Britain’s most left wing, mainstream newspaper: ‘The Guardian’ or even it’s Sunday equivalent ‘The Observer’ is the last place you would expect praise for the Kingdom of God, but after much talk in the upper echelons at Lambeth Palace about social action and the fight against a divided society, the Guardian visited one Fountain Network member to explore what is known (outside of Norwich) as the “Norwich Experiment”. Below is the article published in the paper on 22nd February:
Norwich: capital of the church’s radical campaign for country with a conscience…Bishops have appealed for a ‘fresh moral vision’ in the runup to the election. In Norwich, Anglicans are putting the vulnerable at the heart of their work
The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, left, with Graham James, the bishop of Norwich, on a visit to the city. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA
Ten per cent of its users have mental health and drug issues, or the sort of social problems that have made them homeless or rough sleepers. They are drawn in by the guarantee of a warm welcome and by the cafe’s “only-pay-what-you-can” policy. The other 90%, in effect, cover the cost of their free lunch, often their only hot meal of the day.
It’s part of this particular church’s “active service”, a striking phrase used last week by the city’s bishop, Graham James, when he launched the first guidance notes from Church of England bishops to voters before the general election. These pull no punches in condemning an “almost moribund political culture”,attacking a society that “celebrates equality” but “treats the poor and vulnerable as unwanted, unvalued and unnoticed”, and appealing for a “fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be”.
Anyone wanting to see how that vision might work in practice can do so in Norwich, spreading out into all areas of community engagement from its Anglican churches. “What we are doing,” says the Rev Madeline Light, priest-in-charge at St Stephen’s, “is showing those who have dismissed the church as irrelevant that, with our open door, open hand, open heart, we are deeply rooted at the sharp edge of our community. And so we can speak up about what the real issues are.”
Anglican leaders have long complained that the sort of vital, frontline ministry churches such as St Stephen’s undertake gets eclipsed by high-profilebattles over in-house theological questions about sexuality and gender – gay vicars and women bishops. That causes many to conclude, as Light puts it, that her church “has no connection with the modern world”.
But with the female bishops question now definitively settled, with the installation last month of the Rev Libby Lane as bishop of Stockport, the established church is now keen to make its voice heard once again in the national political debate. As well as the bishops’ election letter, there was a book of essays last month from archbishops John Sentamu (York) and Justin Welby (Canterbury) that condemned the coalition government for creating an ever more divided Britain and diagnosed the limitations of a market economy.
“It would be true to say,” reflects Graham James, “that the house of bishops is currently feeling liberated to talk about other issues that have perhaps been lost because of the focus on our internal debates.” Lost, that is, in the public perception of the Church of England, but not in its day-to-day work, as James himself has demonstrated in his 15 years as bishop of Norwich. Some refer to the network of church-run-and-sponsored food banks, parish nurses, mental health projects and drugs and alcohol counsellors that he has set up here as the “Norwich experiment”, an alternative way of being for the Church of England.
James’s early ministry as a young priest was on the neglected council estates on the outskirts of first Peterborough and then Welwyn Garden City – “not quite the sexy inner city,” he notes with a wry smile. Then in the 1980s he worked as chaplain to Robert Runcie, the archbishop of Canterbury whose Faith in the Cityreport, attacking the social cost of Thatcherism, caused similar outrage among Tory MPs to the Anglican bishops’ letter to voters last week.
Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images
“Everything we are saying,” James says, in reply to charges that he and his fellow bishops are being naive or left-leaning, “comes from the lived experience of a church that seeks to be where others are not, in those places where there are huge needs that would otherwise go unanswered. I’d say that we are certainly engaging with a wider range of people than we did a generation ago. What you might call respectable church-going – attending services on a Sunday – may be in decline, but the church is now working on a different level.”
He reels off a long list of what he calls Christian action agencies that his patch of the church supports to tackle issues – like those found in St Stephen’s cafe – that are not immediately apparent to visitors to this outwardly well-heeled city, with its 900-year-old cathedral, well-appointed cathedral close and what is said to be the highest concentration of medieval churches outside Italy.
Involvement in such a range of projects, big and small, he says, gives the church a unique authority. But it should also be listened to by sheer dint of numbers. “Church attendance numbers may be going down, but if you add together all the members of the main political parties, including all the new recruits to Ukip, the Greens and the SNP, you will still have far fewer than you will find in our Anglican congregations on a wet Sunday in February. We are much more of a mass movement than any political grouping.”
And, he adds, his is a mass movement that is actually doing something to answer the cries of pain it hears in the communities it serves, in contrast to a political class that he describes as “reducing debate to trivialities and points-scoring”. The church, he argues, “is coming back to take over work which had been the responsibility of the state, but which is no longer being funded”.
He quotes the example of youth workers. “When I arrived here, we only had three. It was a vital service, but one that the county council provided. Until six years ago they had a team of 40, but with the funding cuts they have all gone. Our response has been to build up our numbers to 25. The plain fact is that, if we weren’t doing this, no one else would be. The only thing inhibiting us is raising the money to pay for it.”
Among those recruited is Adam Jackson, based at St Stephen’s. As well as getting involved with young cafe users with problems, his brief covers the large number of struggling single mothers and “young, isolated men on the brink of homelessness” to be found in the city centre. “I’m not going out there trying to convert people to Christianity,” he says. “It’s all about building community and keeping people supported within social circles.”
By mixing the homeless, the mentally ill and the plain lonely in with the affluent shoppers who also frequent the church’s cafe, St Stephen’s is the living embodiment of a high-minded sentence in the bishops’ election letter. It urges a Britain that is “a messy, noisy, yet rich and creative community of communities”.
“That is what we are trying for here,” says Light. “Our other customers need to be here when someone with mental health problems comes in and kicks off and shocks them. They need to see that person being looked after by us as an individual who matters.”
Simon, a parishioner and one of two paid part-time managers who organise the army of volunteers who run the cafe, says: “We do what we do because there’s got to be someone to prick consciences.”
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