EVENT REVIEW: Gavin Wakefield and Guests: The Northern Powerhouse and God: Searching for the Angel of North

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Tuesday 13th October
Prior’s Hall, Durham Cathedral
Review by Amrita Paul

The session, The Northern Powerhouse and God: Searching for the Angel of North was an exploration into the nature of Christianity and faith in the North of England, as discussed in the recently released book, Northern Gospel, Northern Church. Among the book’s fifteen contributors was editor, Gavin Wakefield who described the book as ‘partial’ for it only looks at churches in the east of the Pennines, ‘provisional’ for it is not a comprehensive survey, and ‘intentionally provocative’ as it does not try to get the authors to agree with each other.

With the backdrop of the 18th century décor in Durham Cathedral’s Priors Hall, the discussion was steeped in history but also focused on the present state of gospel in the North East. Speaker Sue Reid, a retired academic, discussed how many people from impoverished backgrounds in Middlesbrough and Teesside benefited from the meals and hot beverages provided by churches in the region. These are people, in many cases, who can’t afford to feed their children or have regular heating in their homes. The resources provided by churches in the North East are also essential in giving such people a voice; the reassurance helps them to articulate to others what it is like to be poor.

‘Lines like “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” in our prayers [can] distance us from our feelings by being so abstract.  These people are generally not active church goers and are made to feel like sinners for not being able to fend for themselves or their families…We are all silenced by the liturgy we love,’ says Reid.

David Goodhew, the Director of Ministerial Practice at Cranmer Hall, talked about his essay which focused on research carried out on new churches in the North East. The essay probes the character of the new church and what it tells us about secularisation in the region. He says that 125 new congregations have been started in the North East since 1980, and one-third of them are by minority ethnic communities. Around 12,000 people attend these churches on an average Sunday. ‘They are increasingly frequent in foundation and have shown no sign of slowing down. Churches are now highly diverse and getting more so,’ he adds.

The vicar of Stannington in Northumberland, Catherine Pickford spoke about her essay which draws attention to growing up Christian and Geordie. She talked about how the strong regional identity of the local people intersects with religion. She particularly emphasised the identity of the working class populace in the region, who have remained united in adversity and shown great resilience, ‘Having moved from a working class area like Benwell to the middle class Stannington, I have noticed that the people of Benwell, where the food bank in the church fed around 1000 people a week, are highly aware of their social conditions whereas we need better language for fostering the spirit of social responsibility in the middle class.’