When a congregation in Leicester had to move out of their dilapidated building, they were given the chance to start a fresh expression of church in a local school. With that came the opportunity to do some serious listening and to refocus church life around the needs of those they were now in contact with. Revd Alison Roche takes up the story.
I was appointed the Vicar of St Christopher's parish church in the Saffron Lane Estate in Leicester City, an urban priority area. Before I arrived, the building had fallen into a pretty grotty state, so the previous vicar started the process of looking to rebuild on the same site. Following much discussion, the Bishop raised the question of locating the parish church within a proposed Church of England Academy School. So I took the job knowing that the parish church would move in two years time.
The church had a history of being good at outreach and community involvement. They took the risk and went with it. So a couple of Septembers ago, thirty people marched with me from the old church to the new building. We are now in a fantastic location, very accessible public space, with people dropping in and out of the building all the time. I loosely have a chaplaincy role to the school, which has reframed my job, but I am still the vicar of a parish. So we have used the relocation as an opportunity to listen and explore the possibility of new forms of loving service to local people.
We have focused on the real needs of families with children, mostly because the parish is in one of the highest areas of social depravation and educational need. We have therefore consciously worked collaboratively with the school to address the particular community and spiritual needs of the area.
In the last year, the church has grown in attendance to an average of forty adults and ten children. We try to also cater for older people and single people who have got involved. It is a very welcoming church. All the new people have been local.
One of the first things we did was an after school service. The identified need was around the exploration of parents and children's spirituality at the same time as the many after school clubs. So 3pm on a school day became an opportunity for engagement. When it started, no one turned up for three weeks which was really hard. On the fourth week a couple of families turned up and it took off from there, but it was a real lesson in patience and trust. We have also managed to continue and develop relationships with families with children who go to other schools, which has been really important as we are still the church for the whole parish, not just the Academy.
Our main challenge remains how to engage more with the families of children who go to the Academy School who are not Christian and unchurched. We haven’t quite cracked this yet. The good thing about the Academy School is that there are no selection criteria for attendance which is purely geographic. So the challenge for us has been to develop an accessible Christian ethos in a Church of England school where most of the teachers, parents and children are not Christian.
Now that we have been here two years where we have established trust and joint working relationships, we are now beginning to see greater engagement from local people seeking us out for spiritual needs. So this is beginning to grow. Amongst other things, the school end of term collective worship aimed at parents and students has increasingly grown which enables our greater visibility. I hope to spend more time in the morning in the restaurant area at the heart of the school between 9 and 10am, where parents are invited to have free tea and coffee, to get to know parents who do not come to our events.
Regarding discipleship, it remains a real challenge how to engage people from a non-book culture. We have been using the START course by CPAS, but like everyone else we don’t find it easy to find appropriate resources. START is good because there are things to make and do, and is less wordy than some discipleship courses, but this is an ongoing struggle. People in a UPA are may not necessarily be the sort of people who are confident sitting around in a group. One thing that we are actively doing is to ensure discussion groups in every other Sunday service to make it more participative, more effective and grow confidence.
We hope that the Church will grow by developing small specialist congregations, which will get more missional. We hope that a recent and jointly appointed detached youth worker will in time, set up some form of youth church beyond the walls of our church buildings.