Ranters of Mow Cop

Ranters of Mow Cop

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Response to the Bishop of Blackburn's vision statement


The Bishop of Blackburn is asking for comments and responses to his vision statement for the future of the church in Lancashire.


This is a personal response to the vision statement which comes out of my experience as


1. an active member of the congregation of St Mathews Preston (Parish of the Risen Lord)

2. forty years of experience in urban mission and community development in London and Lancashire (including a current role as a staff member of Together Lancashire)

3. extensive research and writing in the sociology of religion, specialising in the role of faith in urban communities (see website for links to publications etc.. http://gregsmith.synthasite.com/


There is much to be commended in the vision.. It is clear that as society changes rapidly the church needs to change too. Click on this link for my extended thoughts on reassembling the church in the contemporary context


It is clear to me that for the Church of England in Lancashire survival is at stake. Congregations are ageing fast and not being replaced and renewed, buildings, clergy salaries  and the traditional pattern of parish worship and ministry will not be sustainable for another two decades. Signs of life and hope in the wider church in Lancashire are found mostly in the newer independent churches which have learned to travel light without to many encumbrances by way of sacred buildings and institutional deadweight, where a basically evangelical gospel demanding personal commitment to Christ in the context of supportive community is central. Members of such groups are seen not as mere "churchgoers" but disciples of Christ being shaped to share in God's mission in the world.   The church of England in Lancashire only approaches this model in a small number of parishes and needs to move in this direction.


Within the vision document I note three areas of concern where in my view the statements need to be strengthened and developed.


 meeting the needs of the community and tackling poverty


Lancashire as a whole, and particular communities on the coast, and in the major towns faces multiple deprivation, growing poverty and increasing inequality. The welfare state is being dismantled as part of the global neo liberal project, and in the present programme of austerity which is being targetted unjustly at the poorest people in society, and with cuts in local authority funding being directed unfairly towards councils in the north of England.  As poverty grows many churches and Christian projects are raising their game and working hard through food banks, work clubs, homeless projects, youth and family work to provide help for those who are most vulnerable. As society changes every church will need to build a practical commitment to tackling local poverty into its DNA. But we will need everyone to think biblically, theologically and politically about the limits of charity and of ways to mobilise goodwill into a new politics based on commitment to the common good, and speak truth to power about what is happening in our society.


supporting mission and ministry in the tougher places, (UPA parishes and social housing estates)


The vision speaks of the need to

Plan to grow new congregations and unashamedly seek to bring others to faith in Christ


Historically it has been much easier to achieve this in comfortable areas and parishes than in UPA parishes and social housing estates, with the result that where the practical and social needs are greatest the church is often at its weakest. The Church of England has a unique role in many of these places as the commitment to parish ministry throughout the land mean that Anglicans "hang in there" long after all the other churches have given up. This commitment to the most deprived communities needs to be sustained and prioritised, with new forms of redistributing resources of finance and mission and ministry resources from wealthy Christians and parishes towards the most needy. (As an aside it is refreshing to see how Pope Francis understands and articulates these principles).  Christians from such communities, and indeed ordinary residents in these places, need to be empowered and given a voice so that their experiences, assets and concerns are better recognized within the diocese and across the county.   


working collaboratively with neighbouring churches across the denominations


For the church to be renewed we need to move away from tribal religion and silo thinking to a a wider and more open ecumenism, building friendships and alliances with the widest range of Christians, and those of other faiths and none. "working collaboratively with neighbouring churches" cannot be defined merely as sharing resources more efficiently across parishes within the deaneries of the diocese, or relying on formal ecumenical institutions such as Churches Together in Lancashire or its local groups, many or which are struggling and sometimes just boring committees that have little impact on local church life. Rather what is called for are emerging informal networks of active, mission focused, cross church partnerships that can move rapidly to meet need, take opportunities and share information and resources. In Lancashire we have at least two exciting local groupings from which we can learn, Preston Christian Action Network and its overlapping networks, and the Morecambe Churches Forum . One feature of both of these is their use of electronic communication and strong online social media presence and activity. They bring together for mission local Christian activists, share information and resources quite rapidly and sometimes bypass institutional church leaders, who can sometimes be the blockages that prevent effective action.


Working together in this way also opens up pathways to collaboration and partnership with local authorities and secular voluntary organizations, as well as with people and groups within other faith communities concerned for the welfare and shalom of the wider community. Indeed I would argue that the most appropriate models of interfaith work are based around community action rather than the tired out and naïve models which were based on tea and samosas with a period of silent reflection to remember our God(s).


If these three priorities can be incorporated as central to the vision of the church in Lancashire, and embodied as central to the corporate life of the people of God then there is a hope and a future for us all.