St Paul's is an Anglican church in Willington Quay, an area of urban deprivation on the banks of the Tyne. In 2000 the church was reordered to accommodate a community project, managed by the church. Steve Dixon, Church Army Evangelist and Lay Pioneer Ministry in the Diocese of Newcastle, continues the story.
Willington Quay, is on the banks of the river Tyne. It is an old industrial village, which quickly became part of the Tyne and Wear conurbation. It is an area of high urban social deprivation. It is also quite an isolated area. To access services, people need to travel out of the village on a reduced bus service that only increases people's sense of disconnection. The majority of people here do not own their own homes and live in privately rented or housing association accommodation. Council statistics suggest that the state of this housing is probably the worst in the borough.
In amongst this is St Paul's Church, which was one of nine churches in the area. As the area suffered increasingly from the trauma of post-industrialisation, all the other churches were demolished as their congregations became unsustainable. In response to the increasing social needs, St Paul's Church was reordered in 2000 to accommodate a community project, managed by the church. This was a very brave decision, as St Paul's Church itself was finding it difficult to keep going.
The community project was a success from the start. Listening to local needs resulted in the project becoming an important hub in the local community. Other than one general store, a sandwich shop, kebab shop, a couple of pubs and a 'working men's club', the church is the only public space in Willington Quay. However, just over three years ago the congregation at St Paul's church disbanded. At that time formal worship services closed, but the community project continued in a limited capacity. Two years later, my post was created to work alongside the remaining church wardens and local people to revive the project and create a new worshipping community.
The project aims to make a difference to local people facing deprivation, with groups and support for single parent families, young people, people living with long-term unemployment and older people. All these activities were centred on offering loving service, working in partnership with local government and other voluntary organisations. The project has created social cohesion for those engaged with it. We can expect 150 people to turn up for community events that we run, because there is now real ownership of it. My post was created by the Diocese to develop a fresh expression of church out of the work of the project, as part of a team ministry. Given that there is now a viable community, I was charged with exploring the need for discipleship and forms of worship. The two church wardens and I are the people on the ground. One of the first things we have done is to set up a new more inclusive and empowering management approach to the project, now called 'St Paul's Community Partnership', that involves local residents and institutions.
We did a lot of thinking about how we can rebuild a form of church coming out of the project. Do we start with some form of discipleship course or worship gathering as a bit of a taster – to give people room to explore questions? We chose the latter, because contextually there is real resistance to training and education type approaches, as many people here had a poor experience of education. So on Pentecost Sunday 2009 we started worship services again in the church, using the CPAS 'Start course' and adapting it to meet the discipleship needs of our context.
In the worship services we are trying to be as inclusive as possible, but particularly focusing on young families, which include teenagers and older people. We have not advertised these new worship services outside of the project, to make sure they didn’t get taken over by people travelling in, thereby keep it contextual. It is growing well. We are open to the possibility that our youth work may lead to some form of youth church in the future, where St Paul’s becomes in itself a mixed economy of local church.
The Church now faces new challenges. A lot of the ex-industrial land has been bought up for new housing, for those who have money. Clearly this is not going to be the people who already live here. It seems that more affluent people living in Tyne & Wear are moving in. This raises huge issues around social cohesion, with the 'have's and the 'have not's living in different parts of our expanding village. We are currently exploring setting up some new forms of groups such as book clubs, evening classes and explorations of spirituality to engage in these 'new build' areas. We are still dreaming!
So in five years time, we hope that St Paul's will be financially and socially sustainable. We're also hoping that someone will emerge from the work to explore the development of a sacramentality.