Bishop's anger at middle-class Church: 'The poorer you are, the less we value you'
The Church of England's approach to mission is 'almost entirely focused on the needs and aspirations of the wealthy', according to the Bishop of Burnley.
Speaking at the New Wine conference in Shepton Mallet, Rt Rev Philip North – nominated as Bishop of Sheffield then controversially forced to withdraw after a campaign against him focusing on his opposition to women priests – launched a fierce attack on what he said was the Church's preoccupation with church growth at the expense of ministry among the poor.
He 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.'
North said he had been 'delighted' to see increased evangelism in the CofE and praised the Archbishop of Canterbury's Thy Kingdom Come prayer initiative. 'We have had over two decades of evangelical ascendency and the majority of senior leaders will now emphasise mission and evangelism above anything else,' he said. However, the result had been 'accelerated decline'.
'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,' he said. '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.'
North said that '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'.
He cited figures comparing Church of England spending on urban estates, where churchgoing is less than half the national Anglican average, with other areas. '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.'
He also hit out at the failure of the Church to provide high-calibre leadership on estates, saying that '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.'
North condemned the rise in fees for weddings and funerals agreed by the General Synod in 2011, saying: '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.' He hit out at the condition of estate churches, saying, 'If you're poor all you're worth is a cold and half derelict building.' And with some honourable exceptions, he said, church planting is 'white middle class graduate church for white middle class graduates'.
He spoke of the Grenfell Tower fire, saying: 'The 80 or more people who were manslaughtered in that building died for one reason and for one reason only which is that they were poor. They are victims of years of rapacious under-investment, of corporate greed, of inept and corrupt local government, of a materialist culture that values human life only in so far that it is economically expedient to do so.'
And he said: 'Areas characterised by social deprivation desperately need a Gospel of hope. And yet what are we doing? We are withdrawing. We are under-investing. What kind of church is it that turns its back on the dispossessed, or offers them only crumbs from the table of the rich? Unless we start with the poor, the Gospel we proclaim is a sham, an empty hypocrisy.'
He suggested Christians needed to reflect on the content of their message, saying: 'If you turn up on an estate with nice, tidy complacent answers to questions no one is asking, they will tear you to shreds.' He urged the need for local leadership rather than 'catapulting in 200 white, well-educated, beautiful people from the nice bit of town'.
North was scathing about church-planting, saying: 'HTB, New Wine and many dioceses and denominations are developing church planting strategies. But too many are aimed at the low-hanging fruit in fast regenerating urban areas or university towns. 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 urged long-term commitment to estates instead of focusing on the 'quick win', saying: 'The wider Church must support the Church in urban areas, and do so in genuine and concrete ways. That means financial subsidy, it means letting go of its best leaders for urban ministry, it means support and prayer and encouragement, it means a willingness to listen to the urban church and amend its own life and structures accordingly.'