The Northern Powerhouse and God: Searching for the Angel of the North

Added about 6 years ago by Sacristy Press

In our second author event for Durham Book Festival 2016, Sacristy Press returned to Prior’s Hall on Thursday 13th October to host a panel discussing The Northern Powerhouse and God: Searching for the Angel of the North.

We heard from four contributors to the work Northern Gospel, Northern Church: Reflections on Identity and Mission, a collection of essays edited by Gavin Wakefield. The book is part of an on-going project initiated by the Archbishop of York that aims to explore what it means to proclaim the gospel in the North of England. Our speakers were Gavin Wakefield, David Goodhew, Su Reid, and Catherine Pickford, who all offered their own perspectives on the topic of Northern spiritual identity.

In introducing the panel, Gavin spoke about the aims of Northern Gospel, Northern Church. He explained how it sought to examine what it means to proclaim the gospel in the North within different contexts. Although Gavin was conscious of the limitations of the work (mainly that it had been written exclusively by Anglicans), he also hoped that it would stimulate debate and even inspire action, promoting a conversation that would highlight the issues at hand.

Su Reid spoke about her experiences of church networks set up in Middlesborough and Cleveland to support the needy, especially those who are homeless, poor, asylum seekers, and refugees. She described the vast volunteering efforts by churches in this region, which provided free meals, teas and coffees, and a warm room to sit. Talking to people who used this service, she found that they felt that it was only there in the church that they felt they could talk about their experiences without judgement. Su then contrasted this with formal liturgical language, asking whether it allows people to articulate their grief or mental pain when struggling with poverty and hardship. She underlined that the language used in liturgy such as the Lord’s Prayer often lacked nuance and did not allow people to express their own struggles. Sometimes their voices were taken away by a binary opposition of sin and love expressed in formal liturgy that did not recognise the complicated facts of modern life. When you are trying your best in adverse circumstances, Su reiterated, you may still feel inadequate because of the blame levied upon you by the language of the Church.  

David Goodhew then offered insights into the nature of Northern Christian identity as identified by a research project that surveyed new churches in the North of England. He emphasised that the popular imagination of what constituted the “North” was wholly inadequate. Rather than the primarily white, working-class, and heavy-industry reliant society of the Victorian era, as represented by places such as Beamish Museum, the North is more diverse in terms of ethnicity, class, and employment than ever before. What do we mean when we talk about the North? He then discussed a survey of churches that had been founded in the North between 1980 and 2015. Rather than seeing a decline in attendance, there was a strong trend of the foundation of new congregations that was driven largely by people of minority ethnicities and new denominations. Not only was there no inevitable decline in church attendance but David also warned against subscribing to the narrative that historic Christian communities, such as the Church of England or the Catholic Church, were the unchallenged dominant institutions in the region. The North was far more diverse both spiritually and ethnically than sometimes considered. Within this context, the potential for preaching the gospel in the North was more positive than we might realise.

Catherine Pickford reflected upon her own personal experiences with identity and spirituality in the North of England. She particularly drew upon the experiences of her sons who are growing up as both Geordie and Christian. She discussed what it meant to be Geordie and the importance of the regional identities of the North East. She also considered how this related to their identity as Christians and how the shared traits of tenacity and strength in the face of adversity defined both their identity as Geordies and their faith.

Gavin drew proceedings to a close with a reflection upon the history of the region. He particularly pointed to George Osbourne’s promotion of a “Northern Powerhouse” to act as a counterweight to the pull of London. He spoke about how the North had not always been considered to be of lesser importance than the South and illustrated his point with a survey of three historical periods in the North. He first talked about the political domination of the North in the seventh century, with strong kings providing support to the missionary efforts of the time. Such power was then lost throughout the medieval period beginning with the Harrowing of the North. Although the North retained importance, the losses have become the main focus of people’s consideration of this period rather than on any achievements. The Industrial Revolution then saw a “power surge” with the investment of people and resources into growing urban centres. In his reflections he considered how these reflections could be applied to the modern age. What is the image of the North in the twenty-first century? How can we learn lessons about the relationship between power and communities from the history of our region?

The panel ended with a comment about the idea of a “northern powerhouse”. What does this term mean? How does it apply to the North East in particular? Finally, how can we use the idea of power to relate to the Church? Perhaps the term needs to be subverted in order to properly reflect the complexity of the issues at hand.

If you want further insights into this topic and to read more about our speakers’ thoughts on Northern identity, Northern Gospel, Northern Church: Reflections on Identity and Mission is available from our online shop.

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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