The Bishop of Burnley in the north-west England diocese of Blackburn, has accused priests of deserting the nation’s poor and working class areas. In a speech at the evangelical New Wine festival, Bishop Philip North told the stories of people who had come to faith through ministry in deprived areas, before saying: “I could tell plenty of stories like that, stories where people from hard backgrounds living in the toughest parts of the country have come to faith in Jesus Christ through passionate and committed Christian ministry which has combined service and proclamation. What worries me though . . . is the stories I cannot tell.”
He continued: “You see in the inner urban areas and outer estates of our nation there are countless people . . . whose lives are in a mess, who need the saving news of Jesus Christ but who will never hear it. And why not? Because there is no Christian community to proclaim, or because that community is so weak that it has given up.”
After quoting St Paul’s question in Romans 10, “How shall they hear without a preacher?”, Bishop Philip said: “The simple and hard truth is that, in the poorest parts of the country, we are withdrawing the preachers. The harvest is rich, but the labourers have been re-deployed to wealthier areas. We are seeing the slow and steady withdrawal of church life from those communities where the poorest people in our nation live.
“And that matters. For the past 25 years I have been delighted to see a vast and ever growing industry of evangelism that now sets the pace in the Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury is passionate about evangelism and has made it one of his major priorities, backed up with initiatives such as ‘Thy Kingdom Come.’ Dioceses almost all have strong growth strategies in place. The Church Commissioners have released £100m in assets to invest in mission initiatives. Planting new congregations has become an industry in itself, even having its own bishop and backed up by the work of New Wine, HTB [Holy Trinity, Brompton], Fresh Expressions, Messy Church and many others.
“We have had over two decades of evangelical ascendency and the majority of senior leaders will now emphasise mission and evangelism above anything else. New evangelistic resources appear on the scene all the time, countless new para-church groups and agencies appear with fresh ideas or new materials. We massively emphasise discipleship to try equip existing Christians to share faith more successfully. I could go on and on. This is a vast and ever-growing industry.
“And what has been the impact? Accelerated decline. In 2001, according to census data, 71 per cent of the UK population identified themselves as Christian. In just ten years, that figure had dropped to 59 per cent. And the trend continues.”
He said: “We are all trying massively hard to renew the Church. We are working like crazy, we are praying like mad, we are trying every new idea under the sun. Yet the longed-for renewal does not seem to come. In fact decline just seems to speed up. Why? Why are we struggling so much?
“I want to suggest that the answer is quite a straightforward one. It’s because we have forgotten the poor.
“Every effective renewal movement in the whole history of the Church has begun not with the richest and most influential, but with the poor and the marginalised. ‘I have come to proclaim good news to the poor’ Jesus said in the synagogue at Nazareth. How often have you seen those last three words ‘to the poor’ omitted or re-interpreted or spiritualised? But when Jesus said ‘poor’ he meant ‘poor, and he demonstrated that in the way he lived the rest of his life.
“In order to found a movement to transform the world, he called not the wealthy, the articulate or the powerful but a ragtag, chaotic bunch of third rate fishermen, busted tax collectors and clapped out rebels. He chose the poor and the weak and the powerless, he chose those who knew their utter dependency on God because they quite literally had nothing else to depend on, and with these keystone cop disciples he blew apart the whole meaning of what it is to be human.”
He gave the example of a vacant parish in Hartlepool, in the north-east of England, where, he said, “it was over two years before the Bishop could appoint [a new priest]. Clergy didn’t want to live in that kind of area, they didn’t want their children educated alongside the poor – you’ll know the litany of excuses.
“At the same time a Parish in Paddington [in central London] was advertised and at once attracted 122 expressions of interest. That is the true measure of the spiritual health of the Church of England.
“It is incredibly hard to attract calibre leaders to estates churches. And whilst many of those who do that work are heroic, we have to be honest and accept that some really struggle because their reason for being there is that it is the only job they could get. God doesn’t seem to be calling our best leaders to serve the poor. Or maybe he is calling, and we’re not listening.”
He set out a seven-point plan “to turn the church upside down” and to “become a church of and for the poor that the world might believe.”
This included reflecting on “the content of our proclamation”, saying that “successful evangelism begins with intense listening.” He also called for leaders to be raised up “for and from the urban church”.
He said that the church planting movement “needs to put the poor first rather than last”, and argued that many church planting initiatives “are aimed at the low-hanging fruit in fast regenerating urban areas.”
He continued: “I am astonished at the number of people Jesus is calling to plant new churches as long as they are in Zones 1 and 2 of the London transport system. It’s the wrong place to start. Renewal comes from courageous mission to the places where it’s toughest. If you feel called to plant, we need you on the outer estates, we need you in our northern towns, we need you in areas where a majority of people come from other world faiths, we need you in those areas where the trendy coffee shops and artisanal bakers are hard to find. Come there if you really want to make a difference in Jesus’ name.”
He concluded his seven steps by calling for prayer. “We need sincere, disciplined, authentic prayer because it is only through prayer that the Lord will soften our hearts and open our ears to the cry of the poor,” he said. “Pray for the church in areas where it is hard to be the church. Pray for yourself so that you can discern how God is calling you to proclaim Good News to the poor.”
- Click here to read the full text of Bishop Philip’s talk (pdf)