Exciting and rewarding times lie ahead for the Church of England in the city of Preston.
That’s the opinion of the two new clergymen who are working side by side to deliver a huge new ‘resourcing parish’ project over the next few years – part of The Church of England in Lancashire’s work to achieve its ‘Vision 2026 Healthy Churches Transforming Communities’.
That project will put the churches of Preston Minster and St George’s (together making up the historic Parish of Preston) at the heart of a drive to bring the Christian faith to the 98% of Prestonians who don’t worship regularly in a church.
A key part of the ‘Preston Resourcing Parish’ will also be to plant new congregations on the estates edging the city and even beyond.
Rev Sam Haigh, left in picture) who hails from Keighley is the new Vicar of Preston (and the man in overall charge) while Father David Craven, right in picture, who is Assistant Priest and is based at St George’s was brought up near Selby.
With the civic launch service for Preston Resourcing Parish approaching fast – it takes place in the evening of September 26 – MARK ASHLEY met Sam and David to get their take on faith; the Resourcing Parish project; Preston itself and forging a strong relationship between two Anglican traditions: Anglo-Catholic and charismatic evangelical.
It feels like a cross-pennine takeover … two Yorkshire lads find themselves appointed to key roles in the proud Lancashire city of Preston; charged with evangelising and inspiring Lancastrian folk with the good news of the Christian faith.
But there is nothing sinister about the Church of England in Lancashire’s plans for Preston, and its appointment of these two thoroughly engaging priests, Rev Sam Haigh and Father David Craven, to lead it.
Sam is from the evangelical tradition while David is an Anglo-Catholic and their independent journeys to the heart of the great city of Preston make interesting reading.
Sam, 33, grew up in Keighley, West Yorkshire and, like David, did not come from a traditional ‘church’ family. In fact, his first encounter with the Christian faith was when a friend invited him along to a service at the age of 18.
“I left school at 16 sporting one GCSE and wanting to join the army but was unsuccessful in that. I ended up as an apprentice mechanic for four years and during that time I went along to church. It was the first time I can remember meeting people my own age who had a living faith in Jesus and that was very attractive to me.
“After a few weeks understanding more and more about the Christian faith and how it impacts us as human beings, praying a simple prayer was enough to set me on this journey.
“I felt the need to explore the possibilities of ordination as a priest, and subsequently went to theological college in Cambridge, which was quite a culture shock for me!”
Along the way Sam met and married Hannah, and the couple have five young children.
Sam was a curate in Wootton in Bedfordshire after college, and then worked as an associate vicar in the Tollington Parish in north London, before going to Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) where he served for 18 months.
David meanwhile will preside over the church life at St George’s, having recently moved the short distance from Tarleton to take up the post.
He first encountered the church through a parish priest coming into his school.
“I started going to church aged about 10, was confirmed at 13 and I became increasingly aware in my teenage years that I was being called to the priesthood.
“There was something about my own parish priest; seeing him and thinking to myself ‘I want to be like him…’ He had a living and active relationship with Christ.
David is married to Ruth and the couple have two boys, Noah and Seth. He studied linguistics at Bangor University but still had that sense of calling.
After graduation he worked in a church in the Black Country for 18 months as a Lay Assistant and wound up training for ministry at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford.
He was ordained in Carlisle Diocese in 2006 and completed a three year curacy in that diocese before being appointed Rector of Holme Eden and Wetheral just outside Carlisle, where he had been Curate. David spent eight years there, before moving to Rufford and Tarleton in 2017. He expected to be there quite some time, but God clearly had other ideas!
An obvious question follows: why are Sam and David both in Preston at this critical time for the Church of England in this city?
David says: “God wants me there. I’m very passionate about seeing Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals working together, focusing on the things we share which are mutually beneficial.
“I had no particular desire to leave Tarleton. I was very happy in the parish, but when you get a real sense that God is doing something in your life and nudging you to respond, I felt the need to explore the possibilities.
“I had a growing sense inside me that I could also offer something to the work in Preston which would see the two traditions working together in a new way.”
That feeling led to an exchange with Bishop Philip North, the Suffragan Bishop of Burnley and leading light in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, and the decision that David would be ‘a good fit’ for the project.
David adds: “I’ve never done city centre ministry in my life so it’s a new experience for me. I feel energised and excited about what the future holds for God’s church in Preston.
“It’s great that the team of people who will take it forward has come together, there’s a real sense of excitement and anticipation about the future
Sam meanwhile has a similar starting point for his arrival in Preston: “I’m in the city because I get the sense that God is up to something quite exciting.
“The national C of E has invested £1.5m into the two city centre churches and the Diocese has backed that up with further funding.
“There are a lot of people who have no contact with the church: we estimate that about 2% of Preston people are regular members of churches in the city; that means 98% of Preston has no relationship with the Church.
“So I am here because I am excited about the prospect of connecting people with no church background, or who regard the Christian faith as something strange, weird or alien; and connecting those people with the wonderful message of our Christian faith.”
Another key reason both men now find themselves in Preston is their steadfast support for the Blackburn Diocesan Vision 2026 Healthy Churches Transforming Communities.
Sam says: “What’s encouraging about the Vision 2026 drive is that is it all about growth, optimism and passion for the Gospel in our lives.
“The Diocese here is committed to keeping clergy numbers and looking to grow the church family throughout Lancashire in both town and country.
“And crucially, our three Bishops, who are all very different in their traditions and approaches, work brilliantly together, modelling what we call ‘mutual flourishing’.
“We will be focused on the aims of the Vision here in Preston – to make disciples, be witnesses and grow leaders for Jesus Christ - as we work together; prioritising children, young people and schools as part of that work.”
Much has been made in C of E circles in recent years of the concept just mentioned of ‘mutual flourishing’ – in a nutshell, it’s about creating greater understanding between Anglican traditions; to share in and benefit from the gifts and abilities of all.
But surely the majority of people in the Preston community, even many committed Christians, really have no idea what it means, so how will the idea affect their relationships in Preston?
David comments: “At our first staff meeting, we were talking about the use of labels like evangelical and Anglo-Catholic; they are so layered with baggage and to people out there in the city these terms mean absolutely nothing.
“We may well approach spirituality and worship in slightly different ways, but the whole point is that we enjoy a living relationship with God through the person of Jesus Christ.
“At the same time, we recognise that people of the city will connect with the basic message of our faith in different ways.
“Those that like a more expressive and exuberant style of worship will find themselves very much at home at the Minster; whereas for those who are comfortable with being more contemplative, reflective and rooted in the deep traditions of the church (and that doesn’t mean boring traditions!) then St George’s will be a comfortable place for them to connect.”
Sam takes up the baton: “When you can have the opportunity in a city centre to experience different expressions of Christianity, from reflective and experiential at St George’s to more vibrant, fast-paced worship at the Minster, it allows folk to explore where this faith best sits with them.
“We will also be making sure that there is plenty of ‘crossover’ between the two churches and their congregations.”
Sam continues: “In most towns and cities there are Christian churches of all denominations which are very different in their expressions of faith and worship.
“The key difference here in Preston is that we have decided that the best way forward is to do this together.
“We’re not trying to blend the traditions together but are working alongside each other for the benefit of the people of this wonderful city.
The money being ploughed into Preston by the Church is considerable, with much-needed renovations to the Minster (currently closed for refurbishment) costing around £700k; on new curates (trainee vicars) and staff such as a worship leader; children and family worker as well as operational and administrative support.
Sam said: “The Minster is being adapted to be more accessible for contemporary worship: moving away from printed media with changes including large screens; the introduction of contemporary music; the installation of a new stage and investment in making the building more ‘welcoming’ – including new carpeting and a comfortable cafe area.
The new-look Minster building is expected to attract many students – although it is hoped that St George’s will also attract its fair share too.
Sam continues: “A substantial part of the vision for Preston is around engagement with the many students who come to Preston to attend the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).
“We want to have a strong expression of the Christian faith available to our young people as they seek to explore the big questions of life in their student years here. “We will be making sure that the Church is alongside them to support them in what is a very significant part of their life’s journey and both churches will stand together at the Freshers’ Fair in the University.”
When it comes to communicating directly with people in the city, the two priests are equally excited about the possibilities.
David said: “There are commonalities in our approach. The churches will be highly visible in all forms of media, electronic and written. We live in a very visual culture, and the Eucharist (Communion) itself is very visual.”
Sam added: “We want to be very clear about who we are, we don’t want to confuse people with church jargon. Our two traditions will be alongside one another in our everyday work in the city, and people will be able to see and understand the differences of our approach with clarity and no confusion.
“Our relationship is very important, and it will be taken very seriously and nurtured in the days to come. What we both want, what both churches want, is to provide for the person on the street who is simply looking for a church to attend or an opportunity to explore our Christian faith.
“We are aiming to remove all the barriers that might put that person off.”
Both churches will also be utilising the internationally successful Alpha course materials, developed at Holy Trinity Brompton as an introduction to Christianity, with Alpha courses being offered and run at both St George’s and the Minster.
Meanwhile, for the existing members of the congregations in Preston the changes taking place are, both David and Sam agree, challenging.
David said: “The family at St George’s has been very welcoming and supportive. The project is a big thing to get their heads around. Some of the Minster family have moved down to St George’s as the refurbishment takes place, and we will see if they stay or return to the Minster.
“There has been a lot of change involved and they have embraced the vision of the project, because people realised that things could not stay the way they were. This is a real opportunity to create two vibrant worshipping communities within a stone’s throw of each other that can cater for all people of faith and none: those seeking answers to the big questions.
“We also thank the recently retired Vicar of Preston, Father Timothy Lipscomb for his steadfast work in the Parish over many years and also the former Archdeacon of Lancaster, Michael Everitt who was Interim Vicar after Father Timothy retired in late 2017.”
Sam added: “People at the Minster have been incredibly brave and gracious in embracing the project and in opening up their church in a new way.”
What will the people of Preston see as a result of all this change in the Church?
David says a key part of the work going forward is the ‘planting’ of new congregations in the years ahead and this is a key part of what it means to be a ‘resourcing parish’.
To help with this work, two new curates also join Sam and David as part of the new resourcing church, Rev. Tim Roberts (at left in picture) and Rev. Jason Gardner (at right) are based primarily at the Minster.
David says: “As a resourcing parish we intend to intentionally grow our congregations and to seek out new opportunities to reach people with the Christian Gospel by spreading outside the immediate city centre to other parts of the city; even to the wider diocese.”
Sam says, “We hope and pray that Jason will in due course become the leader of a new congregation in the suburbs, or he may go to an existing church that is struggling to help revitalise it. And later, Tim may also follow in his footsteps.”
“This is also a pattern we hope to repeat.”
David continued: “A key part of Vision 2026 is ‘making disciples’; in the catholic tradition we talk about ‘growth in holiness’, but whatever it’s called it’s something all churches should be aiming for: growing in depth; growing in faith and growing their congregations.
“As a resourcing parish we are not about keeping resources to ourselves in the two city centre churches; but rather we are releasing people into ministry throughout the wider community.
“This outreach will be in both traditions and we hope a third curate from the Anglo-Catholic tradition will join us as St George’s in the summer of 2020 to assist us further.”
Sam smiles and adds: “The churches will also be more accessible and open to people in the city than ever before. We will place a high value on our hospitality and our welcome and we will be on the streets, visibly making connections with people and city institutions.
“We will be looking for opportunities to work in partnership with the local authority, groups and campaigns in Preston, encouraging people to live and breathe in the city centre and becoming a major force in effecting change for good in peoples’ lives.”
Sam pauses for a moment before concluding: “This really is pioneering stuff: we are stepping out as a church and trusting entirely in God to lead and direct our work and efforts.”
Ronnie Semley, 09/09/2019