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keynote from necn conferences

NECN Keynote April, 2018


Well, it is good to be here!

Welcome everyone to the National Estate Churches Network Conference for 2018.  If you don’t know me, I’m Andy Delmege.  I’m the new Chair of NECN, I’m also an Anglican priest on an estate in South Birmingham and I am Urban Estates Missioner there.

If you don’t know NECN, we are “what it says on the tin” – an ecumenical charity that supports estate churches.  We’ve had a bit of a relaunch recently – and we need to pay tribute to the hard work that has gone into the last 25 years, especially that of Laurie Green and Jane Winter, helping to keep estate churches on the radar in what have often been difficult times.

We are in a strange time for estates and estate churches.  We know that for most of us, we are facing huge demands as austerity bites into our communities and the fabric of life becomes ever more stretched.  Some of us will come from communities affected by knife crime, all of us from places affected by squeezes in benefit and the lack of properly paid work.  We know the cost of this to our neighbours, to congregations, to ourselves.  Many of our churches punch well above their weight in terms of their service to the community, but this so often seems like a widow’s mite, that we are just scratching the surface.  There is plenty to be angry about, plenty to lament.  We must keep this reality before our eyes.

At the same time, there is suddenly a lot of new energy in estate churches.  Bishop Philip will speak in more detail about the national scene this afternoon, but it is wonderful to know that some of the national churches are finding enthusiasm for the estates, and that we can see such a lot of creative and imaginative ministry on the ground, new and traditional models of Church flourishing.  Our Marketplace and our Toolkit point to this.

Today’s conference is about the craft of estates ministry – going back into our communities tooled up.  As we will hear from our contributors, this is not about clever technique.  Rather, it is about the core things.  It is, most importantly, about the Gospel, Christ, love, faithfulness, sticking where we are.

Perhaps the most important thing for us at this time is to look to our foundations.  What is there at this time that helps you to flourish?  Where do you find hope?

Here are some themes that might help us on our journey together.

  1. Rooted in Jesus, rooted in God

Well, let’s start in the most important place – being rooted in Jesus, rooted in God.  Our relationships with Jesus, our lives of prayer, underpin everything else.  It’s good today to have some time to pray together, to worship together and to be in this powerhouse of prayer in the middle of the city.

Jesus.  In the Person, life, teaching, Death and Resurrection of Jesus we see the love of God.  Our ministry, lives and churches are understood as attempts to faithfully respond to this.  Our relative poverty teaches us that we must rely on God, the Spirit and Grace.

In Christ, we see God’s love for those on the margins and the edges.  We see the attractiveness and the cost of this and are called to respond by our discipleship.

In applying this to our present context, we know that social housing estates, the people who live on them, estate churches and estate ministry are very close to the heart of God.  If the Church abandons the estates, then it is abandoning the Gospel.  In seeking flourishing estate churches throughout this land, we must continue to be deeply rooted in our life in Christ, in our biblical understanding and in our common life and culture.

  1. Transforming Love

One of the key themes for me for estate churches is transforming love.

Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom, the biblical emphasis on the prophetic, the Resurrection, the Transfiguration and the expectation of all things being transformed in the life of the world to come point to transformation as a key theological theme in estates ministry.  Transformation provides a lens which brings together theological reflecting, praying and acting around the Kingdom of God, around the mystical journey, people becoming fully alive and flourishing, flourishing neighbourhoods and transformation of peoples’ life chances,

We remember that cities (and urban estates) are the ultimate hope in the Bible, with the city in Revelation becoming paradise.  Our cities today mean we have a lot to do.

Our estates are crying out for social and economic transformation.  They often need physical transformation.  There is need for justice in the way people are treated by wider society and Government.  We have had Grenfell Tower since we last met.  Estate churches, in partnership with people of goodwill, have a key role to play in this practical demonstration of the love of God.

As well as economic transformation, people on estates often suffer from poor educational opportunity and attainment, low self-esteem and little chance of growing through employment.  Christian discipleship has a key part to play in helping people live out Irenaeus’ insight that a person fully alive is the glory of God.  A key part of our vocation is how we can bring people from estates into leadership within the churches and the communities.  We will hear more about this in our stories this morning.  This is a vital part of our work.  How can all our churches establish the cultures which allow this to happen?

Our churches often need transformation.  They can be small and under-resourced; often have poor plant; can have a lack of hope and vision.  The wider Church has often failed to invest properly in estates, and lives a life that is rooted in a very different culture.  There needs to be a continuing and determined struggle with this to ensure the flourishing of estate churches and, with the spiritual gifts they bring, the flourishing of the whole of Christ’s Church.

This journey of transforming and redeeming love brings challenges: to the wider Church, to helpful outsiders who move onto estates, to people from estates, and to estate churches.  As on any pilgrimage, this will involve times of discomfort.

3. Organic Mission

As it reflects Christ’s love and is attentive to its context, mission on estates is organic.  Mission on estates makes sense and has integrity if it is understood as encompassing three areas:  social action; evangelism; and people growing and flourishing.  Mission must include work to transform society so that God’s love is shown in action and that the Church may have integrity.  It should include discipleship so that people have an opportunity to grow into the image and likeness of God.  It must include evangelism so that the Church does not neglect spiritual care (Pope Francis links these three together in Paragraph 200 of Evangelii Gaudium; Theos and CUF have embarked on an ambitious project to research the link between these three elements).

  1. Embracing All

We find in Jesus a welcome to outsiders, and the boundary breaking character of the church, the ‘new humanity’ described by Paul.  One of our gifts to the church is that estates ministry is one of the few places where there is obvious respect among people from very different wings of the church and where no one is trying to re-fight the Reformation.  One of the great gifts of today (and across both conferences) is that there are people from many different parts of the Church.  We respect one another and the ministry each are doing, often in hard circumstances.  We need to work hard to hold this space and continue to develop this culture.

We will be inclusive of many different patterns of church.  There will be traditional expressions of parish; there will be plants; there will be fresh expressions; there will be hybridity; there will be things we have not yet dreamed.

Some of this may seem contradictory.  In some places there will be emphasis on people from outside practicing kenosis and incarnational living; in others the concentration will be on building local people up.  Patterns of ministry will be different in different places as we seek to be faithful to God.

And there are huge amounts to be teased out and learned from here.  I’m really looking forward this morning to hearing stories from some Churches that have gone a long way down the road of bringing local people into leadership.  Some of this can be challenging.  I think of Lynne Cullens’ call a few weeks ago that middle class leadership on estates commits to fostering indigenous ministry (https://lynnecullens.com/2018/04/05/poorface/ ).  At the same time, we have such a witness of leaders from outside (like me) being called to estates and serving on them in wonderful ways.  We will hear something of this in our panel discussion this afternoon.  These may seem contradictory (and if they are, then I believe that we see the work of God in them), but perhaps we can work out Jill Duff’s vision of modern St Hilda’s (the abbess of the monastery in Whitby that sent out missionaries to evangelise Britain) who raised up Caedmon the cattle herd who sang the wonders of God in his own language.  Let’s find the Caedmons who can sing the love of God in the language of our communities.

In all this, we must have the chance to fail gracefully.  As Christ sent his disciples out in pairs to prepare his way with instructions for what to do if they were unwelcome, so there will be times when our work does not bear fruit.  There must be freedom to proceed faithfully without fear of failure.  We recognise that the seed dies in the ground before it grows.

  1. Smallness, brokenness, woundedness

Estate Churches are often small.  We passionately want them to grow, and we will do our best to continue to work at ways of doing this.  But smallness, woundedness, and the little way are all at the heart of the Gospel.  The Risen Christ is often recognised by the wounds he bears.  We are healed by his wounds.  There is much here that we can bring to a wealthier, more comfortable wider church.

While we receive financial support from wealthier churches, there is a deep sense in which churches in areas of poverty provide spiritual support to them.

Our poverty teaches us that we cannot do things ourselves; we rely on God and one another (this is one of the key reasons we are so important).

  1. Passionate Theology

We are here today, and we live and minister where we are because we are passionate about it.  The nature of estates ministry means that people are chippy and angry, often broken and bruised.  This is due to immersion in what so often feels like a Passion and in the effects of structural sin which hit areas of multiple deprivation hardest.  The wider Church has to recognise this and offer love.  Estate churches often offer a challenge to what the wider Church and society see as ‘successful’ and of value.  It is really important that we articulate this – it is something we often have not done well.

We seek to develop patterns of Church and ministry which are sustainable.  We will continue to develop patterns of community which allow ministers to be supported and to flourish in the long term.


Now some remarks about NECN and this conference and the toolkit

moving from our foundations to who we are and what we do

All of this can seem a daunting task.  But there are a couple of important and hopeful points to make here.  One is that we have resources that can help us in our ministry.  And it is important to note this – a few years ago, there was very little around for estate churches.  By and large we either had to heavily adapt things or write our own from scratch.  Lynne will talk more about our Toolkit before lunch.  It is in its early stages, but we know we have a lot of things that work in our churches.  The toolkit is the chance to share them with each other.  The Toolkit is collaborative, so please join in and help us to expand it.  And please use it!  We and all those who have provided the resources would love your feedback.  Many of the people who have developed the resources are here in the Marketplace – make sure you visit them at lunchtime or when we finish.

One of the most important assets we have is one another.  A great thing over the past couple of years has been a real mushrooming of estate church groups around the country.  These can be a real boost and support to estate church leaders. If you would like to be put in touch with one or set one up in your area, let me know.  NECN can’t establish new ones, but we can help support – it is important to say that NECN isn’t interested in owning local groups (although we are happy if they want to be called NECN Groups) – we want them to be there and are happy to offer support.  Non-regional groupings like New Wine Urban do this wonderfully too.

As with most (all?) estate church things, NECN does this with very little resource.  We have no staff.  The work is done either by volunteers or by those who are able to spend a bit of very full work time on it.  We have a committed Steering Group.  At the moment there are no vacancies, but if you are interested, let me or Lynne know – when opportunities arise there is a balance of filling skill-areas we need (we could do with a decent website), and balance of geography, denominations, and so on.

If you want to support NECN financially, there are some donation forms at the Welcome Desk.

We have an opportunity for Estate Churches that we need to make the most of before the tide goes out.  NECN will support groups and hold its conferences every year or so.

We have ecumenical ambition.  All our denominations need to put the estates at the centre – please go back and hassle them all.

God has put a task before us, estate churches and the whole of the Church.  It can feel daunting.  For those of us who live and work on estates, it can often feel that sticking there is all we can do.  But there are always things we can be, always things we can do.

It is important that we don’t compare ourselves with churches in wildly different contexts (although we must be accountable for what we do).  One of the great missionary theologians of the twentieth century, Roland Allen, teaches us that God will always give the local Church the gifts and capacity that it needs in order to do what God wants it to do.  Let us pray that we can discern what God wants us to do together and in the ordinary lives of our estate churches, and let us pray more that we can be faithful to do it.

Jesus teaches his disciples constantly do not worry, do not be afraid.  I was recently reading a reflection by the Abbot of Montalegre, the poorest of the Carthusian Communities, houses of silent, solitary monks (‘The Poor Communities’ in The Wound of Love, A Carthusian Miscellany).  He has about 8 monks, no money, no way of gaining either.  He realises that this poverty is ideal for living the Gospel.   What does Jesus say?  ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and the rest will be added unto you.’  Or the passage where Jesus is asleep in the boat in the storm and the disciples wake him and are rebuked for their lack of faith.  The paradox of the Gospel is that we should have confidence when everything says we shouldn’t.

But the risk for poor communities is “a deep impoverishment at the level of aspiration: a certain conformity or resignation in the face of reality”.

I believe this speaks a lot to us.

So, let us learn from this wisdom.  To make sure that we do not have a deep impoverishment at the level of hope and aspiration.  And to seek what is simple and essential – God and our neighbour, fraternal charity, the will of God.

I think, this beyond and before all else is the craft of estate ministry.

We begin, end and have our being in God.  We seek to follow faithfully and prayerfully, to work for the establishment of the Kingdom, for the flourishing of all people on estates and for their churches.  This is, at heart, a way of love.  Let us commit ourselves anew to following it.


Andy Delmege








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