On Tuesday morning I found myself standing shocked and in tears, with many others watching the church hall in our neighbouring parish in flames.

The incident made me reflect upon the importance of the local church in our diocese during a week when our diocese was named as a low point for Church of England Christians. http://www.christiantoday.com/article/durham.is.revealed.as.church.of.england.low.point.for.christians/80406.htm


The importance of ‘being with’.

As soon as we heard the news at 7am my husband and I, like many others, made our way over to the church. We knew we wouldn’t be able to fix anything, (the amazing firemen were doing all the fixing possible) but it was important to simply be with colleagues, the congregation and community.

The importance of ‘being with’ is the central message to Rev Dr Sam Wells book The Nazareth Manifesto in which he explores the significance of the 30 years Jesus spent in Nazareth. In a society that wants to fix things we have lost sight of the importance of being with people. ‘God fundamental purpose is to be with us – not primarily to rescue us or even empower us, but simply to be with us, to share our existence, to enjoy our hopes and fears, our delights and griefs, our triumphs and disasters’ believes Sam.

The importance of ‘being with’ is the central message when I am talking to congregations and clergy in the diocese. For many of us the social engagement agenda can feel overwhelming to small congregations living in some of the most deprived parishes in the country. Setting up projects such as debt advice centres, or food banks is not a possibility. However when we start to talk about all the activities that are already happening such as coffee mornings, lunch clubs, mother and toddler groups and how they can be shaped to ensure there is more time to be with each other there is an excitement and engagement. I have often joked that the ‘tea hatch’ in each church hall should be boarded up to encourage us all to sit down together!

Value our buildings.

It goes without saying that when you are standing watching a church hall burn down there is a feeling of how precious it is. What surprised me was that the majority of the people sharing the stories were not regular church goers. They were talking about youth clubs, christening parties, the nursery that was held there. Some of these were run by the church others supported by the church. The building had been a place where relationships had been made, developed and cherished.

We often regard our buildings with sinking feelings, the leaking roof, breaking heating systems and endless faculties. Listening to the conversations that morning reinforced that we should be celebrating them more. At a time when there are fewer and fewer community building and loneliness is one of the biggest problems facing our society our church buildings have an added importance in our community.

The question is how can we open our buildings more? In the diocese we are hoping to build a Network of churches and organisations, who offer an unconditional welcome and simple friendship to local people for at least a few hours a week. http://www.placesofwelcome.org/

Recognising the gifts in our communities.

As we were leaving, feeling sad and smelling of smoke we popped into the garage. ‘What can we do to help?’ was the first thing said to us from the garage owner. People wanted to use whatever gifts they had to support. A Crowdfunding page was set up that day community giving page was set up which said ‘Our local church hall/ nursery has been destroyed by a terrible fire this morning and it is safe to say that the whole community is devastated, it has been a focal point in the community for so many years and so many of our children and grandchildren have enjoy spending their early years there. Also many groups from the local St. Paul’s Church, brownies clubs, fares etc’

The solutions to many problems are in the community and by working with, instead of doing too, we empower and bring communities together. This asset based approach to community development (ABCD) has been part of conversations in the church in our diocese for a while. When it happens without planning, mapping or processes it is exciting and we should celebrate this.

We held many small holiday clubs in our churches last year, initially in response to the concerns raised that the summer holidays were a difficult time for many families on low income. They developed into so much more and this year those who had been participants are planning, sharing ideas and using their gifts to shape their communities.

So in response to the report that claimed of Durham Diocese being a low point in the Church of England I would argue, yes it is difficult in many of our parishes, for clergy, congregations and the community and yes we may have fewer people in our services BUT we are still very much valued by our communities for different reasons that we may never understand and we are working hard at being with our communities in whatever way we can. It’s an amazing, challenging and exciting place to be called to.