Comments: Opinion - 5 August 2017

Philip North makes some telling points. HTB have invested in some tough areas (Whitehawk - the plant of St Peter's, itself HTB - is one of the roughest estates in England, despite its proximity to Roedean). Bishopsgate, by contrast, has not.

However, I am not certain I agree with the assertion that the Church is failing demographically because it has not invested in the 'working class'. He mentions Somers Town. Look at the history of the Church in Hackney, Islington, Paddington, etc. You will see enormous investments in church building in the nineteenth century when those settlements were tumbling into hard times. All for naught. Large numbers of churches were being demolished even before 1939 (i.e., before the demographic transformation after the 1950s; I accept that Hackney's Jewish population was increasing markedly between the wars). If there were more than twenty churches in, say, Islington by the end of the nineteenth century, scarcely a handful survived by 1970. Incidentally, much the same was true of the Wagners' church building programme in Brighton: great expense for scant reward.

Essentially, the 'working classes' have either had their own social resources (clubs, pubs, etc.) and were often too exercised by daily struggles to give much time to contemplating the numinous. The same problem has 'afflicted' the rural poor. Insofar as 'workers' have been drawn to religion, it is either a consequence of their Roman Catholicism (as the descendants of Irish immigrants) or nonconformity - Anglican values having relatively little appeal. I have attended a great many churches in Greater London and other urban areas and 'working class' people are very thin on the ground, everywhere.

If Anglicanism is collapsing it is because the middle classes have quit. They have not quit for theological reasons; they have not quit because of church politics. They have quit because the schools they attend have changed their religious and pastoral ethos in step with wider sociological changes (so there is little acculturation at the most critical age), and - more especially - because they have better things to do at weekends.

Posted by Froghole at Saturday, 5 August 2017 at 12:17pm BST

Oh, and when things were done differently (and with imagination), as by the likes of the late Nick Stacey, they failed - as Stacey himself admitted. Go to his old church and see his handiwork (it is cheek by jowl with a large LCC estate) and then compare its attendance with the large African Pentecostal church meeting in a disused cinema only a feet feet away.

Posted by Froghole at Saturday, 5 August 2017 at 12:26pm BST

I entirely agree with Philip North's observations, but can't help noticing that he himself was a vicar in central London for many years, and one might hypothesise that it was only his stint there and his previous position at Walsingham that got him noticed and set him on the episcopal track. Had he himself remained a vicar in a poor parish in Hartlepool he would presumably have continued to languish in ecclesiastical obscurity. One might also observe that a commitment to social justice that does not also involve a commitment to gender justice is less than satisfactory. Sorry to be too grumpy on this one...

Posted by Charles Clapham at Saturday, 5 August 2017 at 12:43pm BST

I weep with sadness and frustration at the message of Philip North. exposing the institutional hypocrisy of the church and the self-serving posturing of those who think their opinions matter. I weep with gratitude that Philip North speaks the truth and is a bishop of the church of God. Other stories in today's TA post tell of other things that concern church people. I know what matters in this town: it has nothing to do with what people do with their genitals.

Posted by Stanley Monkhouse at Saturday, 5 August 2017 at 1:11pm BST

I wonder which 'traditional view' of marriage Revd Rachel Marszalek wants to be championed? Without going into the history of a married man's rights over his wife, and without going beyond very recent history, is it - for example - the one in which a divorced person with a former spouse still living can't make their new marriage vows in a church? Because that's what I grew up with and, thank God, when I fell in love with a divorced man, it was no longer being 'championed' by the C of E...

Posted by Helen King at Saturday, 5 August 2017 at 1:52pm BST

As priest in the parish next to Philip North's old one in Hartlepool I would like to make two brief comments. One, whether in the secular or religious world, there has been too often a concept of "doing things to people", rarely "doing things with people" and extremely rarely, helping them do it for themselves. There is too much of the culture of the mushroom farm about too much of what we do.
Secondly, at a time when we can't afford to lose clergy we are cutting numbers to the bone and beyond in this diocese. Even if clergy wanted to come north (of which I have my doubts), we couldn't afford them anyway

Graeme Buttery

Posted by Graeme Buttery at Saturday, 5 August 2017 at 3:00pm BST

I hope the elected members of the central CNC are reading Philip North's words very, very carefully. I hope they are comparing them to the aching silence we are hearing in this vein from the other episcopal 'managers' who tick the boxes and do as they are told.

Posted by Edmund Walters at Saturday, 5 August 2017 at 3:58pm BST

Charles Clapham may apologise for being too grumpy, actually I found his comment distasteful. A fine example of attacking the man not the message.

Posted by Ian at Saturday, 5 August 2017 at 4:12pm BST

Just to declare an interest: I did call in on Rachel (when in Belper) bizarrely on the way back from an overview regarding ministry in the Unitarians. She may not agree with me, but I'd say her piece in the Church Times is itself a factional piece. It refers to Evangelical Bishops, and really the doctrine of marriage is going to be whatever the evangelical says it is at any particular time. Her faction is of the 'stayers' and realises it is in some difficulty, but that there is no life outside. It's no secret that Rachel herself from time to time mixes with New Wine and charismatic sorts, but she is still a stayer. It is equally so that there are Anglicans in identity who think ACNA has made a difference, but they won't leave to form ACNE without trying to cause trouble to the once mother ship. That's if they do give up the privileges of being paid C of E.

Posted by Pluralist at Saturday, 5 August 2017 at 4:19pm BST

Philip North's excellent talk is prophetic, and I hope it is widely heeded.

I have a fair amount of experience of working with the poor, having served in inner city Salford and Bradford (as cathedral chaplain, but the UPA parish was my brief) and a very troubled estate parish. I also served 5 years on Chester's Urban Mission & Ministry Committee, where I learned a lot from others about work in a wide variety of settings.

A few random observations:

a) It's more isolating to work in a needy parish in a mostly affluent area, than to be part of a deanery which is mainly urban and poor.

b) diocesan support makes a huge difference, but deanery support also matters hugely. And that can be tricky if you're viewed as the parish that isn't 'successful', while everyone else seems to be doing nicely, thank you very much.

c) those working among the poor need extra resources in terms of money - you don't get wealthy parishioners stumping up for improved facilities or the organ fund.

d) they also need extra resources in terms of personnel. Competent and reliable volunteers and church officers are hard to find, and few of the congregation can play an instrument or run a sound system - assuming you have one. Bigger churches could help out by seconding a few people, even if for a limited time or on an occasional basis.

d) diocesan and national initiatives are usually targeted to middle class congregations and can be a real hindrance in poorer areas. Try putting together a Mission Action Plan or Parish Action Plan with a PCC who don't have management experience or own diaries, and a congregation who just try to survive from week to week.

e) the liturgy and lectionary aren't much help. Many of the readings which speak to people's situations - tales of murder, rape, betrayal, poverty, oppression, injustice - are omitted. As one liturgist told me,, "We don't want to hear about those things in church.' But people do want to know how to deal with these things when they happen. And they want to know the Church knows they happen, and cares.

The Church needs to ask the poor and marginalised what they want from church, and adapt accordingly. Much of what we do is too cerebral, too wordy, too remote from people's experience. North is right, the whole Church would benefit if we were prepared to learn from God's poor.

I'm realising I feel pretty strongly about this stuff....

Posted by Janet Fife at Saturday, 5 August 2017 at 7:18pm BST

While North's concern for social justice is admirable, it is unfortunate how selective it is. "All exclusion is the same exclusion." Solidarity!

Posted by DBD at Saturday, 5 August 2017 at 7:20pm BST

"If Anglicanism is collapsing it is because the middle classes have quit."

There aren't many middle class dinner tables in and around Islington where homophobia is a good look. In Islington North, Jeremy Corbyn got more than 50% of the electorate voting for him (73% of the vote on a 73.3% turnout, so 53% of those aged over 18. I can't help thinking they're rather unlikely to want to discriminate against gay people, which is the official position of the CofE.

Posted by Interested Observer at Saturday, 5 August 2017 at 10:14pm BST

Sorry Ian. Distasteful perhaps. And I don't disagree with Philip North. I myself moved to London last year (zone 2, with plenty of nice coffee shops) after 16 years ministry in Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent, and am still staggered by the wealth down here, the resources the churches have, and by the numbers of clergy knocking around. My last parish in Stoke was in interregnum for three of the previous four years before I was appointed, because there was simply no interest: no-one would apply. So in that sense, I fully endorse Philip North's views.

But I suppose what I want to say is that I don't see this as an especially prophetic or insightful speech. For those us who have spent time ministering in post-industrial northern cities, it's a statement of the obvious. It's no more insightful than observing that there is a north-south divide in this country, or that at a time of austerity the rich are getting richer. This comes as news only to those who have lived sheltered lives. If this seen as 'prophetic' then perhaps it is only a sad indication of where we are now as a church.

And my point about gender is simply that poverty is gendered - that is, it affects women more than men. So you need a holistic commitment to social justice, which necessarily includes a full commitment to women's equality. And Philip North does not have this.

So perhaps you're right it's an ad hominem criticism. But I still think it's unlikely that Philip North would have gone from central London to Burnley if he'd been offered a postion in Burnley as an ordinary parish priest, rather than a bishopric. And therein lies the whole problem. Sometime it helps to say it out loud.

Posted by Revd Dr Charles Clapham at Sunday, 6 August 2017 at 1:25am BST

So, + North has discovered that careerism, lack of clergy mobility and avoidance of the poor is endemic to the parochial system. I'm shocked.

I liked Holdsworth's musings. Reminded me of the Rachael and Leah tribes debate from my under grad years.

Thanks so much for the Stanley Hauerwas piece on Bonhoeffer, long but worth the read.

Posted by Rod Gillis at Sunday, 6 August 2017 at 5:13am BST

I'm totally with Charles Clapham re Philip North. Of course what + Burnley says is true and needs to be heeded. In the old days it was a badge of honour to be sent as a curate to the toughest and poorest areas - although many an ambitious career orientated priest wouldn't spend long in such parishes. I always find it inspiring when more mature clergy give up thriving parishes to move back to poorer and needy places late on in ministry.
So the message is a good one - it is just slightly awkward when it comes from somebody who as Charles says, spent quite a while in comfortable Walsingham and who inherited (and built well upon) a thriving parish in Camden's Zone1. I'm sure many priests might respond to a call to serve the poor as their Bishop, but sadly fewer to serve close to the people as their priest.

Posted by Neil at Sunday, 6 August 2017 at 10:25am BST

'If this seen as 'prophetic' then perhaps it is only a sad indication of where we are now as a church.'

Exactly. When I used the term 'prophetic' I didn't mean North had made an exciting new discovery, but that he was speaking a truth that badly needs to be heard. The Old Testament prophets also spoke on behalf of the poor to the comfortable and those in power.

There is now an actual disincentive, built into the system, for clergy to work in poorer areas. The Church's promotion system and many adverts for parishes stipulate 'a track record of growth' in previous jobs. Growth in numbers (or the lack of it) has sociological factors outside the control of any parish or priest. These include a high turnover of population; high mortality rates; long working hours in multiple jobs; shift working; and a reluctance to be seen relating to what is seen as the 'establishment'. Add to that the middle class desire to attend church to get the kids into the church school, or to join a good choir or music group - incentives that don't exist in poor areas. And while people may travel from outside a parish to attend a 'thriving' church, they're less likely to do so to a church where their car will be broken into in the car park and the church windows are pelted with stones during the services.

But if your church doesn't grow, you're blighting your future.

Posted by Janet Fife at Sunday, 6 August 2017 at 10:31am BST

Correction: Camden's Zone2!!

Posted by Neil at Sunday, 6 August 2017 at 10:36am BST

Bishop Philip North is walking in the revered trajectory of John Keble; through whose energetic preaching and teaching much good was done amongst the poor and outcast of the East End of London and other dperived parishes of the Church of England. It is a great pity that his inclusivism in mission does not extend - at the moment - to women clergy.

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Sunday, 6 August 2017 at 11:30am BST

+Rowan gave the DuBose lectures at Sewanee on Bonhoeffer last I suspect we can look forward to his thoughts in a book in the near future.

Posted by Perry Butler at Sunday, 6 August 2017 at 1:29pm BST

Lots of interesting comments on this thread - thank you.

I had intended to go to Norfolk this morning in order to attend the re-opening of Brettenham (by Graham James) and then to go to the annual service at Holme St Benet where the bishop-abbot (him again) arrives by barge (it's at 3:30). However, due to various complications I ended up attending seven services in the boroughs of Ealing, Hillingdon and Hounslow (before striking out to Friern Barnet). So, a very mixed area indeed, especially in demographic terms, but one in which south Asians are increasingly dominant.

Allowing for the fact that a couple of the services were 'early', I would state that, with one exception, the services were fairly poorly attended relative to the density of the population. Congregations comprised: (i) white British people over the age of 80 (many of whom probably grew up in that part of Middlesex or settled there in the first thirty years after its urbanisation; and (ii) people of west African heritage and, to a lesser extent, Afro-Caribbean heritage, but with a more diverse age profile. (i) are overwhelmingly C1 and (ii) are again relatively more diverse in terms of age and economic status.

As that basically completed my tour/pilgrimage of Middlesex, I would suggest that it replicated my experience almost everywhere else except in HTB or Bishopsgate hotspots.

I had tried to get to Friern Barnet several times before. It is an 1853 reconstruction of the ancient church of St James, since made redundant and re-dedicated for Greek Orthodox use to St Katherine. Services are two and a half hours long (10 AM to c. 12:30); the interior is completely unaltered, barring the installation of a low-level iconostasis. It was standing room only; all ages were represented.

Personally, I very much doubt that any change in Church teaching on sexuality would alter one jot the massive indifference that the great majority of the middle class in London have towards organised religion, although it might remove one of many excuses for their indifference. Since church is no longer part of their timetables (if it ever was), it has little or no impact upon their minds. That ship has long since sailed, and the battle for their souls was lost by the mid-1990s at the very latest.

Posted by Froghole at Sunday, 6 August 2017 at 3:02pm BST

Also, I would endorse almost all of the excellent comments above. The bias towards the more affluent sections of southern England is a scandal, but it is not one that is likely to change until there is such a material alteration in the payment of stipends that the presumed 'negative' trade-off of living in industrial/post-industrial areas can be overcome - almost like a reverse of the London weighting used by the civil service. However, I suspect that no such weighting could be financed whilst pay and rations are devolved to the dioceses or the centre is unwilling to provide additional finance.

However, if many stipendiary clergy can afford to work in affluent areas (because of the accommodation provided), relatively few afford to retire there unless they have received inheritances or have other capital and sources of income. That makes it more likely that future retired clergy will gravitate towards less fashionable areas - some have already - which is a fix of sorts, albeit not one that is likely to reduce pressure in the most challenging places.

Posted by Froghole at Sunday, 6 August 2017 at 3:07pm BST

I'm amazed at what a skewed picture of Bp North's speech the Olivia Rudgard's article gives- basically just clergy bashing. Perhaps if I was a regular reader of the Torygraph I wouldn't be.

The full address is well worth a read with plenty of important points and much less sneering at clergy coffee habits (which is never going to help) than summaries would suggest. Having spent my previous incumbency in an estate parish in East London (Zone 4 for those who are counting and no coffee shops), the Diocese and the Deanery even more so were interested only in money. The parish grew but the money didn't- guess which part of that equation mattered? The pressure was relentless, the parish share demands always, always wildly unrealistic. The rich evangelical parishes were open in their resentment of subsidising 'less successful' ones and the equation 'financial poverty = spiritual unhealthiness' explicitly stated over and over again.

Philip North also makes an excellent point about inexorably increasing and now for many unaffordable fees for the occasional offices- one of the church ministries where the working classes are still strong consumers.

The main down side is that, like us all, Bp Philip is much better at pointing out problems than suggesting solutions.

Posted by Fr Andrew at Sunday, 6 August 2017 at 4:00pm BST

I wonder also whether time spent in a tough parish should also be a sine qua non for any form of preferment above incumbent, perhaps in lieu of the MBA classes proposed by Lord Green.

There was a time, just over a century ago, when it almost became fashionable for the ablest clergy to spend a good period of time in a difficult patch. For instance, there is the celebrated case of St Mary's, Portsea, which had two pre-1914 vicars who became archbishops (Lang and the martinet Garbett). Lang, his successor Bernard Wilson (who died in post in 1909) and Garbett made Portsea a showcase for mission in urban areas to rival Leeds under W. F. Hook and E. S. Talbot. Lang would regularly lecture on Sunday afternoons to crowds of 300. There were sixteen celibate curates, many of whom rose to positions of considerable distinction. House to house visiting was considered essential in a hard parish of 40,000 and Garbett would be particularly harsh with those curates who trifled with that task (Garbett spent four hours a day on that aspect of his job: see his edited book The Work of a Great Parish (1915)).

Yet by mid-1960s the parish was practically insolvent and the church was in a state of decay. Although Portsea currently has a very affable (and, I am sure, able) incumbent, my experience of worshipping there is to be amongst a relatively small band of the faithful within a cavernous void, where there is seating in only a section of the nave. No doubt Portsea is a success in its own way, but in numerical terms (relative to the density/size of the population) it would be a stretch to say that it is doing as well now as it was a century ago.

Portsea arguably represents in microcosm the failure, momentary success and resumed failure of Anglicanism in the towns. The reason for this success/failure warrants, perhaps, closer study.

Posted by Froghole at Sunday, 6 August 2017 at 4:21pm BST

Wondering why nobody on the +Philip thread has mentioned 'Faith in the City? Full report on

Posted by Helen King at Sunday, 6 August 2017 at 5:49pm BST

Many contributors to this thread and elsewhere on this site find it easy to identify inconsistencies and hypocrisy in anti-LGBTI Christians, as well as in those like +Philip North who cry for justice to the poor but seem oblivious to the injustice of sidelining women. It's easy to get all self-righteous over these issues, but while they are real and need to be addressed don't we need to avoid casting the first stone and being judgemental ourselves? Every Christian by definition is a hypocrite (who among us observes Jesus's command to 'be perfect'?) Can't we just accept that our allies in any struggle are not going to agree with us on everything, and celebrate when we can work together while accepting our differences?

Posted by David Emmott at Sunday, 6 August 2017 at 8:59pm BST

There is certainly a financial disincentive to 'go north' here in Canada. I spent my first twenty-one years of parish ministry in the Council of the North (the eight or nine dioceses in northern Canada - I forget the exact number - that are not self-supporting). These dioceses have never been able to afford to pay the sort of stipends that clergy receive in the richer, self-supporting dioceses in the south. And since pensions are based on stipends, northern clergy continue to feel the impact when they retire.

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Sunday, 6 August 2017 at 9:34pm BST

"House to house visiting was considered essential in a hard parish of 40,000 and Garbett would be particularly harsh with those curates who trifled with that task"

But a century later, what percentage of the population would do other than politely (or perhaps less than politely) close the door in the unwanted visitor's face?

Posted by Interested Observer at Monday, 7 August 2017 at 9:07am BST

Can someone please explain what Zone 1, Zone 2, etc. are? I presume those are London terms/areas?

Interested Observer, good point. In my experience of several tough areas, an unexpected knock on the door is not welcome and is often greeted with suspicion. What did work was to find or create opportunities for community engagement - start a carers & toddlers group and attend it; start or join a community action group; walk the dog when people are out & about; use the local shops and talk to people there.

Posted by Janet Fife at Monday, 7 August 2017 at 9:34am BST

As Fr Andrew says, easier to point to the problems than provide solutions. The drift to wealthier areas and to the south can be driven not just by educational opportunities for kids but also better employment opportunities for spouses, given that clergy with families will be dependent on working spouses. It was striking when I was in Salford how many clergy in the roughest areas were single.

But others like Janet Fife are correct to say that current preferment system does not help - there is little recognition for those who spend a life slogging away unnoticed in tough poor parishes, with small congregations. Better and easier to go somewhere you can be seen as a "success". And the Green report just makes this worse.

So in this sense it is (as Philip North suggests) a spiritual problem about vocation and basic Christian values. I also take David Emmot's point about hypocrisy - especially having made the journey to the affluent south myself.

I echo Fr Andrew's comments on the wealthier churches being reluctant to subsidise others though. Our local HTB plant has an annual income of well over one million, but is willing to contribute only twenty five thousand above cost to the diocesan common fund (Parish share). They think they are doing well because they are following God's will, but are not convinced that smaller and poorer churches are, so are unable willing to support them (unless they can oversee them). Difficult not to be cynical about this, however much one can admire other aspects of their mission.

Posted by Charles Clapham at Monday, 7 August 2017 at 11:55am BST

"Can someone please explain what Zone 1, Zone 2, etc. are?"

They're the fare zones on the London underground. "Zone 1" is shorthand for "central London", "Zone 2" is shorthand for "the residential areas immediately around the centre, often quite deprived" and so on.

Posted by Interested Observer at Monday, 7 August 2017 at 12:07pm BST

Okay, so can we start thinking about potential solutions please? I did 10 years in inner city Manchester and absolutely agree that parish ministry in poor areas is a completely different job than elsewhere. Much more pressured and stressful.
I think we’re far too focused on the superficial observables of the institutional church, like bums on pews. Stipendiary clergy, like stipendiary teachers and doctors, are tempted to settle into running the institution. We need to focus on the Kingdom of God. If that means closing down the churches, okay.
So the institutional church has precious little interest in biblical scholarship, and what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God. If it paid more attention, bishops would know that the Eucharist began as food for the starving.
The Church of England sometimes promotes the values of the Kingdom but sometimes opposes them. The hierarchy doesn’t want to offend rich donors. Jesus did, and look where it got him.
To me, there is no meaningful Christianity which isn’t appalled by the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor.
I’d favour retaining the parish system, more or less, in rural areas where it works, but it has long ceased to work in urban areas. We are in effect appointing lone individualists to be club managers running big buildings and urging people to turn up to its events. Instead we could perhaps establish teams of people trained to relate Christian values to the issues troubling local people in their own areas. So instead of persuading people to turn up to their events in their building, priests should be turning up to the events that really express the hopes and fears of locals. And offering Christian resources.

Posted by Jonathan Clatworthy at Monday, 7 August 2017 at 1:12pm BST

Interested Observer/Janet Fife: Visiting was presumably only one factor in the temporary success in Portsea many years ago.

However, I do not necessarily agree with the suggestion that visiting not be tried at all. It is true that there will be parts of the country where it will either be maladroit/futile or where it might be physically impossible (those increasing parts of the country where people are barricaded behind automated gates).

However, there may be areas where it would make some sense to knock on a door, say, once a year – not to proselytise, but to remind people that the church is there and offers a range of activities, of which worship is presumably one. This task may be especially useful in the countryside where there has been an influx of newcomers (who are often moving out of cities and suburbs to release equity), who may frequently feel isolated from the communities they colonise. The point of visiting is surely to remind people of the existence of the Church and, therefore, to break down the invisible barrier between the small coterie of the faithful and everyone else.

As a sales manager once told me, if you cold-call 100 people, you can expect half to put the phone down immediately or never be contactable, and another 30 or so to put the phone down after a few seconds with varying degrees of hostility. You can often expect to make a sale to one or two people. And that will count as a good result.

It should also be noted that visiting was once seen as a staple pastoral task; from the 1950s it began to be viewed by certain theological colleges as ‘false’. There may be a correlation between the decline of visiting during the 1960s and collapsing attendance. Query also whether there is a similar correlation between the decline in visiting (and attendance) and the corresponding growth of parochial administration and the multiplication of meetings.

Of course, the task will yield little fruit relative to the investment required, but it may make all the difference between the life and death of a church. The current problem, of course, is that even in rural areas the growth of multiple-parish benefices or mission communities makes even an annual visit all but impossible. So I agree strongly (as usual) with Janet Fife: being seen, and being hail-fellow-well-met, is absolutely essential.

Posted by Froghole at Monday, 7 August 2017 at 2:02pm BST

So right Janet Fife..residents groups too.An elderly priest in my title parish said "One word of seen "

Posted by Perry Butler at Monday, 7 August 2017 at 2:55pm BST

"As a sales manager once told me, if you cold-call 100 people, you can expect half to put the phone down immediately or never be contactable, and another 30 or so to put the phone down after a few seconds with varying degrees of hostility. You can often expect to make a sale to one or two people. And that will count as a good result"

What he's ignoring is the collateral damage: the people who might, in the future, have been prospective customers, but whose sole knowledge of your company is that you are pushy cold-callers.

"There may be a correlation between the decline of visiting during the 1960s and collapsing attendance."

There may also be a correlation between collapsing attendance and the raising of the school leaving age, the widespread availability of antibiotics (which removed much of the lottery from childbirth), the Chatterley trial and the Beatles' first LP. Who knows?

Posted by Interested Observer at Monday, 7 August 2017 at 3:56pm BST

Spot on Janet. Opening the church building up to allow people to come in and have a look is one thing; going out and inviting them to come in is where it's at. Being seen and collars on the ground is the one thing that the laity seem to recognize as needed and the one thing that isn't happening.

Posted by Lavinia Nelder at Monday, 7 August 2017 at 4:02pm BST

Jonathan Clatworthy: 'I’d favour retaining the parish system, more or less, in rural areas where it works, but it has long ceased to work in urban areas. We are in effect appointing lone individualists to be club managers running big buildings and urging people to turn up to its events.' I'm not quite sure what you are getting at here.

Maybe the parish system works in rural areas because villages are discrete communities and everybody can identify the church building in the middle of it. On the other hand, a vicar who lives two villages away and has half a dozen churches to care for hardly suggests a viable system.

In cities there are two sorts of churches. There are the shrines, specialising in a particular style of worship or particular line in theology; and there are the bog-standard back-street churches. The former of course are effectively non-parochial chaplaincies, like the cathedrals with which they have much in common. But the majority are just there, to serve their local communities. Without a priest, or a devoted worshipping nucleus, they wouldn't be able to do that. Hyper-mobile, rootless, middle class people are as likely to be found in the country as in the towns these days; most urban parishioners, especially in the poorer areas, are not like that and mostly stay rooted in their 'urban village'. The presence of the church in those areas makes all the difference. There needs to be some sort of eucharistic community regularly praying at the heart of this, and the tendency for priests to live outside the area is an unfortunate one to my mind. But the primary aim shouldn't be to build a vast congregation but to serve the parish.

Adam Smallbone (Rev) might not have filled his pews but he was there when people wanted him. As was Fr Michael in Broken. Despite both of them being flawed and fallible human beings. They were both incarnated in their parish communities, whereas Darren of the white leather sofas and smoothies was simply a slick religious salesman.

Posted by David Emmott at Monday, 7 August 2017 at 4:58pm BST

It strikes me that these descriptions of parish ministry are very clergy-centred. I think that's problematic.

Here in Canada we're not the established church and there is no expectation that we will visit people who are not our members. However, our members are involved in the lives of many non-church people, and it seems to me that the way forward is to help them learn to be missional in their daily lives. I can love the people in my congregation, those who show up for special events etc.; the people in my congregation can love the people who are in their various circles of influence. This every-member ministry is much more true to the idea of the Church as the Body of Christ and of Christianity as essentially a movement rather than an institution. Much of what I've read about here seems far too institutional - the professional Christian representing the Church, rather than the ordinary Christian living Christ in their daily life.

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Monday, 7 August 2017 at 8:08pm BST

The person who springs to my mind was Geoff Shaw who ran the Gorbals Group in Glasgow for many years. Okay, he was a Church of Scotland minister, but he did some of the things that have been touched on in this thread.

Although he was from a wealthy middle-class background and was therefore 'posh', a placement in Harlem convinced him of the need to live in, and among, working people - literally with an open door. I find his life example inspirational, because although communion in his tenement home was at the heart of the Christian mission, to Geoff what really mattered as well was the life of the secular community, their needs, their crises, their sometimes violence, sometimes drunkenness, sometimes delinquency. But he lived there and stuck there - and his Christian mission evolved into political action, because politics impacts on urban deprivation and people’s lives.

He ended up as the first Convener of the huge Strathclyde Regional Council, but in many ways the heart of his Christian life was the kids who would show up late at night and crash out on his floor... the groups he took off for weekends in bothies, the playground projects, the groups his team ran with mothers. Rather like Jesus, I'd say, he lived right among people. They all just shared their lives together. It wasn’t about ‘success’ measured by numbers.

When he died - arguably from exhaustion - the dignitaries of church and state, who had once been sceptical about his venture (and the Church was, it found his non-clerical approach difficult)... people from all walks of life came together to mourn. Some would say cynically, ‘Well he may as well have been a social worker. How many souls did he save?’ But can any of us know the currency of God, and the effects of unseen love and kindness? Yes, he was often like a social worker, but he was like a social worker who lived alongside Christ alongside people. And that Christ is distinctive and reaches and touches, where individuals and whole communities are hurting. But you’ve got to be actually, really there for people to take you seriously, to know that you’re real, and for them to start to risk opening their hearts to… maybe call it love, maybe call it solidarity. And people don’t only open their hearts in church.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Monday, 7 August 2017 at 8:20pm BST

To me, Geoff Shaw showed one way to express Christian love - not by being 'churchy' but by simply living and sharing in the sorrows and happiness and troubles of a desperately deprived community. Many ministers would have thought it was a dead end place to try to work, and hard and thankless - but Geoff Shaw found treasure. As Albert Einstein once said, "Strive not to be a success, but to be of value." For Geoff (whose wife was a climbing friend of mine) I think he found that treasure and reward came from what the community gave to him, more than what he gave to them. I see a similar dynamic in my daughter's life in Africa. In a way, God comes in the people we encounter - just like Jesus said (I was hungry and you fed me) - but what can be amazing is the generosity people can give back to you. It's not about patronising and doing stuff 'to' people. It's about sharing: shared grief, shared joy, shared struggle, shared laughter - for maybe years and years.

If you are reflecting on how to be Christian in deprived urban parts of our country, I really commend Ron Ferguson's book, simply called "Geoff".

Posted by Susannah Clark at Monday, 7 August 2017 at 8:23pm BST

'Adam Smallbone (Rev) might not have filled his pews but he was there when people wanted him. As was Fr Michael in Broken. Despite both of them being flawed and fallible human beings. They were both incarnated in their parish communities, whereas Darren of the white leather sofas and smoothies was simply a slick religious salesman.'

All of them, of course, are fictional characters.

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Monday, 7 August 2017 at 9:31pm BST

Charles Clapham, why will clergy with families be dependent on working spouses? My wife is not employed and neither are most of my friends' wives, or if they are they are in part-time jobs which allow them to be active in ministry with their husbands. As far as I know, none of us have significant private funds to draw on. While the stipend is relatively low, the overall package is very generous. I seem to remember some years ago the Church Commissioners worked out the whole package with house, pension, tax breaks, heating/lighting etc, was between £40-50K. Indeed, one might think with the lower cost of living in the north, it might be more attractive to families? In my curacy in East Anglia, I was among the top 10% of earners in the congregation.

Posted by NJ at Monday, 7 August 2017 at 9:33pm BST

Tim Chesterton:>

So? Haven't we all met their real life counterparts?

Posted by David Emmott at Monday, 7 August 2017 at 11:05pm BST

In his Transfiguration comment Froghole takes us back just over a century ago to a time when it was thought "fashionable" that the ablest clergy spent some of their time in "a difficult parish"
More recently it was "fashionable" for the ablest clergy to spend some time in a Northern parish in order to serve their titles - Runcie to Liverpool, Montefiore to Newcastle and Phipps to Huddersfield to give just three examples.

Posted by Father David at Tuesday, 8 August 2017 at 8:45am BST

Correction - although coming from Liverpool - Runcie, like Montefiore, also served his title in Newcastle.

Posted by Father David at Tuesday, 8 August 2017 at 8:49am BST

Just to say, NJ, my comment regarding working spouses was an observation, not a personal complaint! I'm posting this from my annual week abroad on holiday with my wife and two kids, a luxury made possible only because of my wife's part-time work. I think it would certainly be difficult for a priest with children to contemplate purchasing even a modest property for retirement on a clergy income without a working partner. Of course these are generic issues which affect lots of families in the UK and I'm not arguing for an increase in stipend. But in so far as these issues affect clergy too, then employment opportunities for spouses will also affect deployment, particularly given that the provision of housing means clergy can be more mobile than most.

Posted by Charles Clapham at Tuesday, 8 August 2017 at 9:56am BST

'This every-member ministry is much more true to the idea of the Church as the Body of Christ and of Christianity as essentially a movement rather than an institution. Much of what I've read about here seems far too institutional - the professional Christian representing the Church, rather than the ordinary Christian living Christ in their daily life.'

I agree, but... in the areas we're talking about, the 'ordinary Christian' is far too often de-skilled and demoralised. In troubled areas they have often learned to keep their head down and themselves to themselves. I started with idealistic assumptions about shared ministry, co-operative leadership etc - and found that what they wanted and needed was strong leadership. I supported and encouraged local people taking initiatives, but because of the amount of social breakdown they often struggled badly. It can take decades of clergy-led pioneering ministry before the 'ordinary Christian' (and who says clergy aren't ordinary Christians?) are able to take outreach and leadership on for themselves.
I spent 10 hard (but rewarding) years on the Manchester overspill estate, but it's my successor who's seeing much of the spiritual growth and increase in outgoing attitudes I was trying to achieve.

Posted by Janet Fife at Tuesday, 8 August 2017 at 10:22am BST

Dear Tim Chesterton, in the modern world, much of which considers the stories of the New Testament to be 'merely fiction', should we not rejoice that some of our T.V. stories are, at least, believable fiction? The story of Fr.Michael in 'Broken' has much to say about the reality of real live ministry of a working priest. This, surely, is a good thing - if it makes 'outsiders' think more about biblical spirituality? Faith is more often caught than taught. Many a person has been converted to faith by believable fictional writing that illustrates encounters between us and God.

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Tuesday, 8 August 2017 at 11:15am BST

"I think it would certainly be difficult for a priest with children to contemplate purchasing even a modest property for retirement on a clergy income without a working partner."

That's the perennial problem of tied housing. The salary is reduced by the nominal value of the housing, which means that you can't buy another property, for the same reason as most people can't afford to buy two houses on mortgages at once.

Posted by Interested Observer at Tuesday, 8 August 2017 at 2:27pm BST

Thank you, Charles Clapham, for noting that poverty is gendered. I'm glad that +North is interested in helping the poor, but is there something wrong when with the view of helping those poor people while not including them all as equals in the eyes of God? Inequality is part of the problem. It isn't a personal attack, it is merely a fact discussed by social scientists that poverty and inequality are decidedly linked. And that the remedies are more equality.

Posted by Cynthia at Tuesday, 8 August 2017 at 3:23pm BST

Just picking up on Tim Chesterton's observation, surely what's significant in the 'Rev' and 'Broken' storylines is that they express what the script-writers believe to be distinctive and precious about the Church, and what they believe will resonate most with the (unchurched, sceptical) viewing public (which is also our 'target audience, is it not).

People like McGovern are affirming a vision where 'success' isn't found in numbers but in pastoral care from imperfect people, even though it may well not result in fundaments on pews. Concepts like 'integrity,' 'compassion,' 'struggle' loom larger than 'orthodoxy' or 'moral impeccability'.

The stories people tell us speak eloquently of their innermost hopes and longings. White leather couches and smoothies just don't seem to scratch the itch.

Posted by David Rowett at Tuesday, 8 August 2017 at 5:04pm BST

While we're talking of fictional Anglican vicars, what's the feeling on your side of the pond about Sidney Chambers in "Grantchester"?

Posted by Pat O'Neill at Tuesday, 8 August 2017 at 7:23pm BST

The writer of Rev took advice from a number of north London clergy, including Philip North when he was in Camden.

Posted by Perry Butler at Tuesday, 8 August 2017 at 8:07pm BST

Speaking of fictional vicars in poor neighborhoods, let us not forget Peter Sellers' portrayal in Heavens Above. On reflection, not a good deal has changed since this acerbic satire saw the light of day...

Posted by Tobias Haller at Wednesday, 9 August 2017 at 3:18pm BST
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