by Clive Barrett
MEMORY AS FOUNDATION
“Leeds is a place where ecumenical things happen”. So begins the doctoral thesis of the late Lewis Burton, the first County Ecumenical Officer for West Yorkshire Ecumenical Council (WYEC),that looked at the history of inter-Church movements in the city.
Leeds was one of the earliest cities to have a Council of Churches, 75 years ago. It represented around sixty congregations and aimed “to foster and express the spirit of Christian Unity in Leeds”. It helped still topical campaigns like “Save Europe Now” and the “Inter Church Aid and Refugee Service”, i.e. Christian Aid, as well as promoting prayer and social justice in the city.
In the 1980s, another age of cuts and Government-imposed poverty, the Leeds Churches Community Involvement Project, later known as Faith in Leeds, predated the national publication of the famous Faith in the City report, and was a vehicle for the Churches’ joint concern for those “urban priority areas” which experienced significant deprivation. Faith in Leeds, along with such groups as Mennonite-inspired activists known as ASLAN (named after the lion), ensured the Leeds was in the national forefront of theological reflection and action for social justice.
Time would fail me to tell of the Council for Renewal And Mission, of the Council Of Leeds Churches Together, of Leeds Churches Together in Mission… who through faith promoted unity, challenged injustice, worked to overcome poverty, shut the mouths of lions…
The past has built a strong foundation; what next in Leeds?
PRAYER IN THE PRESENT
There is far more cross-denominational and non-denominational Christian life in our city than we often recognise, own or appreciate. That became evident last year in a WYEC-initiated event, alongside Network Leeds and Leeds Church Institute. Representatives of local Churches Together groups and of city-wide Christian networks met together at LCI to share their experiences and encourage each other. There was much to share and much encouragement!
Churches Together groups represent Christians of different traditions who are living in and committed to the well-being of their part of the city. Through these groups diverse Christians pray together, worship together, study together, have street processions together (often on Good Friday), have public witness at Pentecost, or open-air carols at Christmas, or organise Christian Aid Week collaboratively, or run shared youth projects, or set up joint mission projects of many kinds. This is the heart of local Christian experience, in community, for the community. On top of that there are local ministers’ cells, the Women’s World Day of Prayer and many other inter-church initiatives. Unity is alive and well in Christian groups across the city.
Alongside these local perspectives are those churches, networks and projects which draw people from across the city and have a whole-city appreciation of mission. Some of these have a longstanding record of engagement with local communities, not least the Leeds Christian Community Trust, or Kidz Klub – extraordinary work with young people in several areas of the city. Food banks, soup kitchens and other service providers find encouragement and support in the Christian-initiated Food Aid Network.
The international dimension of Christian life in the city is upheld and promoted by Hope for the Nations, with African and Caribbean traditions particularly represented in the TEAM network of churches. Increasingly, unity begins to look like a network of networks. It is all held together in prayer for the city, not least the Lent Prayer Diary, now the responsibility of Network Leeds, the principal Christian communications hub. Add to that the prayer promoted and inspired by Prayer for Leeds, now a significant feature on the spiritual landscape of the city.
FAITH IN THE FUTURE
What does the future hold? There will be opportunities to grasp and obstacles to overcome. Let’s rejoice in new opportunities for the Holy Spirit, especially through new alliances, mutual appreciation and awareness that come from such shared activity as the 11th May mapping. Let us take every chance to tell the stories of our city, to reflect on God’s presence in the stories of our city, to pray for the people in the stories of our city, to create the future stories of our city.
There are many fine individual Christians in all sections of society, but how many people – intentionally on behalf of the churches – are engaged with the local authority, or the structures of the voluntary sector, or the city region, going to all the boring meetings and building up that host of significant relationships through which the Spirit so often acts? Can this be something that we can support and focus on in the future?
Let’s think together about Leeds; let’s do theology together in Leeds; let’s tell people about Leeds; let’s pray together for Leeds; let’s be the change together for Leeds.