‘Housing estates will be the first places that God will choose to dance and sing’

Date Posted: Feb 02, 2024.

Where is God on our housing estates? Why, according to new research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has poverty, especially child poverty only increased? And what can the Church do about it? CUF CEO Rob Wickham this week delivered the keynote address at a conference of the CofE’s Estate Evangelism Task Group, which is chaired by the Bishop of Barking, Lynne Cullens.

Read Bishop Rob's speech below:


Think of the most imposing doors. Perhaps of a grand building or leading to a cellar. Doors which are rarely opened. Doors where the keys are fiercely guarded. Doors which are Impenetrable, unpassable, dead end. The doors that say keep out, get back, you are most unwelcome.

When I think of such doors, I think of St Paul’s Cathedral. The central west doors - grand, huge, imposing and overlooking the City of London with all of its wealth, with some of the poorest estates in Hackney and Tower Hamlets a mere stone’s throw away. These doors are impenetrable, always shut, telling passer-by to enter by the side and pay your fee for entrance. These doors require effort, mobility, agility and determination to reach. The steps allegedly ascend like the gates of heaven, but these gates are shut, turning their back upon the world city. Perhaps like a faceless corporation, or an institution, where entry is only if you have an appointment, requiring ID.

But not always. I remember at my ordination rehearsal being told that these doors do open on very specific occasions. They open for deacons and royalty.

Deacons and royalty hold the keys, when these doors open, and the beauty within is revealed.

Every time since, when I gathered in this cathedral for an ordination or on Maundy Thursday, or sometimes services with royalty, the hairs would stand up on the back of my neck as I processed out and watched the vast doors open - letting the wind, the air, the spirit blow through, blowing away the cobwebs from the dusty statues of old rich, white and powerful men.

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Royalty and deacons hold the key. Royalty, in whose name the Government - the state - operates in all of its functions - Government, law, education, taxes, legislation. Royalty, called to serve in the name of Almighty God - as we have recently seen at the Coronation service. Royalty which vows to serve all the people in the lands - all as subjects, with a Government that professes to strive for the common good.

“Deacons”, as the ordination service states, “are called to work with the bishop and the priests with whom they serve as heralds of Christ’s kingdom. They are to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, as agents of God’s purposes of love. They are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the Church the needs and hopes of all the people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible”. This speaks in the spirit of Acts chapter 6 and 1 Timothy.

Those with the power and authority are those called to serve in God’s name. Called to go beyond themselves and their own vanity to serve the forgotten corners - even estates.

A serving ministry opens impenetrable doors. This ministry literally hold the key - a key which looks more like a movement or a mission than a moment in time. A desire to understand relational power, and the need to ensure that people are put before programmes - in the spirit of the Good Shepherd. This reveals the Trinity in action, in the power of the Spirit.

Many here operate a diaconal ministry as described in the ordinal. Whether you are ordained or not. This is a rich ministry where daily, as ones who are sent out, we come face to face with the treasures and teachers, if we dare to look in this way. Thank you.

Since becoming the CEO of Church Urban Fund, I have done a lot of listening. As you might expect I have been listening to Bishops, CEOs of various charities, and people involved in theological education. and I have visited and listened in many of our lowest income communities across the Together and Near Neighbour networks. I have been to visit many dioceses, and been taken to many of the projects that seek to serve - living out this diaconal ministry. I have witnessed brilliance. Your brilliance. Your prophetic unlocking of impenetrable doors with grace, love, determination and dedication, even when, at times, it all may seem pretty thankless and hopeless. This ministry is not glamorous, neither is it for the faint hearted. Thank you.

In these six months, I have heard a number of things - some of which will form new pieces of work for the Church Urban Fund going forward, building upon our current priorities. These reflections will not be new, but for me they have been significant in their rediscovery.

Gospel Priority

There is a Gospel priority for this work.

  • The Scriptures are interwoven with God’s priority for the poorest, for the building of relationships and for the raising of the importance of asking questions that relate to why poverty exists in the first place, challenging royalty, power - and holding it to account.
  • I have been thinking much about John’s Gospel in particular - for example, what does it mean in the introduction for God to pitch his tent amongst us?
  • What does it mean that at the beginning Jesus chose to turn water into wine, following the command of do whatever he tells you - and for the miracle to take place, nothing new was added, just stone water jars were repurposed.
  • What does it mean that Jesus chose to raise Lazarus from the dead? That in this moment Jesus weeps through his compassion, then raises a man, who lives with his sisters- a man who never speaks. A man who, possibly, cannot speak, who has been marginalised - quite literally silent. Of all the people that God chose to raise, why Lazarus?
  • What does it mean that in the resurrection narrative, Jesus calls Mary of Magdala by name, meeting her as she freezes in fear, paralysed having witnessed John and Peter scarper from that graveyard. Jesus leans into her fear, vulnerability, calling her by name.

What does it mean in that walk on the beach, when Jesus asks Peter three times ‘do you love me?’, whilst giving Peter, the Church - you and me - the imperative to feed my lambs? Lambs, the most vulnerable, the most at-risk from the wolves, the least economic value to the farmer - costing and not bringing profit until they are older.

For me, it means that there is a clear biblical revelation of God’s priority for the poorest, most marginalised, vulnerable. The Treasures as St Lawrence the Deacon might say. That this work must be a priority for the Church catholic as well as the Church local. The ministry of the deacon - or with this priority, the ministry of all the baptised, fed by the Word, and by the breaking of bread and sharing of wine. As Roman Catholic theologian William Cavanagh might add - this is the most decentralised political act that the world has ever experienced.

God is therefore at work

Secondly, that if this is God’s priority, then God is already at work in these places - our estates, and our task is to join in. God’s activity is not bound by that which we decide in a strategic action plan - important through these may be, but the Spirit blows wherever she chooses. As a Gospel priority, such estates and communities will be the first places that God will choose to dance and sing. Where those with whom God has an encounter become the teachers. I fear though that the way God dances and sings may look a little different to some of the dances and songs that are dreamed up by the liturgical commission.

For this takes the shape of the community response to Siva in Hackney, whom I met the day after his store was looted, and petrol bombs were being thrown over my head in the disturbances of 2011 on the Pembury Estate. He was in tears, for he could not afford insurance - his stock was the insurance. As we chatted, a rather large, rather pungent older white gentleman staggered up, muttering expletives. ‘Who the F is going to give me credit now?’ he blurted. This revealed Siva’s love of the community in a way that would not be found in the nearby Tescos. The community rallied, and within three months, the store was reopened.

Know what you are talking about

So, we have a Gospel imperative, and we know that God is already at work in these places. But the reality of poverty is stark - and we need to know the facts. I am delighted that Church Urban Fund provides every parish with their key deprivation data.

But there is more. The recent Joseph Rowntree report on the state of Poverty in the UK makes for deeply sobering reading. Some 14.4m people living in poverty, one in three children growing up in poverty. These figures are startling.

It is also worth noting that since the shocking rise in poverty in the 1980s as Thatcher’s reforms took hold, almost doubling from 14 per cent of the population to just under 25 per cent, nothing has changed. Those frightening days for Britain’s poorest, as revealed in the Faith in the City report. A moment when the Church of England was relevant as well as faithful. A moment when the Church profoundly challenged unjust structures of society. When we became mobilised, shocked at these levels of poverty, daring to begin a fund. This was a shared endeavour, a common purse, and we all played a part. The response was generous. £40 million to be precise, administered by the Church Urban Fund, at bishops’ recommendations. This was viewed as success - and I can only imagine what poverty might have looked like without this endeavour.

However, you could argue that this was a failure. Since the 1990s, the poverty levels have fluctuated a bit, but not reduced significantly. Nothing has changed, except that the Church is no longer angry, our mobilisation has ended, the money gone. Was it all worth it?

Baroness Stroud, who has chaired the House of Lords Commission on Poverty has reflected that the way Royalty (the state) deals with poverty requires a branch and root transformation. Without this, there will be minor changes to these figures, as was seen in the Blair Government, and under Gordon Brown’s tax credits, when Sure Start provided some hope.

The last 14 years has changed the fabric of society - our culture, our hopes. The social fabric of many community groups on our estates - such as community centres, libraries or youth clubs has been cut to the bone.

Many of us have lived this reality, where inequality is just accepted. For six years, I was an estate priest in Somers Town in London, and I then moved back to Camden Borough as bishop to live in Hampstead. The life expectancy difference, between these two places where I lived, just a matter of a few miles apart was 18 years. Knowing these facts is important.

I only take some hope by the ask of Keir Starmer, to work with civil society, for policies to be shaped - at least, this was his ask this time last week to civil society leaders. Buit this requires major change for poverty to be eradicated.

The Church Speaks - be part of it

Fourthly, added to this important and ongoing revelation of statistics, we are aware that the Church too has been very active in helping to understand Britain - not just poor Britain. The Archbishops Commissions’ on the Banking Industry, housing, the care system, households and racial justice have helped to shape the theology for human flourishing. They speak of the importance of putting people before profit, and people before programmes, and where short-term sticking plaster approach must be challenged. Where love matters.

We must, and should ask the difficult questions of the State. We know about the web of poverty, that many projects and programmes are transactional, and our calling as the Church is to speak up and out. We do this when we have traction on the ground, a ministry, a movement that leans into identity and relational poverty as well as the usually revealed material poverty. Jon Kuhrt’s reflections are very helpful in his.

I am reminded of visiting one of our 700 Places of Welcome that CUF helps to oversee. This one was on an estate in the West Midlands, where 14 of the 20 people present had been bereaved in the past 10 years or so. Six of them told me that this gathering was the only time that week that they would chat to another human being. Or the recently bereaved gentleman at the Place of Welcome in Lichfield who read out a poem, and when I asked why he did this, through his tears he said that this was the only place he felt safe enough to do so.

To be honest, as someone with a very full diary - I have no idea what this feels like. I had become the pupil.

These Archbishops’ Commissions, like the Rowntree Foundation research are helpful, as they each can guide our response to these significant issues. They each remind us that theology is important - strategy is important, and they can help shape confidence in why we must speak out – together - with one voice. The unique Christian contribution that shares the need to serve. Work which is informed by data, and not unconscious bias, which can also help the Church to be more culturally competent in our learning.

And the ground is shifting. Dioceses are speaking more of compassion in ministry, priority for the poorest and most deprived communities. The work of this task group has been one of the engines required for this change - and I thank you again for your pioneering work. It seems as of the Spirit is at work, shaping this work, but we cannot be complacent. There is a long way to go, not helped by the lack of resource in the implementation of the recommendations of these Archbishops’ Commissions, apart from racial justice. We must not be just hot air.

Holding up a mirror

Fifthly, and also sobering in content, we must note the wider perception of us.

Let’s be honest, from a public perception perspective, the C of E is a pretty toxic brand. Trust in the Church of England and in faith communities are at a long-term low.

Recent research carried out by the Charities Aid asked the general public who best understood their situation. 36 per cent said charities, 7 per cent said Government, and only 5 per cent said faith communities and the faith sector.

To add to this, UCS and More In Common published their research on the levels of trust that exist in major institutions. 78 per cent trust the NHS, 71 per cent the National Trust. Charities at 66 per cent, the Bank of England at 50 per cent, the Church of England at 38 per cent, the Labour Party at 35 per cent and the Tory Party at 25 per cent. If we are going to hold up a mirror to wider society, we must do the same for ourselves too.

So what?

Over these past six months, in visiting estates, parishes and places, I have witnessed brilliance, and I have heard desperate pain and anguish. Jesus is joyful and weeping in equal measure.

It is clear that we are not in a good shape. The state of poverty across the UK is painfully acute, and the discrepancy between the richer and the poorer increases. Our estates, often forgotten, are a reminder that we, especially in the Church of England, favour ministry amongst the middle classes who are white and straight. That ministry and resource is prioritised in areas of wealth and rural communities because this is where we place our treasure. Furthermore, public perception on who we are and what we do remains at a low.

But, as we shared at the beginning, we have Gospel priority for this work, and the Spirit of God is clearly at work. We have a rooted theology as to why this is important.

We pray and work for our churches to grow. We must tell the story of Jesus, and we need to evangelise in a culturally competent way.

The free resources of Growing Good from Church Urban Fund are especially helpful in doing this. Resources which have come from three years of research into the relationship between discipleship, social action and social justice, and their effect in helping churches to grow. I’m happy to chat with anyone about this.

We are all disciples here. Lifelong learners - a posture of learning. Where we:

  • Learn from the communities that we serve, where God is already at work. We can learn good practice too from each other.
  • Learn how to speak up. Often we usually speak to ourselves in a tiny echo chamber, that often looks like Twitter! This is not good enough. We must speak up, collectively, with the voices of our teachers.
  • Learn how to share our resources and our power - resisting the current appeals to fragment and work in silos - as this will be to the detriment of estate ministry. The common resource, the common purse are helpful frameworks in our coming together.
  • Learn how to grow in a diaconal ministry. This bespoke ministry, outward focussed, knitting together in the complexities of poverty. Developing a learner’s and a servant’s heart.
  • Learn how to relate and challenge, when appropriate, royalty - the state. The Labour leader has asked for our help. We could, over the coming months, invite all parliamentary prospective candidates into our estates to share our work and our partnerships as the ask has been made. We must encourage royalty to complete this root and branch review, to make the changes that are needed, for poverty to be eradicated.
  • And finally, learn how to be the key. These heavy doors seem even harder to open today that when I was first ordained last century. But doors can be opened when the Spirit chooses. Doors do open for deacons and royalty and others too. Intentionally be the key, identify the power that we have, work with others, be clear about which doors need to be unlocked, and let the freshness of the spirit blow through. Weep, show righteous anger, subvert, live a holy resistance, love and laugh in equal measure. In this, know that we are moving as God’s mission, for this is God’s priority.

The Rt Rev’d Robert Wickham

Group CEO Church Urban Fund