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From Sustainable Churches to Sustainable Neighbourhoods

5 Jan 2018

William Temple Scholar Val Barron considers how we move beyond the Taylor Review to build more sustainable neighbourhoods.

The recently published Taylor Review, made some interesting recommendations about how English Church and Cathedral buildings could become more sustainable. At the centre of these recommendations was the importance of greater community involvement.

“Increased use and helping communities in their broadest form to see the value and potential of the local church is the key to the church building becoming more self-sustaining and ultimately ensuring its long term survival.”

As a development worker for Communities Together Durham, and as part of the CUF Together Network, I read the report with another fundamental question. How can we provide a place of mutual flourishing for the church and the community?

The area of the country where I live and work has some of the highest rates of unemployment, zero-hour contracts and low waged employment; one consequence of which is that many parishes have adult and child poverty levels of over 50%. The other side of this ‘recession coin’ is that the North East has been hardest hit by government cuts.

Over the last five years research has shown time and again an increase in church based social action (CUF; 2015) and personally I have seen a growing number of churches in my Diocese and through the Together Network taking risks, working with new partners and responding to the issues they recognise in their neighbourhoods.

‘How can we respond?’ is a question I spend much of my time exploring with congregations, and although our small (and often elderly members) will never completely  fill the void left by the failing state as Justin Welby challenged us to, I believe we have something very precious and unique in our communities that must be supported.

Working locally with local people; the churches are in the privileged situation of having a deep understanding of the strengths and weaknesses in their neighbourhoods. Over the last year or more I have seen a greater recognition of the role of the church with more partnerships with local authorities and statutory agencies being established around areas such as Holiday Hunger and refugee resettlement.

I have supported a group of four ladies who were so worried about the families in their estate during the summer holidays that they started to cook proper dinners, (by proper I mean meat, veg and a good pudding). They always serve them in plastic boxes which initially I found odd after all the effort that had gone into food preparation but then I watched them put one aside for someone’s Mum, Grandma or Dad. Being part of the community, they knew who and where support was needed. Years on they have fed thousands, and, as importantly, had great fun with local children and families.

We have long relationship with our communities; during my first visit to Easington Colliery I asked what it was like to live there: ‘They come here and do stuff to us and leave’ was the reply. ‘They’ being local authorities, charities and agencies. Our gift is that we belong there, we are doing ‘stuff’ with our communities and we hopefully won’t be leaving.

Building upon the gifts in our communities; while recognising that there are challenges for us all in life, as Christians our starting point is that every person bears the image of God and has been given gifts and abilities. We are not a service delivery church but have time to sit with people, affirm their gifts and build from there. I have sat in a church kitchen where locals pop in and, after putting the kettle on, shared their stories. I have helped community lunches where locals bring vegetables in from their allotments in to add to the pot. As Matthew Barber describes, these are real Spaces of Hope.

We have not filled the void left by the welfare state, but we must not underestimate the importance of these small grassroots responses that are truly local, building upon local gifts and talents and responding to the local issues. Building community from the ground up.

So going back to the question of mutual sustainability and flourishing of the church and community, I believe we must start local conversations around the hidden gifts and talents and then together look at creative ways around income generation. I have conversations with so many skilled and talented people who remain dependent upon benefits, like the Syrian refugee who lives down the road who is an amazing seamstress but is unlikely to find paid employment here, or her neighbour who bakes wonderful party cakes.

Could the church set up a Social Enterprise that would allow us to build the local economy and in the process a more sustainable church and community? This is part of the question I will be exploring for the next few years as a William Temple Scholar.

In The Social Entrepreneur (2008) Andrew Mawson describes how arriving in a cold church in Bromley-by-Bow (with a congregation of 12 elderly people), he started not by looking at all the problems but for the untapped potential in the neighbourhood. Slowly, after taking risks and thinking creatively, the community (and the buildings) began to flourish.

Our churches hold a unique position in our communities. As daunting as it feels when sitting with 12 people in a cold church, with a leaky roof, maybe our new challenge is to work with our communities for our mutual sustainability and flourishing.

More blogs on religion and public life…

Connecting Ecologies: A report from Campion Hall
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Culture Wars and Happy Holidays
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Hope against Hope: A Necessary Madness?
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A Prayer called Paddington
Simon Reader

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