An initiative that twinned Midlands churches in poorer areas with those in wealthier places has proved innovative and courageous, according to a new report.
For Richer, For Poorer was launched in the Diocese of Lichfield in 2013 with support from Church Action on Poverty.
Four initial partnerships, in areas including the Black Country and Stoke-on-Trent, saw parishes with significant deprivation twinned with nearby wealthier parishes with a focus on mutual learning. These eight churches eventually grew to over 30 who formed partnerships over the next four years.
The initiative allowed people from twinned churches to hear first-hand stories of each others struggles and joys and discuss how churches can unite together to make a difference. Key learning from it has now been distilled in a report from Dr Naomi Maynard of Rooted Research.
Lichfield Diocese is within the ten most economically deprived dioceses in the country yet contains areas of comparative affluence. The churches involved reflected first-hand on many aspects of poverty including material poverty, loneliness, isolation and a lack of networks - in both socio-economic settings.
One example was the twinning of St Bartholomews in Penn, a relatively wealthy area on the edge of Wolverhampton, with St Martin of Tours, a smaller church in a more deprived part of the city. The ongoing partnership began with people from each church discussing their communities over coffee and cake and grew to see them running a joint Lent course and creating mentoring opportunities. They also worked together on a Parish Nurse project with St Bartholomews supporting the development of an office space for the nurse, who worships at St Bartholomews, within St Martins. The partnership is going well and is bearing good fruit, said the Revd Prebendary Ben Whitmore from St Bartholomews.
The Revd Prebendary Maureen Hobbs, from Pattingham St Chad which was twinned with St Albans in Wednesfield, added: We are determined as a parish to continue with our link if possible. We have always wanted to help St Albans in practical ways, but without trying to tell them what to do, so to some extent we have waited for them to identify ways in which this help could take shape. We try to ensure that, as a worshipping community, they feature regularly in our prayers. I hope in future the relationship will be seen as one of interdependence, rather than dependence.
Meanwhile, a partnership between St Johns in Marchington Woodlands, a small village in East Staffordshire, and St Johns Welcome Centre in Abbey Hulton, Stoke-on-Trent, led to the development of a book swapping service and community coffee morning at St Johns Marchington.
The report shows that For Richer For Poorer encapsulated many of the aims of Lichfield Dioceses vision including partnering together for the common good, working for justice and modelling the richness and variety of the church and wider communities across the diocese.
For Richer For Poorer aimed to go beyond a focus on developing campaigns and/or forming new or joint initiatives to address inequalities. It aimed to nurture a culture where churches walked together listening to and learning from each others lives, contexts and experiences, it says.
The report concludes: For Richer, For Poorer was an innovative and courageous initiative. It honoured the commitment which churches have to their local context, whilst enabling them to engage at depth with one other church ministering in a different context. Relationships developed over years, hence were shaped by honesty, transparency and mutual accountability.
Ruth Clay, Church Partnerships Worker for the initiative, said: Whatever the style or perceived growth in numbers or discipleship in a particular church context, it is vital that all church communities continue to build authentic, prayerful relationships with those different from themselves as part of a broader kingdom vision.
Several of the partnerships are continuing and learning from the initiative has been carried forward into Transforming Communities Together, Lichfield Dioceses joint venture with the Church Urban Fund.
* A video from the Richer, For Poorer conference in Stafford in 2014 is below.