This was the first of my visits around the country to see how churches that had been recipients of the Archbishops council funding were planning to use their money and what they were looking to achieve in estates around the country. As recipients ourselves I am hoping to see what we might learn from the experience of others and also share our story as well.
This first visit was to the Tolladine Mission in Worcester. The estate is one of the most deprived estates in the area being in the bottom 10% on most deprivation indices in the country. The Tolladine Mission is mainly located in the parish of St Barnabus with Christ Church and the parish has a population of 20,000. About 35% of the population is under the age of 20 and there is high unemployment in the area with some households in their third generation of unemployment. Having said that it is also a family orientated area with several large families that dominate some streets and areas.
The church has struggled on the estate, especially since a previous vicar was convicted of a sex attack on a teenage girl. As can be imagined this caused huge difficulties in the community. The Tolly Centre was built after this and was a combined project between the Diocese and Worcester Council. It houses not only Christ Church (a small chapel room capable of holding 20-30 people) but also other local services provided to the community such as some social services and childrens services.
The church realised that it would take time and commitment to rebuild trust with the community and the Tolladine Mission came out of this realisation and instead of appointing a clergy person they looked for an alternative with a God-given vision. They came up with the appointing of a ex-marine church army captain, Rick Tett. Although they couldn’t initially find the money they took the step of faith and appointed him (and he accepted!) to a five year contract. The funding they subsequently received was therefore a real God-send. In addition to Rick there is Robin Sykes who co-ordinates it all, Sue Martyr and Steve Cox who are part-time missioners who live on the estate. This on top of others who volunteer for different activities.
The key focus of the project appears to be very much community renewal and transformation. Some activities are in the infancy whilst others are very much showing significant benefit to the community.
On the day I visited there was a key project occurring working with a year 9 form from the local secondary school who were struggling with formal academic work. They had designed and were working on creating a public garden on the estate.
In the previous year there had been a remarkable change in the students taking part – previously only 35% of the students had been engaged as students in year 10, after the project this had risen to 95% being engaged. Talking to the young people many of them reflected how the project had helped them with team building skills as well as with practical skills. The key for all this was the active involvement of people from the church in working with and building good relationships.
Other activities that the Tolladine Mission are involved in include:
“Open the Book” is a weekly activity in four local schools where they go and get the children to take part in narrating and acting out key stories from the Bible.
“Who let the dads out” is a male oriented playgroup on Saturday mornings for single dads and their children. This is an area where 40% of the single parents are men. The numbers are still quite low but they hope to build the numbers over time to create a space for dads and their children to come and play and chat.
“Tea at the Tolly” is a family oriented tea. A good number come but it appears to highlight one of their issues – engaging the adults in the community. The last tea had 26 children come but few adults. There seems to be a willingness by parents to let their children roam on the estate – they see it as safe – but they seem to rarely engage themselves. This means that they find that things like Messy Church wouldn’t work in their context.
There was a consideration of whether they should hold a Bishop’s Mission Order (BMO) to allow them to work across parish boundaries but the diocese didn’t want to do all the paperwork! In addition they have found that with so few of them (Sunday attendance at the services in Christ Church in the Tolly Centre average 4-5 adults and 7-8 children) that they find that they benefit from the support of those at St Barnabus. However, even this great support can be double-edged. The development of a break dance ministry had to be halted when some from the main church objected to it – even though it was highly popular and was building great links into the community.
One of the things that I was surprised about was the traditional nature of the Sunday services. These were Eucharistic in nature and required the assistance of visiting priests (especially as their current priest is sadly extremely ill). Given too that a majority are children without their parents there is a natural tension over standards of behaviour. I was told that the area is quite conservative and that changes to style of church would not be appreciated. They also wanted peoples experience of church to be transferable to other churches. They found that children gradually learnt the liturgy.
The hope is that over time Rick or someone embedded in the community will be able to be priested and so be able to fully minister in the services and in the community. Certainly there was much to admire with their community engagement and their commitment to it – including key people living in the community. They are testing out new ways of engaging with and serving their community that deserve some time and effort and support. This is taking precedence over creating a gathered community. The key, in the long term, will be if they can form a viable community of believers in the area that is sustainable and that can build on all that they have achieved.