County Durham MP Helen Goodman has exhibited her belief in the capacity of churches to create a long-lasting legacy in their communities by staging one of her regular surgeries at a church-led project in Shildon.
Shildon Alive, which is run by Saint John’s Church in the Anglican Diocese of Durham, works to improve the health, confidence and skills of more than 2,000 local people.
With a community hub in the centre of town, two community gardens, a credit union, a food aid project, an alcoholic’s support group, adult literacy work and various other activities, Shildon Alive is a whirlwind of community engagement.
It was the Bishop Auckland MP’s first visit to a project that, opened by the Bishop of Durham, has made a real impact in the area and she said that projects such as Shildon Alive were an important way of reaching out to constituents with problems.
She said: “This is the most successful community project in Shildon probably ever, certainly that I have seen in twenty years.
“It’s fantastic and is creating new networks and restoring old ones. This project meets people where they are at, it speaks their language.
“It is important that this is a long-term project, not just a quick fix. The church has been in Shildon for 180 years and it will be here for another 180 years.”
Saint John’s Church and its project is building on the legacy of nearly two hundred years of community engagement, according to vicar the Revd David Tomlinson.
He said: “The church is here because the people of Shildon want us to be. We matter, we are relevant. This project is possible because the legacy that we have in this community makes it possible.“
He said that an example of the work’s legacy could be seen last Saturday (August 24) as Saint John’s enjoyed its first garden party in more than ten years.
Mayor Cllr Henry Nicholson came up with the idea as one way of reinvigorating a community struggling in the post-industrial era.
David Tomlinson said: “This is not about nostalgia, this is about legacy, the legacy left in the hearts and minds of my generation who recall a time when the church breathed life into the whole community both spiritually and socially.”
The event began with the opening of new gates hung in memory of the late Cllr Theda Bannister and partly funded by her family.
Cllr Bannister died in 2013. A keen socialist her death was unexpected following a short illness. In the 1930s, the then Vicar of Shildon was a card-carrying Communist and Theda, though not as left wing, regarded her politics as an expression of her faith.
David Tomlinson reminded the gathered crowd that faith mattered because people matter, for faith enables flourishing through challenging injustice and inspiring aspiration.
He said: “The event was not just about a financial legacy improving the church structure, but about a human legacy that shares what we have with one another rejoicing in who and how we are.”
Paula Nelson, a full time community development worker in the project, said: “Not all the legacy of the church is positive. Some of our visitors are frightened of going into church, and get tongue tied when talking to someone like a vicar. They see them as somehow different.”
Challenging that legacy by creating what Revd Tomlinson terms ‘the porous church’ is, however, paying dividends with families coming to church for the first time then continuing to come, aiding growth in areas of the town not considered traditionally Anglican.
A housegroup of new-mums exploring issues of faith is beginning this autumn with people who have engaged with the project.