In the late summer of 2015 I became the part time Priest in Charge of St Luke’s Church, North Peckham after a long interim period with no leadership. Like many Churches in this predicament it had shifted from being a Parish Church to a Congregational Church. In fact, there was no Church Office, no postal address or post box and not even a location on Google Maps, with what can I say, a less than ok website which even sang at you as if they wanted to chase any new people away.
The Parish is the infamous North Peckham Estate where Damilola Taylor was killed in the midst of gangs, poverty and hardship. When I came to Peckham, it was at the end of a time of financial investment and social and youth support to combat educational under-achievement and complex exclusion issues. Like many other Councils facing enormous cuts, youth workers and children and family services on the estate are being cut, at the same time as moving many new people into new council housing in the Estate. That can only lead to increased tension and violence.
So where to begin? As a mission focused priest, I have always valued the great insight of Fresh Expressions about Listening leading to Loving Service in the hope that this leads to community, discipleship and then forming Church.
So, I began a listening exercise. This started with walking around the estate and talking to all sorts of residents which included some of the shop owners on Peckham High Street, the elderly, Youth Workers, Social Workers, Young people – in fact everyone, including those who were participants at St Luke’s Sunday Morning Eucharist Service. I promised friends that I would not start anything before completing this exercise, which lasted from August to November 2015.
There appeared to be a number of groupings we needed to attend to concerning the 5 Marks of Mission:
Many poor young people of West African and West Indian descent who were largely de-churched and unchurched.
Unchurched 20 and 30 something hipsters involved in the arts, either as students or self-employed, who used the label ‘spiritual no religious’ – open to spirituality and not religion.
Large numbers of single parent families living in severe poverty and facing even more disadvantages with cuts in welfare and other support. Most were unchurched. This grouping really suffered, many as contract cleaners on zero-hour contracts.
Large numbers of single retired elders again living below the poverty line, living very isolated lives.
We began with the things we could start. Two members of the Moot New Monastic Community came with me to live in the Clergy House to begin a rhythm of prayer, gatherings and action to build a community with the aim of a New Monastic Fresh Expression to reach out to the ‘spiritual not religious’ through engagement with the arts-as-mission and forms of Christian spirituality and a website that engaged with this grouping. We are excited that this group has grown to include a number of people living in the parish who are now part of this rhythm, and are now beginning to explore a missional rhythm of life. This group now sustain daily prayer during the week and a new contemplative Sunday Evening Service, with a weekly meal and table fellowship as the core of a missional community.
After an extensive listening exercise with local and church youth, we are starting a pilot for a new Youth Fresh Expression of Church, which will seek to develop indigenous forms of worship, mission and community beginning with a youth community with a focus on sports, games, films, spiritual discussion and a form of bible study. After much prayer, we were really fortunate to find a missional and Christian youth worker with 30 years’ experience, who would start out helping us for free, and an independent fundraiser that really knows what he is doing. Accordingly, we are now seeking to set up an apprenticeship to allow a local young person to train on the job to become a fully qualified youth worker, to develop indigenous leadership. We hope that in the autumn of 2016 to begin a comprehensive Youth Fresh Expression of Church with a strong team of 1.5 Youth Workers.
In a years’ time, we hope to use this model again with a fresh expression missional community based around children and families, to explore how we can not only open up the Gospel to them, but also to help with empowerment and advocacy, and to challenge the structures of oppression. Towards this end, St Luke’s has become a founding member of Peckham Citizens, part of the UK Citizens network, who seek to work with local churches and organisations to promote community development through community organising. This is already having a great affect, putting pressure on the local council to address the improvement of local parks taken over by gangs, supporting those who are massively in debt with support and encouragement including supporting more local credit unions, and the support of those who are young, unemployed and no prospect for employment.
So, we hope to create further employment opportunities with a part time experienced children and family’s worker, and an apprenticeship again aimed as an employment opportunity for a local young person to gain a skill and qualification. At this stage, we are really interested in exploring what a Messy Church or more accurately a Messy Eucharist or Mass could look like, and a form of Godly Play for unchurched families.
The beauty of conceiving this as a mixed-economy missional parish, is that it avoids the pressure of many more sacramental parish churches around ‘unity in conformity’, and instead creates space for a parish with a focus on ‘unity in diversity’. Like in the writings of the Acts of the Apostles, there is permission for mission, and they then have to worry about unity afterwards, which if it has anything to do with the Holy Spirit, will always be messy. So instead of the Sunday Morning Eucharist being the thing that everyone must come to, instead, it becomes the prayerful and sustainable hub that becomes the solid ground to which a parish focused on mission can be birthed.
There are already signs of growth, 12 baptisms, 23 confirmations, 15 new monastics, the list goes on, and it has only been 6 months!
So even though there is much suffering, pain and poverty in North Peckham, it is clear that we the Church are not an agency that comes and goes with the flow of State provision and withdrawal. No, we the Church are a missional community that stays even when things are tough, and when the Church is weak. The Holy Spirit it seems is always unsettling us to seek out to join in with God’s calling of mission, to reconcile all things back into right relationship with God, the love mission, that is at the heart of God, and missional forms of the Church. This isn’t easy. It is predicted that in Peckham poverty and death will massively increase, as our food banks and churches feel increasingly overwhelmed by the social, economic and ecological needs of many in a Country and culture that feels like it has lost any sense of compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves. It is predicted that the gangs will grow, that poverty will increase, and structural ill-health and educational under-achievement will become more prevalent as a consequence of increased competition in our unrestrained market society. But we hold onto hope, that in a small way, the rebuilding of a missional parish church, with the DNA of the Gospel at its heart, can be a light in the darkness of our times. In this way, we hope a Mixed Economy Parish will create the dynamism and flexibility for missional forms of the Church to flourish.
Ian Mobsby is a writer, teacher, Associate Missioner of Fresh Expressions, national selector for pioneer ministry, and part time Mission Enabler of the Woolwich Episcopal Area of the Diocese of Southwark in London.