David Wilson reports on the difficulties facing coastal parishes

The Church of England at the national level is suddenly taking an interest in the English seaside. To understand this you only need to take a brief look at the statistics. There are 174 coastal communities in England, with 5.5 million people living in them; 11% of the population (or the size of the population of Scotland) live on the coast. Based on the latest census figures, on average 64% of the people who live there claim to be Christian (as opposed to 59% nationally) but fewer people engage with the church than the national average: out of 100,000 residents, 1500 go to church (1600 nationally) and, scandalously, only 14 are clergy (20 nationally). Add to this the realization that our coastal towns contain some of the poorest and most deprived communities in the country, the average parish being within the poorest 30% nationally, with 85% of residents having average salaries lower than the UK mean, and you might understand why the Church of England is waking up to its mission failure in seaside towns.

So far, so good. The opening presentation of statistics explained why we had all been invited to Lambeth Palace for a conference on the challenges facing seaside parishes. The following presentation started to grapple with what issues made the challenge of coastal communities different from, say, poor parishes in the inner cities. We explored what seaside towns might have in common, when each community is, in fact, particular in its combination of different factors and needs. For this, the writing of St Augustine of Hippo provided the seaside-town exemplar. The challenges to Christian mission in the seaside towns of Carthage or Hippo Regius in the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries appear quite as recognizable to St Augustine as to any priest in a coastal community today. It seems that coastal tourists, travellers and seafarers throughout the ages all appreciate seaside destinations where the sea air is combined with games and fairs, art, sex, gambling, drugs and alcohol, public baths, dancing, gluttony, titillation and prostitution for every taste, more sex, lewd behaviour, scanty clothing and associated violent behaviours. Anything which may be otherwise known as ‘letting your hair down’ is both commonplace and part of the point of ‘being there.’ In seaside towns depravity is ‘on show’ whilst in ‘civilized’ suburbia it is hidden away. Augustine, the repentant sex addict, may have had something genuine to say to the pregnant teenager who knows more positions from the Kama Sutra than my imagination will encompass, but what of today’s vicar?

I suspect that the intention was that we would explore and deepen these themes in the break-away workshops that followed (probably not involving the Kama Sutra). However, workshops entitled ‘Mission among Children and Young People,’ ‘Looking for Leaders? Investing in Christian leadership for coastal communities,’ ‘Living Life Fully Beside the Sea,’ and ‘New Worshipping Communities by the Sea?’ seemed to me to fail in this. Almost all rehearsed themes familiar from diocesan training days and delivered little more. They had little to say about the seaside, nor why the clergy do not appear to like to be beside it. No doubt this might have been useful for those to whom it was new, but even a summary at the end of the day by the Bishop of Grimsby did little to mediate the deep disappointment that the conference ended up being to me. From a promising start, it had failed to connect to the challenging and unique issues that pervade seaside towns.

What began as a feeling of frustration crystallized during a discussion with a team vicar from Great Yarmouth, when I suggested that nothing that we were talking about would connect with the parishioners of Folkestone or Dover and that, frankly, we were wasting our time. He agreed. We explored some ideas as to why and finally found something in common between our towns. The Holy Spirit finds its way!

I clumsily tried to express these thoughts in the final plenary and also tried to suggest that the language of the conference was actually quite wrong for seaside towns, where regeneration all too often means gentrification and renewal is generally an externally imposed solution by liberal busybodies who spend a great deal of money in achieving very little. It was suggested that the title didn’t need to be changed because only a ‘few people’ inside the church would actually be working with it. Quite!

I came away from the day suspecting that ‘the church’ has no idea what the issues on the ground are in the seaside parishes; that its purported interest has largely been stirred up by statisticians who suggest that they should be caring; and that it was precisely in danger of being an initiative imposed by liberal busybodies. The fact that many attendees came from poor Anglo-Catholic coastal parishes but a woman presented lunchtime Mass, meaning that many delegates could not partake, seemed to emphasize precisely this kind of liberal presumption and placed at the heart of the day the divisions of the Church of England for all to see. Attendees who maintain an orthodox position within the church were put into the same space as many of their parishioners: so ‘politically incorrect’ that they were off the agenda.

It is this political incorrectness that starts to cut to the heart of the matter. Coastal communities are 92% white British (the average is 80%) with a strong anger at the betrayal of their patriotic, traditional values by the liberal establishment. This includes the Church of England. Until the church finds something to say to the average Brexit-supporting parishioner, it is not going to make much headway in the seaside towns, however much money is thrown around. Every time a bishop frowns upon Brexit or suggests open borders are desirable, and each time Synod erodes the orthodox values of the church, it empties a pew in the seaside parishes. For many in our coastal parishes, the modern Church of England has not only let them down, it has become part of the problem. It serves a ‘liberal elite’ so achingly ‘politically correct’ and out of touch with the provinces that it is a hairsbreadth from being torn down.

The complex reasons for such deep alienation vary by town. Folkestone was a traditional fishing village with strong ties to Europe. These relationships were strengthened during the nineteenth century by the railway and modern ferries. The fisher families of Folkestone and Boulogne intermarried, and ‘Our Lady of Boulogne’ is still paraded at the annual Blessing of the Fisheries. Modern communications also allowed for the gentrification of the town, which essentially became two: East Folkestone with the fisher-folk and port workers, and the gentry in West Folkestone. The gentrification was ended by the two world wars when Folkestone was in the firing line, welcoming tens of thousands of refugees in the first war and being blitzed in the second. The town’s economy was rebuilt twice and flourished. It was this economy that was broadly destroyed by the European Union. The fishing fleet was deliberately decimated by the Common Fisheries Policy, the tourist industry undone by easy and cheap travel overseas, and the Channel Tunnel and loss of ‘duty free’ away-days destroyed the port, which is now all but closed. The connections to Europe were cut with the loss of the ferries and centuries of interconnectedness to Boulogne and the French coast was lost. The EU periodically throws money at the ‘impoverished’ town, which is meant to make everyone feel grateful. The current solution to a destroyed economy appears to be to turn the town into part of the London commuter belt and to gentrify the economy through art and expensive seaside condominiums. The result is that the town has become increasingly disconnected from the sea. Only a handful of boats still ply the waters, and most relationships with the sea now stop at the beach. Ask people what they want for the town and top of the list are ferries to France and a flourishing fishing fleet. What they are receiving are flats and restaurants that they cannot afford, and an increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots.

So, where are the English churches? The Roman Catholics have instigated the Rosary on the Coast (https://www.rosaryonthecoast.co.uk) and the Church of England has called a conference or two. But where is the Church of England bishop willing to become the new Bishop Jenkins of Durham to voice the anger of these deprecated communities? Or more basic yet, where are the clergy on the ground? I am constantly asked by the fishing community when they might next actually be visited by a vicar (a churchwarden doesn’t do!) Jesus walked amongst the politically incorrect, the rejected and impoverished. He chose the fishermen as his apostles. He loved them and gave them a voice, ministered among them and shared bread with them. How humiliating that his church today struggles to do the same.

The awakening which engendered this conference seems to mean investigating placing large sums into coastal parishes in an attempt to find ‘solutions’ to statistical challenges. Whilst this initiative within the church is to be welcomed, it needs to begin by embracing the people of our coastal communities; less ‘renewal and reform,’ more ‘re-commitment.’ Is it really ready to take a risk for the people of Blackpool, Plymouth or Ramsgate?

All too often today, things are done ‘to’ our coastal communities and not ‘with’ them. Few priests or church officials come from coastal communities or have worked at sea. They have little empathy for the rich and heady mixture which creates the madness of the great British seaside. Even could such vicars be found, few coastal parishes can afford a full-time priest, at which point the vicious cycle of the abandonment by the church becomes compounded. Part-time ministries in united benefices can barely meet the challenge of being chaplains to existing, often gentrified, congregations, never mind vicars to multiple seaside parishes of the dispossessed. Such ministries have little chance of connecting to the parishioners or the deprivation which they try so hard to hide.

Many of the Anglo-Catholic church communities on the coast are desperate for clergy, even retired ones, to re-engage with their historic mission to the poor. Five out of the seven Society parishes in Canterbury Diocese are in interregnum, and most are coastal towns in deprived communities. All struggle with paying the temple tax to the diocese. Perhaps this is where the national effort should begin, meeting the parishes part-way in the provision of dog collars on the ground, instead of conferences in Lambeth Palace.

For all my initial disappointment, let us hope that this welcome initiative will be guided by the Holy Spirit and find Christ’s way. May our church once again walk with the poor, the politically incorrect—and among fishermen.


Dr David M. Wilson is Churchwarden at St. Peter’s Church, Folkestone and Lay Chair of Forward in Faith (Canterbury). The next Blessing of the Fisheries at Folkestone is at 3pm on Sunday 24 June, with the Archbishop of Canterbury: http://stpetersfolk.church