How it got started: Faith in the City
In the 1980s the Church of England became known as ‘Her Majesty’s Unofficial Opposition’ because it was the only established body championing the cause of the poor against the monetarist neo-liberalism of the Thatcher government.
In 1985 the Church of England published its infamous ‘Faith in the City’ report which shot holes in the urban social policies of the time and challenged both the government and the Church to rethink their structures and actions accordingly.
It was probably the only occasion when the dear old Church of England was branded as ‘Marxist’ in the UK press! The report did actually have its limitations but it set in motion a very significant change in the established church and in its partner churches, especially the URC and Methodist churches.
Church structures were routinely scrutinised to see that they adopted a recognisable ‘option for the poor’, and ideas that had for years been the preserve of a few ardent urban missioners now took centre stage.
Faith on the Outer Estate: NECN is formed
The talk was all about “the inner city” and the outer estates remained isolated and forgotten.
It was therefore in 1996, at a conference for urban practitioners taking place at St Albans, that a sub-group of those engaged specifically in estate ministry decided to create an ecumenical network of support for their own distinctive work.
The Network’s first national conference took place in June 1998, electing Bishop Laurie Green as chair, Ann Morisy as Secretary, and others including Tony Holden, Andrew Davey, Gordon Dey and Joe Hasler to the steering group. Jane Winter joined this group a few years later.
They were soon into promoting local groups around the country, holding annual national conferences, and producing relevant resources for estate ministry.
It was Ann Morisy who came up with the name National Estate Churches Network and Sarah Barlow who designed the colourful jigsaw logo. When Ann Morisy retired from NECN Jane Winter took up the role of secretary and worked closely with Bishop Laurie for the following fifteen years.
The Challenges of Estates – NECN writes a letter
The team knew that they had to make an early political impact too and so Laurie Green was commissioned to write to the newly elected Labour government, on behalf of our Network and the Urban Bishops Panel, pressing home the need for the government to include the needy estates in any future urban policy.
We have been gratified to see that not only their own subsequent Urban White Paper (2000) but also all government urban policy since then has included the concerns of our estates wherever relevant.
The letter with Laurie’s full theological critique was published separately by the Network and entitled “The Challenge of the Estates” – but it is nevertheless salutary to note that, even now, so many of the concerns raised in that publication still fester.
The Network’s annual National Conferences were often tackling topics well ahead of the wave, inviting distinguished speakers such as Professors Anne Power, Richard Wilkinson, Rebecca Tunstall, Linsey Hanley and Doreen Massey from the world of urbanology, but always with estate practitioners in the driving seat – a fact that the academics wholeheartedly welcomed!
Notable theologians and estate warriors, like Stephen Timms, Kathy Galloway, Robin Gamble, John Battle and John Hayes, also helped us look at issues such as worship, youth evangelism, estate refurbishment, estate spirituality, dealing with local politics, mission, partnerships, asylum and funding – and each time we published the conference findings in booklet form.
But the Network was soon beset by two major difficulties. The first was the sheer size of the exercise. Substantial work was being done by our many regional groups across the country and other requests were pouring in for support from isolated and forgotten congregations. It was soon apparent that if we were to undertake the necessary research, foster the networking, maintain the conferences and so on, we needed a part-time assistant. The Network therefore appointed a highly gifted woman, but soon after appointment she became gravely ill and had to retire. A subsequent appointment proved to be very disappointing and left the Network short of hard won funding. This meant that the Network was forced to function on a shoe-string. It was thanks to new members of the team, including Judith Wray, that the Network continued in strength.
These personnel and financial difficulties were aggravated by the obvious fact that the institutional church, facing the loss of its inherited wealth and diminishing congregations, was now steadily moving its focus away from the estates and their struggling congregations – we were anything but the ‘flavour of the month’.
Indeed, there followed many years of hard graft on the part of the Network as we saw housing estate ministry being significantly reduced, congregation by congregation across the country. Church planting onto estates was seen by many as one way forward, but those early attempts were often inept middle-class incursions into local cultures, and the pain felt by many an estate community was palpable.
The Network therefore offered new resources and conferences on sensitive engagement, and at the same time lessons were learnt by those early planting pioneers, so that in time much more sophisticated and culturally-sensitive church planting models began to result. That work of sensitization continues.
It was the Church Urban Fund – that direct result of the Faith in the City report – that came to our rescue by promising to underwrite any financial losses the Network made from year to year.
With that firm support, our chair Laurie Green, having recently retired, was asked by the Network to travel the country, working at pavement level to research the estates and the church’s ministry there, and to offer some resulting theological and missional resources.
Laurie Green brought all that together in a book for NECN entitled ‘Blessed are the Poor?’ (SCM) which argued forcefully that the poor should take centre stage in the life of the church if it was to have a Kingdom future in the UK. Bishop Philip North took up that cry within the Church of England and convinced its governing bodies to take the estates seriously once again, as they had back in 1998. It was just then that Laurie was looking to pass the NECN banner on to new leadership and was thrilled when Andy Delmege, Lynne Cullens and others emerged as our new leaders, allowing him to retire from the chair after twenty years, and Jane Winter as secretary after nearly fifteen. After so many years hammering at the closed door of the established denominations, things were at last beginning to budge – the Holy Spirit was clearly at work!
Laurie said, “It was a great joy to me to hand the baton on to others who were younger and not so war-weary, just as those new possibilities were being offered to the Network. My prayer is that the National Estate Churches Network can now play a dynamic part in making the church look to the social housing estates and listen to the voice of the poor – those whom our Lord Jesus called ‘Blessed’!”