Vicar on a mission to reach out to inner city communities

A group of inner-city Anglican churches in Yorkshire have joined forces to appoint a full-time missionary in their communities. Maggie Stratton reports.

FROM its seat on the bleak brow of Armley Ridge, Christ Church looms over some of the most deprived communities of Leeds.

The steep grass banks of the grey-stone edifice are strewn with empty beer cans, pop bottles and similarly unholy debris. The doors are daubed with an illegible red scrawl.

But inside the 1870 building, the story is not one of decline and dereliction.

Today, Christ Church is open for its weekly and burgeoning youth groups, whose ranks are swelling across ages from seven to 18. Pop music, albeit quietly, fills the large atrium left after the church was divided and the area given over to pews reduced.

Two basketball posts are in place, ready for the first arrivals at the end of the school day.

The walls leading up to the office are lined with photographs from a recent Big Brother- inspired confessional where young parishioners were very forthcoming when talking on camera about their views of Christ Church's work.

And Christ Church's vicar, The Rev Alistair Kaye, is soon to take on a unique evangelical role in the 16 parishes of Armley Deanery.

Among the upper ranks of the Church of England there has of late been much high profile wringing of hands over how it can survive in today's, increasingly multi-cultural Britain.

But while the General Synod collectively expressed despair that the country's Christian heritage was under threat, grass-roots clergy in inner-city Leeds were embarking on a pioneering plan to spread the word.

In June, the Rev Kaye, currently also area dean, will step down from his roles to co-ordinate mission among the increasingly multi-cultural and multi-faith communities of south and west Leeds.

For the 45-year-old cleric and his colleagues, the post of full-time mission specialist grew out of a determination not to simply manage decline but to do something positive to help the Church grow.

"We thought something needed to be done. So much time is spent talking about money and all the Church's problems. It seems important to do something constructive in the community. When the Church is strong in the community, it is good for the community because so many things can happen around the Church."

Although mission posts are no novelty in the modern Anglican Church this is the first post of its kind in the Diocese of Ripon and Leeds. It is more usual for such work to be on a much smaller scale, at parish level, or to be at across an entire Diocese.

The Rev Kaye is keen to stress he has much research to do before he sets any agenda for his mission.

But certainly he sees the benefit of reaching out across the various faiths and cultures and welcoming many of the new arrivals in the area.

"I think there was an issue in the Fifties and Sixties," he says, "When the West Indian community came over the Church wasn't geared up and I think was unwelcoming. I think we have learnt a lesson now."

The Rev Kaye believes, for example, there is a need for services and lessons to be translated, at least in print, for the growing eastern European community.

He wants to be able to capitalise on the obvious appetite for faith he sees in the numbers of small, new churches being set up across the local area.

And while the Rev Kaye celebrates Armley as a cosmopolitan community, he sees clear scope for the Anglican Church to work with other faiths to establish lasting social cohesion. "I think we have parallel communities living alongside each other, not having very much to do with each other," he says.

The churches of Armley Deanery could, he suggests, be enriched by the depth of faith he sees among many worshippers moving from overseas.

Of course he wants to see more worshippers filling the pews.

At Christ Church, Sunday service is normally two-thirds full, with 80 adults and 35 children. Across the 16 parishes there are about 1,000 Anglican worshippers.

But for the Rev Kaye, mission is more than spreading the word of God. "We are trying to make it not just about Sundays. I think it is better if you offer something to the community for people of faith and not of faith, to serve the community," he says.

He believes the Church of England must become a less intimidating institution to thrive.

But, he stresses, that does not mean there is not a place for individual churches remaining true to tradition, offering grand spaces for quiet contemplation.

"Increasing numbers of people need a place of peace in a busy hectic world."

Equally, he doesn't see mission as a job of simply increasing the youth profile of the Church, although this has proved successful for Christ Church.

The Rev Kaye, father of two teenage children, was called to the faith after completing agricultural studies at university.

His first training post was in Bradford, where he was part of a team who saw the numbers attending a church in the city's deprived Great Horton area increase so greatly, a new church had to be created at a local primary school.

During his following curacy in the Northampton town of Rushton, he developed a church holiday club at a school started by 12 volunteers, into a church with a 100-strong community.

So mission has always been in his blood, as has a desire to work with his faith in inner cities.

"It is always difficult to run a church in an inner-city community," Rev Kaye says.

"Though people in the inner-city are often very giving, it is always much easier to run churches in suburbs, where there is more money. In inner-city areas, people are living day to day."

But taking the work of the Church into communities will, he believes, be good for everybody. "At the moment, in most parts of the country, the Church of England is in decline. I don't see why it should be that way. Everyone has a spiritual side to them. I think people need a spiritual side to life."