A pioneering project has been launched to train new vicars out in hard-hit former North East coalfield communities, experiencing the challenges faced while also helping to increase congregations in the area’s churches.
The five-year Church of England-led East Durham Mission Project brings together nine parishes, all in the East Durham area of the Diocese of Durham and in coalfield communities that lost thousands of jobs when their pits closed.
Mining was the area’s major employer and whole communities were devastated by the series of closures which took place as the industry collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s.
The East Durham Mission Project is a joint venture between the Diocese of Durham and Cranmer Hall, which is the Anglican Theological College and part of St John’s College of Durham University. Cranmer Hall, which has been training clergy for more than a century, hopes that one of the outcomes of the project will be to help clergy studying for ordination better understand the resulting social problems, and improve at the coal-face training for ordinands from across the country, as they live in these communities for a year.
The project covers part of the Easington Deanery, an area made famous by the hit movie Billy Elliott about a young boy who rose above social deprivation to carve out a career as a dancer. The film was shot in East Durham.
The East Durham Mission project comprises parishes which include Peterlee and a series of former mining communities around it, including Easington Village and Colliery, Wheatley Hill, Wingate, Haswell, Shotton, Castle Eden and Blackhall with Hesleden.
The project is still looking for two further parish clergy to join those already in post to make up a full team with the trainee clergymen and women (ordinands) who will work in the parishes as part of their training at Cranmer Hall. One of these new posts will be directly involved in the training aspects of the project.
The idea is to strengthen the role of the church in the life of communities that face a series of social challenges, many prompted by the collapse of the coal-mining industry, while also ensuring that the ordinands’ training is as realistic as possible.
Another key aim of the venture is to provide extra support for clergy already working in the area and to explore different ways of working, including supporting worship away from traditional church settings. This could include services held on days other than Sundays.
The project will be led by the Revd Dr Michael Volland, who was recently licensed as the part-time Missioner and project leader, a role he will fulfil while continuing his work as Director of Mission at Cranmer Hall.
He said: “The idea is to encourage and enable new growth and flourishing in the churches that are there and discern opportunities to expand.
“Hopefully, in five years we will have new congregations and the congregations that we have already will have grown numerically and spiritually.
“This kind of project is needed everywhere. Churches are facing change, congregations are getting older, society is going through all sorts of changes, and this project gives us the opportunity to try things here and see what works, then ask if it could work elsewhere. I believe that God has a bright future for these churches and these communities.“
The Bishop of Jarrow, the Right Revd Mark Bryant, who licensed Michael Volland, said: “Easington is a district with a high level of social challenge and life is becoming more difficult for more and more people.
“As a Church we are determined to do all we can to support people, particularly those local people for whom is life getting more difficult. This will allow us to be more effective in the way we support our communities.
“From the Diocese’s point of view, we need to find ways for clergy to support each other and the project gives us extra capacity.
“The benefit for the national church is that we are training ordinands in really difficult parishes, places where we need them to come and serve if the Church is to make its presence felt and make an impact in areas of great social need. We were very excited when we started talking to Cranmer Hall about the idea.”
It is envisaged that the ordinands involved will come from Cranmer on term-time placements to work in the parishes, part of which will see them living in the area as part of their training.
Mark Tanner, the Warden of Cranmer Hall, said: “This is where the Church should be most at home, the message is as relevant to you if you are rich or poor.
“The advantage here is that we are training ordinands in context. The training will have its roots in the reality of modern life.”
He added that the initiative should not be seen as something additional to training but rather standing at its heart.
Mark Tanner said: “This project allows us to train people who are being ordained for ministry in a way that means they can about God, the church and the world in context.
“Being able to train in this context, with real people in real situations, means that we are training our ordinands in a better way for the Church.
“What we do at Cranmer Hall is not on top of mission, it is part of it. This project is very much something that adds value to our training and it is the kind of thing that we should be doing. It is also a blessing on the ground.”
An advert for the two clergy appointment to support this project will appear in the Church Times on Friday 10th September 2014.