by Rt Revd Philip North – October 2021

Just as the profile of poorer communities is being (unexpectedly) raised at a national level, competing pressures may pull the emerging strategy of the Church of England in the opposite direction. In a timely article, Bishop Philip outlines some practical ways to address this and urges the Church to become ‘addicted to danger’ in following the Christ who proclaimed good news to the poor.

Is the nation at long last taking notice of its poorer communities?

Many people involved in urban ministry today cut their teeth in the 1980s and 1990s under a government that seemed to have made a calculated decision that it did not need the votes of the urban poor in order to sustain large majorities. Unemployment rocketed, the manufacturing heart of urban communities in the midlands and the north was ripped out, trade union power was decimated and savage cuts in public services laid waste the estates and deprived them of local leadership. Again in 2008 when the nation hit a financial crisis it was the poorest who paid off the bill accrued by wealthy bankers through a decade of hard and (as we now know) unnecessary austerity.

In common with many others, I was assuming that the cost of the Coronavirus crisis would likewise be outsourced to the poorest, but it looks like I may be wrong and even for a raddled old cynic like me, there are fragile signs that things are different this time round.

In part this is a result of circumstance. Massive labour shortages and a sustained supply line crisis has brought to the forefront of our mind a whole host of low paid workers upon whom we depend but whom we have taken for granted: lorry drivers, farm labourers, cleaners, chefs and so on. Consequently wages have been forced up and the power dynamic of the workplace is shifting in favour of low-paid staff.

But in addition to this, the Government, with its red wall seats, has worked out that to stay in power, it needs the votes of the working class. So the minimum wage has been substantially increased to £9.50 (and let’s remember that the golden bullet in addressing poverty is not food banks or benefits but good quality fair paid work). Moreover there would indeed seem to be some actual policy behind the spin of the levelling up agenda as has been evidenced by recent transport spending pledges. Benefits changes and a cost of living crunch still mean that that there is a huge amount to do to address poverty and inequality and this winter will be a hard one for many people. But it is hard to argue that the voices of the low paid are being entirely overlooked.

What an irony it would be, therefore, if just at the moment when the nation started to notice its poorer communities, the Church of England did the exact opposite. Yet there is a very real risk that this is just what we will see over the next ten years.

There is no point in wishing away the very severe issues that Dioceses face with the interwoven problems of declining attendance, reduced parish share income and the inflexibility of ecclesiastical law. The nostalgia of groups such as ‘Save the Parish’ will no more offer a solution than did appointing 1990s hero Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer to manage Man Utd. But those dioceses who are responding to the problems they face with large scale re-organisations need to look very carefully at the impact that their plans will have on our urban estates and poorest communities. Because in almost every case, that kind of re-organisation ends up deciding ‘reluctantly’ to pull out the priest from the estate or closing down the church that serves the poorest area. In our desperate desire for financial viability, we could very easily end up leaving the poor behind.

Times of crisis should be opportunities to reflect deeply on purpose which is why the work that the Archbishop of York is doing on vision and strategy is so critical for us. So what are we actually trying to achieve with the restructuring plans that most dioceses are now commencing? There is a serious danger that a great deal of national and diocesan strategy is motivated by little more than a longing for institutional survival. Locally parishioners want to keep their church open just long enough for it to host their funeral. Nationally we want to stave off the bankruptcy of a Diocesan Board of Finance so we can meet stipend and pensions liabilities. Generally we have affection for the Church of England which lends us a degree of security and comfort and want it to hang on in there for a while longer yet. For how embarrassing to be the generation which saw the established church fold!

We need to zoom out and expand our ambition. Because our goal cannot be the propping up of a tired institution. Surely what we yearn for is the Kingdom. That is our vision and that means a whole nation transformed under Christ. What we want is for the hungry to be fed, the poor to find justice, the lonely to find love, the despairing to find hope and the sinful to turn from their wicked ways and live. Surely the object of our striving is for a nation to know Christ and the hope he gives through the power of his death. If not, why are we bothering?

And if our vision is for a nation transformed rather than an institution propped up, then we need to begin with the poor. Which is where we are going wrong, because for decades we have run a church for the rich (with occasional bouts of guilt-offset).

Arguably the development which has had the greatest impact on contemporary Anglicanism was the foundation in 1932 of the Iwerne Trust by E J H Nash. His strategy was clear and rooted in the belief that if you could influence the most powerful with evangelical Christianity you would change the nation. So the camps he ran in Dorset were open only to boys from the most exclusive public schools. The way that the movement was later abused by one of its volunteers is tragic, but there can be no doubting the faithfulness, passion and dedication of the leaders that Nash produced.

But what about the big plan of converting a nation by influencing the most powerful? A quick glance at Church of England attendance data from the past five decades tells us whether or not the Iwerne project has worked in that respect. And it is not hard to discern the reason. When Jesus wanted to transform the world with the good news of the Kingdom, he did not go to the wealthiest or the most influential. He spent the precious few months of his public ministry hanging about with peasants, publicans and prostitutes. The leaders he called were traitors, tax collectors and failed fisherman. He lived as the poor and with the poor.

Which is where we’re going wrong. As a national church we invest far more in areas of wealth than in areas of poverty. Cambridge has roughly five times more stipendiary clergy per head of population than Blackpool. Resourcing churches have (until the most recent) been placed in communities where there is a student population and easy access to the middle classes. Our liturgies, resources, training processes, communications and synodical structures are all by default tailored to a middle class culture. We are working hard on some areas of diversity and yet still the missing voice in almost every Church of England room is working class.

So if what we want is the transformation of a nation under Christ, we need a revolution. We need a complete reversal of our priorities as a church. For only when we proclaim good news to the poor will a nation sit up and listen. If our new Vision and Strategy is to be anything more than a decline plan or a PR campaign, we need to set ourselves goals such as the following.

First, we need our best priests in our most deprived parishes. It is still too often the case that wealthy market towns and inner London parishes will have vast queues of applicants whereas inner city and outer estates parishes away from the capital struggle to recruit. Why? Where is the ambition and the Gospel love for the poor? Times of renewal have always been characterised by a desire amongst Christians to live amongst and serve those whose lives are most challenged, and we need that spirit of self-giving love now more than ever before.

Second, we need planting strategies that prioritise the estates and the urban areas we have left behind. Instead of walking away from poorer communities we need to be working out sustainable and affordable ways to renew church life there, honouring the commitment made by General Synod in 2019 to have a loving, worshipping, serving Christian community on every significant estate in the nation. The Antioch project in the Diocese of Manchester is a good example of this.

Third, we need a holistic approach to evangelism. Tedious dichotomies such as service versus proclamation are far removed from the ministry of Jesus Christ who touched every single part of a person’s life: material, physical, spiritual, social. Healthy churches will hold together confident evangelism, generous service and a deep desire for justice in a coherent whole.

Fourth, we need a fair sharing of resources. God will not bless a church that is content to enshrine within its structures the chronic injustice which means that the inherited wealth of the Diocese of Liverpool works out at 79p per head of population whereas in the best off it is nearly £100. Nor is it acceptable that so many dioceses continue to treat Lowest Income Communities Funding as general income rather than passing it on to the deprived parishes for whom it is intended. It is a delusion to say we cannot afford the urban church when we sit on vast amounts of material wealth specifically intended for areas of deprivation but which we are using unjustly.

But above all we need an addiction to danger. We must yearn for the deep water. We need to be ready to risk everything. Because what actually are we afraid of? The Gospel teaches us that whoever loses their life for Christ’s sake will find it. If we risk everything, we will gain everything, and in any case nothing can take away from us the triumph of the cross or the worship of the Church.

Christ became poor that we might be made rich. When we have the courage to emulate that sacrificial love, then perhaps not just a nation but a world will sit up and take notice.

Rt Revd Philip North has been the Bishop of Burnley in the Diocese of Blackburn since February 2015. Previously he served in urban estates parishes in Hartlepool and Sunderland and was Team Rector of a large inner city Parish in Camden Town. He also spent six years ministering to pilgrims at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk.  He chairs the Church of England’s Estates Evangelism Task Group and is a member of the Company of Mission Priests.


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