Research | C-of-E churches responses to need

I’m studying Church of England (C-of-E) churches responses to need. The C-of-E is unusual, on the one-hand present across England in ‘every community’, active in neighbourhoods, managing volunteers, delivering projects and services. Its stated mission even includes to transform unjust structures of society. On the other-hand, it has a unique place at the heart of UK legislature, its bishops in the House of Lords. The C-of-E is distinctive!

After years of working with churches in disadvantaged communities (ongoing community work on housing estates, or with Church Urban Fund and more recently with Church Action on Poverty and St Martin in the Fields), I want to learn more about the response of C-of-E churches to need. I’m looking at a context of social change – we could talk about ‘deficit reduction‘ or more broadly, austerity – cuts to public services and increased need. What are C-of-E churches doing and how do they do it?

To help understand the responses of C-of-E churches to need, I’m using a theoretical framework developed by sociologist David Howe*. Howe building on original work by Burrell and Morgan (1979) wrote about four ‘types’ of intervention or responses to need used by social workers. I found his model a useful reference point. Here are Howe’s four types:

  • Fixers help individuals in need adapt to a changing context and envionment. Fixers use their experience and knowledge to help a person get back on track, dealing with complex issues. Examples include: Food bank, winter night shelter and money advice services.
  • Seekers after Meaning focus on understanding the perspective and experience of the person in need. This about using individual client centred approaches. Examples include: Counselling support, debt counselling and listening projects.
  • Raisers of Consciousness tackle wider inequality in society. Here individuals confront their own complex issues gaining control of their life. This approach recognises society must change. Examples include Asset Based Community Development, Community Organising and Poverty & Truth commissions.
  • Revolutionaries work to shift society, via a radical and political critique. Here, collective anger might lead to collegiate responses, campaigning and political engagement. Examples include direct action, protest, campaigns and lobbying.

Howe had his critics, however, I think his model is useful in framing responses to need.

Which ‘type’ best fits your churches response to need? More than one type maybe? Which is the dominant type? Where do you place your church activity on the doodle below? (Click on the doodle for a bigger view.)

Where would you place your churches general response to need?

My research is developing case studies focusing on four C-of-E churches, one for each of those four types. So, each church responds to need differently, and in varied contexts. It’s not a comparative study or looking to evaluate activity – I want to understand how churches do what they do. I will spend between 5 to 10 weeks with each, helping out with activity as a participant and interviewing some of those involved. Can you help?

If you are interested and want to learn more about this study and how to participate in the research, please be in touch (contact details on the illustration above). We can then go from there.

My study is independent, not commissioned by any organisation and has ethical approval by Goldsmiths University of London. All information provided by participants is confidential.

I’ll use this space to post updates and insights about the research.

Howe, D. (2008) “An Introduction to Social Work Theory”, Oxford: Routledge

Burrell, G; Morgan, G. (1979). “Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis: Elements of the Sociology of Corporate Life”. London: Heinemann

 

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Church and their Buildings

Church buildings are a challenge. Sure, buildings can be useful, but viability and costly maintenance clog up work and the agenda of church meetings. And when you’ve only a tiny congregation – the pressure builds up.

How, when the vicars vocation is about people and community, is so much time given to buildings? What is ‘church’ – a pseudo heritage organisation?

A church building is a great opportunity:

  • A presence in a neighbourhood, on the skyline and landscape.
  • A continuity, reassuring in a changing world.
  • A resource to host all kinds of activity.

On the other hand, they are a nuisance:

  • Space is often unused for most of the week.
  • Expensive to maintain.
  • Refurbishment or modernising plans can dominate forever.
  • People resources get diverted to focus on bricks and mortar.

With small congregations and affordable alternatives, why a building anyway?

As soon as a minister starts at a church they get a bunch of keys. Incumbent to the building, keeping it open is a key measure of success. For most vicars the building becomes the constant headache – the ongoing distraction.

You can see the building ‘managing’ the minister and their congregation.

What is the alternative?

In Cornwall I met a vicar set free from managing the plant. A new Trust has been set up with support from the diocese to manage a huge listed rural church building.

  • The Trust is independent of the Parochial Church Council (PCC).
  • The local vicar is not on the board of the Trust.
  • The Trust is enabling those outside the church interested in the building to oversee and develop the space.

I sat in on a meeting of the Trust and PCC as they agreed responsibility for every aspect of the building – who looks after and oversees what? Like a couple deciding who had custody, this was in a brilliant exercise in pragmatism. The PCC prioritising use of space within the building and responsibility only for those items required for a worshiping congregation. The devil is in the detail, and the detail is a lease signed in January 2016 by the PCC

It’s not a straight forward exercise for the vicar.

Happy to loose responsibility for the upkeep of the building while (outside regular use on a Sunday and occasional meetings and events) loosing control of the space can feel like too much. In Cornwall they’ve struck a good deal. The congregation retain full use for meeting Sundays and for weddings, baptisms etc, and PCC oversee their meeting area in the chancellery. The rest of the building and time during the week is overseen by the Trust.

It’s early days for the vicar, the PCC and the Trust but this new approach could make a huge difference. The congregation and vicar can get on working on interpreting ‘church’ as a group of people. The Trust focus on working with stakeholders (including the congregation) to develop the space.

The project raises important questions about a population’s relationship with their local church building.

  • What are the priorities for small congregations with limited resources?
  • What does a phrase like ‘our church’ mean to members of a worshiping congregation and the vast majority of the local population who aren’t?
  • Who is responsible for maintaining and developing a church building when its beyond the reach of the congregation and incumbent? What are the implications and possibilities for seeding responsibility to a wider circle of people beyond the congregations?

What’s clear is that while the church faces a tsunami of redundant church buildings, many buildings still present a huge opportunity. Bold solutions – like the one in Cornwall – offer learning and maybe some answers.

Seized by the Star

Nipped along to the launch of Leila Sansour’s ‘Open Bethlehem’, funded in part by Greenbelt.

Filmed over 5 years it’s a brave, powerful and deeply moving documentary. Sansour explores the story of Palestine through the microcosm of a family in exile and a daughter returning to her beloved Little Town.

A romantic Leila is attracted back home by childhood memories and Christmas card images of Bethlehem returning, just as plans for the apartheid wall become a reality.

The 8 metre high wall is brutal – trampling through neighbourhoods, carving up communities, blocking out light.

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87% of Bethlehem’s land is taken by Israeli occupation enforced restrictions. 25% of Bethlehem’s agricultural land is now only accessible via a permit, which Palestinian farmers must have, to get to through the military checkpoints.

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The wall isolates Palestinians from shops, parks and land. One in five people in Bethlehem are now unemployed in what was once a flourishing tourist destination. 62% of Bethlehem’s population are dependent on tourism. Realising the appalling impact on people and business, Sansour starts a campaign to Open Bethlehem. The film follows Leila as she builds a global coalition of agencies, NGO’s, and people; an ever present camera capturing meetings, conversation, rhetoric, promises and finally the heartbreak of a wall that for now isn’t moving.

‘Open Bethlehem’ captures the violent unrelenting machinery of occupation. Around Bethlehem there are 19 illegal Israeli settlements taking Palestinian land from local families and choking Palestinian neighbourhoods. “This is no place dreamers…”

This is an important film for anyone concerned with the Palestine, Israel, and the Middle east. If you’re interested in social movements the film is a compelling case study, summarising the impossible story of Israeli occupation, and a campaign for freedom of occupation, liberation from enclosure, and justice for both Israeli and Palestinian.

Finally the camera captures the hard work, commitment and fragility of a campaign, which even to Leila’s own family from outside Palestine, seems doomed to fail, blocked by the wall and occupation.

Sansour acknowledges there is very little hope for the future unless the wall comes down. However, the campaign continues, passports are printed and Bethlehem remains open. The film ends defiantly, with hope. “There’s no turning back when your heart is seized by the star of Bethlehem.”

Book the film at your local Ritzy for Christmas – take a gang along and then plan a long pub after for deep conversation. There are insights here for UK NGO’s charities, churches, activists, organisers and people of faith – a Palestinian theology of foolishness and faith, and a compelling commitment to change the world.

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