The Welcome – Jul15

Ben Clowes reports on new staff, opportunities and challenges at The Welcome, Knutsford.

The biggest development for us this year has been the appointment of Julie King as our lay pastor. She arrived at The Welcome as a cook in 2005, famously saying, 'I don't do God but I do a demon chocolate cake!'

Since then, of course, she has come to faith here, served as senior steward and local preacher and will probably be candidating this September. Julie's 25 hours a week role is a three-year post and the funding comes from different sources:

  • a District grant;
  • a Mission Alongside the Poor grant;
  • local fundraising.

The Welcome - adult IT

She was commissioned here on Easter Sunday and started about a week later. In the three months since she has been in post, we have seen a marked increase in the numbers of people who have been coming in off the streets, having coffees, making contact. So many have seen her come through from The Welcome kitchens to becoming a Christian and now serving the community in an official role; that has had quite an effect on those living nearby. She is becoming known to all sections of the community and that sometimes has unexpected outcomes.

For instance, we recently had someone run into The Welcome and say, 'Julie, we need you now!' A local man, involved in drink and drug dependency, had died unexpectedly and members of his community had wanted to perform their own rites to mark his passing. Julie was called upon to stand guard and act as a 'bouncer' until the police arrived.

But this isn't all about an individual or a personality; it's about what God is doing through Julie's job. It's astounding.

So much has happened since the local Methodist Church in Knutsford started The Welcome 20 years ago. We now provide a huge range of activities, services and support to the people of Longridge and Shaw Heath estates.

The Welcome - Ben and the menu

The growth of our community activities partly prompted our 2010 decision to separate church and charity for fundraising purposes. We were advised to do it because it is difficult, when applying for money, to have the Charity Commissioners' listing of us as 'Promotion of Religion'. There was confusion about The Welcome appearing to have two 'agendas' – one as a church and the other as a secular charity. But then came the banking crash. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, as we know, but I would say this decision to separate was one which hasn't proved to supply the needs of either church or charity and several of us feel that we need to move towards merging again. Thankfully, we may be starting to bridge that gap because Julie has now been invited on to the board of the charity.

The whole nature of funding has changed in the last five years; funders are becoming 'smarter' in their approach and are beginning to see the difference between social outreach projects and proselytisation. You have to be careful about how you fund these things.

The Welcome is 20 years old this year, one of the older fresh expressions of church. As such, it has been a forerunner of all that has happened since but we are still entirely dependent on grants and money from Circuit. At the moment I can't see that changing because this community is extremely poor.

The Welcome - plate of food

The Circuit give us £4,000 every year. We make a voluntary donation in return and I very much hope that the donation will grow as the community develops, but the 'money pots' we used to go to for possible funding are drying up and the District has said no further grants are available. I do believe The Welcome will continue to evolve but the wider church has to find a way of continuing to support it. To cut the church off would mean the loss of the whole community – a community who not only want to know they 'belong' to The Welcome, they also want to know they are accepted. In practical terms that acceptance would equate to not having to fight for every last bit of cash.

What we want to know from the Methodist Church as a whole is, 'What is the strategy for fundraising?' The Welcome created the procedures recently used elsewhere to become a 'proper' church and the thought process may therefore be that we should be more financially viable, but the deprivation level here is so immense. All the secondary-school-age kids from the estate go to Knutsford Academy – where there is such stigma associated with where they live. Deprivation isn't just about finance, it's about stigma.

It takes such a long time to build relationship here and we are just beginning to see the fruits of that. This year, for instance, we got a grant from Cheshire East Council to put on an outdoor Passion Play in Longridge. The Welcome was the Upper Room, the garden at the back was Gethsemane, and the tomb was a garden shed. It was pouring with rain but about 60 people followed us around the estate. We had primed someone from Longridge to remove the door early on the Sunday morning and, sure enough, someone contacted us to say, 'Your door has disappeared'. We then explained that was the point of the whole thing! Julie was commissioned next to that shed on the day to bring home the message of new life and new beginnings.

The Welcome - banner sign

One of the difficulties that we have at The Welcome is when we're asked to detail numbers attending the church. Our regular Sunday congregation has about 8-10 while, on the Tuesday, there are 10-12. 'That's rubbish', people say, 'rubbish numbers, not worth investing in'. But the fact is that we now have contacts and relationships right across this estate, and that contact is so godly. Essentially we have a church of about 4,000 people there.

The reason The Welcome works so well is that it is 'owned' by the people of Longridge. We work alongside them and they are our guide and we are their guide. They come to us when they have a need because they trust us – and that's priceless.

The Welcome

After 15 years in the making, The Welcome has become the 'newest' church in Methodism. Its minister, Rev Ben Clowes tells how the project developed in the Alderley Edge and Knutsford Methodist Circuit.

The Welcome - footballCheshire is known to be one of the richest and most exclusive areas of the country but it’s a place of extreme contrasts. Around Knutsford we have the Bentley Garage for Manchester, Premier League footballers in £2m homes, charity shops selling Prada and Gucci – and one of the most deprived wards in the Cheshire East.

In the past, the community at Over Ward, Longridge and Shaw Heath missed out on a lot of support and possible grant aid because many charities only look at postcodes when considering applications. As soon as they saw Knutsford, that was the end of it for them.

It is interesting because The Welcome very much started as one thing and became another. Reaching out to the community has always been important at Knutsford Methodist Church and across the Circuit generally but the story of The Welcome really got going when Sue Jackson arrived as the project's first deacon.

Initially she walked around the estate, talking to people, getting to know them, finding out what was needed. The call was for second hand clothing so Sue started to provide facilities – usually the boot of her car – for people to bring and buy clothes. Moving on from that, we then got a lease on what was originally a doctor’s surgery and that became a Christian place to sell clothing and serve coffee. At that time it was called the Over Ward Project (Longridge and Shaw Heath).

By the time our second deacon, Margaret Fleming, came along, the church began to develop. There had always been a Christian ethos of meeting people where they were but increasingly the people themselves began to ask why the church was doing this.

Welcome - caféAs the church grew, the community named the place. They were very clear they wanted it to be called The Welcome.

Cris Acher was appointed Presbyter and he was here for three years before he moved on to Nexus in Manchester. The church still continued to develop and took on a lay manager who started to make further inroads. In time, less clothing was being sold and more coffee was being served and we started to see the growth of an educational project.

The next stage began with the next Presbyter, Richard Byass, who saw the acquisition of the next door lease so we had a cafe space and sessional space for the community. Last year we had a big funding hole but realised that we were giving out such mixed messages when applying for funding, we were café, business, education – and church. We did get a couple of grants to keep us going but then we got to work with Manchester CiC (Community in Communities) and they set us off on a new way of doing things.

By that stage the church had been meeting for 8 to 10 yrs and the questions were starting to be asked by the community as to why we were not being officially recognised as a church. What was the problem? We should be recognised formally, etc.

Welcome - eatingIt was suggested that the best thing to do was to separate the two elements of the centre – the business side of it and the church. A new not-for-profit company called The Welcome CIC (Community Interest Company) will run the now refurbished community centre and the café (probably as the trading arm of a charity) while The Welcome Church itself was formally recognised as the newest church in Methodism at a special dedication service in September.

It was a great month because we had already celebrated confirmation of two members. We have now got 16 members and the two most recent additions are dual members – one from Knutsford Methodist Church and the other is our new business manager who is an Anglican.

Rev Dr Keith Davis, chair of the Manchester and Stockport Methodist District, conducted the dedication service held jointly at The Welcome and a local community centre. It was interesting when we were putting the service together. The Welcome style is very hands-on and experiential and the worship is quite distinct but in the end it was actually a very traditional service because people said, 'just because we normally do it differently doesn't mean we can't do it the standard way. We are not fixed to one style like some churches are.'

So we started to look at liturgies and it seemed to be a contradiction in terms that we were about to celebrate this non-traditional church in a very traditional way but the community message was clear, 'How dare you assume we can't do it another way?!' As a result, Faith and Order now want copies of the liturgy. What we have done changes further develops Methodist ecclesiology!

The important thing is that this has come up from the community, this is the way they want to do church but they also want to be recognised. They are very much for the moment. At one stage they weren’t ready in any shape or form to become a church but things change – and we have to be ready to react to those changes. Other developments include a youth café and a Travellers' Bible Study (that’s a Bible study for those on a journey with God not a Bible study for travelling people…)

The Welcome - table

Another recent visitor was our local MP for Tatton, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. He said he was thrilled to see what we were doing, describing The Welcome as 'The Big Society in action.'

Last year was a difficult one in that we had to make our cook and community manager redundant but this is a new stage and we are looking to God for what happens next. The first time we met as a church there were about 25 of us and at the special service we had more than 100. We don't open the doors and expect the people to come in, we go where people are – I don't think anywhere on Longridge or Shaw Heath is as busy or well loved as The Welcome.

Our former kitchen supervisor now works alongside me in pastoral work and hers reflects the story of The Welcome. Five years ago at interview she said, 'I'm very happy to do the job so long as you know I don't do God.' She is now a preacher in training and our Senior Steward! The Welcome has been and continues to be a place where God is at work and where people meet with him daily. Our prayer is that, even now we are a 'fully fledged' church, and have even held our first 'Welcome-style' Church Council, we will continue to listen to God and to follow his lead as we have done for the last fifteen years.