In the second of a pair of Advent blog posts looking at the myriad and complex ways lived religion and belief bring hope, light and resilience to localities, Greg Smith reflects on church growth and decline in urban Preston.
Following John Reader’s blog last week I am struck with the parallels between the rural parish, and the inner urban parish. In fact, it seems to me that the relatively thriving church in suburbia or medium size dormitory towns is the exceptional case, the deviant model of Anglican ecclesiology. The national agendas of church growth and Reform and Renewal, with all their managerial expertise and business jargon, appear to belong there, rather than in the settings John and I know well. Is it possible to see a resilient future for the inner-city parish, especially when one moves away from the church growth hotspots of Inner London?
Amidst the hotpots of Lancashire my case study is the parish of the Risen Lord in the East End of the small city of Preston. There are three buildings, a Victorian gothic monstrosity, a back-street Mission Hall and a small functional 1960s church building close to the city centre. There is also a church primary school, housed in an unmodernised building, serving over 450 children, 68% of whom have a first language other than English and 37% of whom are on free school meals.
Recently we celebrated the official opening of our refurbished mission hall. Thanks to the local council we had tapped into a grant of £50,000 (the pieces of silver paid by a recently opened giant supermarket to compensate the local community). Seventy people turned up, at least half were from the residents’ association and user groups of the hall, and by no means regular churchgoers. We had a suffragan bishop to cut the ribbon and he confessed that he had been wrong a few years ago when he’d suggested getting rid of the building.
The next night we combined with another local parish for an adult baptism service for someone who for complicated reasons belongs to both parishes. Around 80 people turned for an evening service, the numbers probably boosted because the guest preacher was the diocesan bishop.
The following Saturday was our Messy Church, having fun, worship and food as families preparing for Christmas. Normally it attracts 50 people, and drawing as we do from families in the school the majority attending are Muslim, and the rest may include people from Polish, Romanian, Greek and Caribbean backgrounds.
We also run a weekly job club, helping unemployed people to apply for jobs and avoid benefit sanctions, and a youth cafe for bored and often disengaged youngsters. There’s a toddler group, occasional Alpha courses and an annual community fun day, which this year coincided with the Diocesan Crossroads Mission campaign. Street pastor teams, including our church members patrol the streets each Friday, connecting with the sex workers, the rough sleepers, the pub goers and the kids hanging out, and occasionally one of them turns up on a Sunday morning. Our sister church runs a weekly coffee morning with time for prayer and worship, and has combined unofficially with the remnant congregation of the local RC parish, which is without a priest or liturgies since the plug was pulled by their bishop a couple of years ago.
Three weeks ago, the 40-year-old boiler in our main church building gave up the ghost. Despite massive heating bills the building is so cold that the regulars wear sweaters and coats even in June. For the next few weeks we’ll be meeting in the school or the mission hall. We have just decided to spend £22k to replace the boiler, though we couldn’t have fixed it at all but for the amazing providence of a big legacy from a faithful member that has just come through. The radical solution, which we did consider (only half in jest) was to call in the diocesan arsonist and rebuild from scratch a more economic and user friendly worship centre. In the long term, it could be that a community centre or housing scheme incorporating some worship space offers the best hope of a sustainable future.
Traditionalists in the local community would undoubtedly resist the loss of a building which is a symbolic community landmark. Indeed, the council as part of their general neighbourhood regeneration project has just installed floodlighting in the pavement outside. There is still a regular if declining demand for weddings and christenings, and with an ageing population, for funerals. These occasional offices are the events which are still most likely to fill the pews (and we still have fixed wooden pews) of the parish church.
At the main church we struggle to get 40 people along to a Sunday morning service, at the other church 20 is a good congregation, with even less at the early morning service in the Mission Hall. The congregations are diverse in ethnicity and social class. Yet almost all the worshippers are ageing and in two decades’ time are unlikely to still be on earth. We can just about manage to pay (an adjusted down) parish share, thanks to some generous giving from committed members and to rental revenue from car parking spaces. Despite careful management of the reserve funds, it would not take much to break the bank. With little sign of numerical growth in Sunday attendance, in management speak or business practice the rational thing to do is to write us off as a lost cause and pull out the clergy.
To be fair to the diocese they have been extremely supportive in trying to keep the cause alive. I suppose we have some advantage as a UPA parish that we are still seen as a case for “mission”. They assigned a curate to the parish, encouraged a retired vicar and his wife to worship and serve among us, and together with the school funded the appointment of a children and families lay worker. We also have several active retired couples with roots in other local evangelical churches and denominations who have seconded themselves or “been led” to join and serve in the parish.
Our vicar is aiming to retire next year, our curate will also complete his three years of first curacy. What does the future hold? Especially when it’s incredibly hard to persuade young, energetic, evangelical clergy to take up ministry in tough urban parishes in the North of England.
So can such a parish as this be resilient and sustainable for the longer term? There are signs of hope, lots of mission activity and service to the vulnerable. There is residual loyalty to the church and affection and connection among the minority populations of the neighbourhood. Occasionally we have seen new people coming to faith in Jesus and joining his family. Despite, or perhaps because of, all the blurred boundaries and waves of change there is always hope and a future, in Advent and Incarnation, and after agonies and dying, in the spring of resurrection.
Greg Smith is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation
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