The ‘joyful challenge’ of minority congregations’ use of Anglican church spaces

Dr Demelza Jones

Responding effectively to ever-increasing diversity (or superdiversity) is an important challenge facing the modern Church of England, particularly in urban centres. This response may take the form of attempts at meaningful engagement with other faith communities – for instance, the Church’s nationwide Presence and Engagement programme, which “focus[es] on the importance of the Church both remaining present in multi religious areas and engaging positively with communities of other faiths”1, and is complemented by a network of Inter-Faith Relations Advisors working at the Diocesan level. However, as well as this engagement across faiths, the Church must also respond (and arguably adapt) to significant diversity within Christianity, and even within Anglicanism.

Working in a context of intra-Christian, and indeed, intra-Anglican, superdiversity is a reality for many Anglican clergy working in the Diocese of Birmingham – the setting for the ‘Superdiverse Diocese’ project – an ongoing piece of collaborative research between Dr Demelza Jones (Aston University) and Canon Dr Andrew Smith (Director of Inter-faith Relations for the Bishop of Birmingham). The specific focus of this project was the use of Anglican church spaces by ‘minority congregations’ (broadly defined as congregations meeting outside of the services offered by the Church’s ‘official’ clergy, and focused around particular national, ethnic, linguistic or theological identities). The first stage of the project – an online survey of all Anglican clergy in the Birmingham Diocese city-region – aimed to produce a snapshot of minority congregations’ use of Anglican spaces, as well as providing some descriptive detail on these congregations. One hundred survey returns were received, identifying thirty-eight congregations, and revealing a huge variety of ethnicities and nationalities leading and attending these congregations, a range of languages of worship, and an array of transnational connections both within and outside global Anglicanism.2 One of the most interesting revelations from the survey, was variance in the nature of relationships between the Anglican ‘host’ and the minority congregation(s), which could be placed on a continuum from a landlord-tenant relationship at one end of the scale, through to a close relationship of shared worship at the other. It was these relationships which formed the focus of the second phase of the project – in-depth interviews with a sample of the Anglican clergy whose churches host minority congregations – with the goal of discovering what challenges and opportunities were offered by these encounters between diverse Christians; whether close relationships between main and minority congregations were desired; and if so, how could these relationships be established and nurtured?

The Anglican clergy we spoke with identified a number of benefits of minority congregations using their church spaces. At the most basic level, there was a financial advantage to having groups paying to use the church at times when it would otherwise have stood empty. At a deeper level, clergy spoke about the importance of the Church appearing a busy, “alive” presence within the neighbourhood, and of encounters between diverse Christians fostering understanding across difference and supporting community cohesion: “I would like to think, that where there is interaction in the community, where people are living in this area and say, “Well, I go to St Matthew’s”,3 then that gives them a common bond”.

However, these advantages were counter-balanced by challenges; ranging from practical irritations (not putting chairs away properly was a recurring theme!), though to concerns around serious issues such as child protection (a ‘cultural’ tendency to use corporal punishment for instance), potential reputational damage to the Church through association with inappropriate groups, and significant theological and liturgical differences. The latter concern was described by one member of clergy as ‘coming to God differently’. There were numerous examples of this explored in the interviews, but to give just two examples: clergy expressed concerns around the ‘supernatural’ nature of some aspects of worship practised by the Pentecostal (or ‘Pentecostal-inflected’) congregations who used their church spaces, as well as the “Gospel of Prosperity” offered by some Pentecostal pastors, which they felt was at odds with the Anglican approach to prayer. Secondly, several churches were used by Orthodox congregations, with the Orthodox practise of screening mass from the congregation again seen by some clergy as problematic and at odds with Anglican theology:

that’s kind of anathema to my theology and the architecture of the building… Our Orthodox friends felt very free to start to assemble this screen in our chancel. I didn’t quite blow a fuse, but I was very robust about how inappropriate that was and an abuse of our space. This kind of, liturgical theological abuse of a building which we have set up, which says everyone is welcome into this place

Some clergy had encountered opposition to hosting minority congregations from their main congregation and the wider local community. In one striking example, a member of clergy described how he had given permission for the East African congregation who hire his church to conduct a ceremony (involving the lighting of a bonfire) in the church grounds. He had attended the ceremony and explained to passers-by that this was an “ancient and beautiful Christian ritual”, so was stunned to receive a visit from the police following-up reports that a group of Muslims were burning a cross outside the church: “my goodness. It just shows what is just beneath the surface”. Clergy also reported feeling “out of my depth” in dealing with some of the issues that had arisen from minority congregations’ use of their church spaces. One recounted having to navigate an acrimonious split in a congregation based on a political dispute in the country of origin, while others questioned the legitimacy of some of the congregations who had approached them: “these are unregulated with very little oversight, with some, probably, self-taught pastors”.

Despite all this, we came away from interviews with a sense that while clergy experienced multiple (and in some cases serious) challenges resulting from minority congregations’ use of their church spaces, for most, this was a “joyful challenge”, which they felt was worth meeting:

the early church was a group of very disparate and diverse people and one of its outrageous claims is that it can hold people of very different cultures. And if we, kind of, just say, “well, we’re too different, we can’t”, then I think we’re going to second best

As such, we asked clergy for their ‘top tips’ for achieving harmony in relationships with minority congregations. Most centrally (and perhaps obviously), clergy stressed the importance of communication, but also the necessity of understanding the theological basis of congregations’ practices, fostering mutual respect and understanding, and avoiding “empire-building” and paternalism:

one of the lessons for the wider church is how do we embrace these people as Christian brothers and sisters but allow them to be who they are rather than turning them into white British Anglicans.

Going forward, we will be incorporating material from these interviews into a training resource, aimed both at clergy who are already working with minority congregations but who would appreciate hearing about the views and experiences of peers, but also new and more experienced clergy who are moving into diverse and super-diverse areas. Findings from the project were recently presented at the national conference of Inter-faith Relations Advisors organised at Lambeth Palace by the Presence and Engagement programme, with these advisors forming a key network for the dissemination of the resource and supporting our aim of better equipping clergy to meet the ‘joyful challenge’ of minority congregations’ use of their church spaces within (super)diverse dioceses.

 

1 http://www.presenceandengagement.org.uk/content/about-presence-and-engagement

2 Detail on the survey findings can be found in the report Minority Congregations’ use of Anglican Church Spaces in the Birmingham Diocese.

3 Church names and other potentially identifying information has been altered

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