I don’t really like or use if I can help it the label “the poor”. People who are lacking in material means are often rich and full in other ways, and have taught me most to what I’ve needed to know about ministry and indeed life in general. However it is at times used as a shorthand in the article below and is perhaps deliberately emotive. The speech below was given by Bishop Philip North, the Bishop of Burnley to a gathering at New Wine last summer. He is an Anglo Catholic Bishop, so not normally given to addressing large groups of evangelicals perhaps, but as people from many middle class wealthy churches in the south east, the words are well chosen. They are very important, prophetic words, and I believe them to be true from what I see happening on the ground and the way resources are deployed.
I am myself one of those resources, and as my curacy begins to enter its final stage, there are conversations about where I will be deployed. However the days are over – in this Diocese at least – where clergy are “given a living” or tapped on the shoulder and told where they will be moving. There is a market economy now: jobs are advertised and curates choose where they will apply, until a match is made. That allows a certain freedom of choice, as if you do not apply for anything, a match will not be able to be made!
I have found this process very difficult, as my heart is still very much committed to the people I serve at The Upper Room, where I have been for ten years now, and the estates and poorer people around my small and ostensibly wealthy market town. No-one is ministering there, to those groups. There are plenty of churches – over a dozen – but none are reaching out to the forgotten folks or offering care and service in the way Philip North describes at the beginning of this article. I feel a vocation to them, to stay here and not join the career trajectory. Constantly I am told about my gifts and my worth, as if I would be somehow “wasting” them by staying to serve the people who are poor and ignored. These words below are challenging, but they are the reason why I am planing to stay here and self-support. I am a recipient of the lavish and outrageous, nonsensical grace from my Lord, and it makes sense to me to stay here and offer that to people who are otherwise ignored and priced out.
The words below (emphasis mine) sum up better than I can why I am doing what I am doing. The whole article can be found here – do read it, it is a prophetic word to the Church. https://www.blackburn.anglican.org/storage/general-files/shares/Resources/Tlaks%20articles%20and%20sermons/Hope_for_the_Poor_-__P_article__Word_document_.pdf
“The lesson of scripture, the lesson of the past is clear. If we want renewal, we must start
with the poor. And yet in the Church of England we have a mission approach that is almost
entirely focussed on the needs and aspirations of the wealthy. Rather than speaking good
news to the poor, we are complicit in the abandonment of the poor.
Now that is a very strong claim to make. So let me give you the evidence that lies behind it.
To do so I am going to focus on the urban estates, the large areas of social housing that
fringe many of our large towns and cities. First, the statistics. Church attendance. The
proportion of people who attend an Anglican church in England is 1.7%. On the estates that
figure is less than half at 0.8%. Moreover the rate of decline on the estates is almost four
times faster than the rest of the country. Now given those chilling figures and the fact that
Jesus came to proclaim good news to the poor, you might think that the Church of England
would invest in these areas and deliberately divert resource from rich to poor. So what is
the truth? Nationally we spend £8 per head of population on ministry. In some rural areas
that figure rises to £24 per head. On the estates we spend just £5 per head, by far the
lowest. The poorer you are, the less the church values you.
Second, leadership. When my old Parish in Hartlepool, a thriving estates Church, was vacant
a few years ago, it was over two years before the Bishop could appoint. 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 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.
Third, access to ministry in times of need. in 2011 the Synod of the Church of England
passed a new table of fees that massively increased the cost of funerals and weddings.
Normally if you want to work Synod up to a frenzy you give a rousing speech about a bias to
the poor. They love to listen to that sort of thing, but they don’t like to pay for it. That fee
increase was nodded through with just two votes against. Without any real fuss at all, we
calmly priced the poor out of the ministry of the Church…
…. And indeed a church that abandons the poor might well be financially viable. It’s just that it would no longer be the Church of Jesus Christ. If we abandon the poor, we abandon God. If we fail to proclaim the good news to the poor, we lose the right and the authority to proclaim the good news to anyone, anywhere. ”