Is the Church Losing Faith in Low-Income Communities?

A report on church closures in Greater Manchester reveals that more are being lost in areas of low income and deprivation.

The report, Is the Church Losing Faith in Low-Income Communities in Greater Manchester?, was commissioned by Church Action on Poverty and compared the number of churches in the city in 2010 with those that remain in 2020.  One of the authors, the Rev Fiona Tweedie, told a Religion Media Centre briefing that they looked at five main denominations: Baptist, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Church of England and United Reformed.  Most church closures within the CofE, Catholic, Methodist and Baptist denominations were in the most deprived areas, the report said. Only the United Reformed Church had more closures in affluent areas than in low-income areas.

It continued: “Reasons for church closures included: declining numbers attending church services; buildings falling into disrepair, coupled with churches being unable to afford their upkeep; and fewer priests and ministers to serve the churches. However, this … does not explain why many more churches have closed in deprived areas, in comparison with more affluent areas.”  Ms Tweedie said: “Sometimes while there’s fabulous work going on in deprived areas, sometimes there aren’t people to fight to save a church in the way that there are in some more affluent areas.”

Niall Cooper, director of Church Action on Poverty, said there must be a reason why churches in deprived areas were closed more frequently and there was another story going on. “I’m not saying in most cases it’s a deliberate strategy. But unconsciously, there are forces at play, where churches with less resource, less money, potentially fewer human assets are the ones that close — and those will be the ones in low-income community areas.”  He said the report was inspired by a policy from the Church of Scotland 15 years ago, to target areas of deprivation as priority areas for the denomination, as “a theological imperative”.

Eunice Attwood, the church on the margins officer for the Methodists, said she had been aware of closures in low-income communities for many years, but sometimes in such communities the building was absolutely essential and her team pleaded with churches to keep those buildings open.  However, the church was not just about buildings but communities, she said, and the Methodist Church was intentionally putting resources into low-income areas, to nurture communities — not buildings: “The church that emerges may look very different — we’ve seen walk-in churches, muddy church, a church that meets on a Wednesday, not a Sunday. New places for people need not to be tied to bricks and mortar.”

The report contains the example of the Triangle Community Church, north of Bolton, where four Methodist churches were closed and a new centre built, providing a community café and activities for people in the neighbourhood.

The Bishop of Manchester, David Walker, spoke of the Antioch Network, a group of community churches developing in Manchester on housing estates and inner-city areas. Money from central church funds is going to Manchester specifically for this purpose, he said: “We’re closing fewer buildings than we are opening new congregations.”

He pointed to the reality that churches built in Victorian times served populations which had simply moved away and the buildings were not needed in the same areas. It would be like keeping a church open in a field in Norfolk near a village that had been destroyed by the Black Death. “If a population moves, you actually have to move where you’re putting the church,” he said, and suggested more work needed to be done to analyse population numbers in the areas where churches closed.

The Rev Philip Brooks, deputy general secretary of mission for the United Reformed Church, said it would never shut a building unless there was local co-operation. Sometimes, however, buildings were a millstone.

Ecumenical projects can combine to provide purpose-built community facilities, such as one in Salford which has a place for worship alongside space for a food bank, community gardens, community café, all important for the church in areas of deprivation.

Researcher Deirdre Brower-Latz produced an accompanying report, What Does it Mean to be a Church on the Margins?, describing through interviews what church means to people living in areas of deprivation. Describing a church as on the margins was problematic. “It’s a very top-down understanding isn’t it?”, she said. “There’s almost an implied insult or a diminishing, or a potential power exchange that’s really unhelpful.” She told the briefing that their conversations with Christians in those churches had been “really wonderful”. “It opened up all kinds of conversations about inherent dignity, pride and communities that others would slight. A sense of ‘what does it mean to belong here?’, because … here is our home, and a place of life for us, and flourishing and hope. “The stories that emerge are full of ordinary miracles, tiny spaces of seeds of life, yeast, salt. It sounds very biblical, what people say back to you, you know, here’s the way we encounter Jesus in this space.”

Kate Gray, minister of the Dandelion Community in Wythenshawe, Greater Manchester, said there was something behind the closure decisions about class, power, resource and numbers. Her church had been under threat of closure and was often spoken about as tiny, with 15 people maximum on a Sunday morning “if there was a revival” and between 400 to 600 people part of the community through the week, involved in community events such as a gym, carers group, mental health group, community café and food bank. But she told the briefing that the threat of closure had gone as the wider church had changed its approach in recent years and listened to local wisdom and experience, while the local church had “skilled up” to speak the language of the wider church and “join in middle-class conversations”.

Eddie Tulasiewicz, of the National Churches Trust, challenged people on the call to talk about money as well as power. He said the government had given £50m via the Heritage Stimulus Fund, much of which went to beautiful churches with small communities. But there was a conversation needed about where the next tranche would go — to heritage or a community stimulus fund, he questioned. He urged people to contact their MP and local council and find if money was available. He said many churches lost out because they were not Grade I listed, which automatically attracted funds. But he cautioned against demolishing buildings: there was less climate impact if buildings were kept going.

Reflecting on the report findings and the future of the church in deprived areas, Mr Cooper said they were communities of hope. “This is the gospel priority, to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable communities are ones that are supported, to be the best communities that they can be. That’s why we’ve commissioned this. “And now we’re looking into the next phase about how we enable people in those communities for their voices to be heard, to shape the strategies and decisions of the churches as institutions, which ultimately will be how those communities get access to power and are able to ensure that they have dignity and agency. “This is not just a conversation about church, it’s how all communities are represented in society, and are able to articulate that they should get justice in terms of our wider decisions about resources within societies, communities, and ultimately as a country.”

This article was written by Ruth Peacock and published here, in February 2023:
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