.  But achieving that whilst respecting the relationships that we are already in is not just necessary but vital.

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Friendships across the border are vital

 

I felt distinctly uncomfortable.  As the debate progressed I felt I knew less and less about the truth of who knew what and when they knew it and who had participated and who was happy and who was unhappy.  The two amendments sought to make a better way – one more radically and I think better than the other – but it was the latter that received support.  In the end I did what I seldom do and that was to record an abstention.  I hate doing that but I felt unable to do anything else and I left the Chamber dissatisfied.

The close bonds of friendship with the churches in Scotland need to be deepened and where rifts have occurred they need to be healed – and not new ones opened. The amended motion was passed.  I just hope that what happens now is more sensitively handled than was the case so recently.

For bonds of friendship,
for the faith we share,
Lord, we give you thanks and praise.
Amen.

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