Over a quarter of the people of the Diocese of Ely live in small towns.
Outside the city of Cambridge, one third of the population live in communities of more than 7,000 people that are neither new towns nor part of the extended suburbs of Cambridge or Peterborough. For convenience, we refer to them as "market towns", since most have historically hosted a market.
In common with small towns across the country, church attendance as a proportion of the total population is often significantly lower than in the surrounding villages. As towns have grown, more and more people live a considerable distance from the church building and relate less naturally to their parish church.
It is not only churches that face significant challenges as market towns change. High streets are often struggling as shoppers choose to travel to larger centres further afield. Many of the schools achieve examination results that are well below the levels seen in the Cambridge area. In the north of the diocese especially, levels of multiple deprivation are some of the highest in the country. The market towns of our diocese are facing multiple challenges.
As a key part of the Diocesan Strategy, Ely 2025, the decision has been made to use one of our five Levers for Change, targeting support to key areas and make a major investment to encourage our market towns.
We want to enable churches to flourish and be active partners in changing their towns for the better. The first step in this was to appoint Mike Booker as Bishop's Change Officer, with a brief to work with clergy and congregations to transform both churches and communities in small towns across the diocese. Mike stepped down from this role in August 2021, following which Jon Randall was appointed as the Project Leader.
The details of the project will continue to develop, but major elements include:
- Support and training for clergy and congregations in market towns
- Co-ordinated town-wide approaches for community action and church growth
- Seeking to bring in several waves of major new investment
- Appointing a growing number of highly motivated community workers ("Change Makers") to provide significant new partnerships between churches and the whole community, working for social transformation
- Churches and schools working closely together to support children and families
- Revitalising existing churches and multiplying fresh expressions of church
- Planting new congregations, drawing on the strengths of larger churches