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Believing in Bolton: How churches are collaborating to keep a community together

Believing in Bolton: How churches are collaborating to keep a community together

Madeleine Ward reflects on a recent research trip to Bolton as part of our ongoing project on ‘The Church and Social Cohesion’. 17/12/2018

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‘Well that’s certainly appropriate!’ one participant exclaimed when she heard that Bolton was the pilot study in our new research project assessing the impact of churches on social cohesion. ‘Bolton has always been full of pioneers.’

She was referring primarily to Bolton’s critical role in the Industrial Revolution and the consolidation of a world–class textile industry in the North West of England. Most notably, it was the Boltonian Samuel Crompton (1753–1827) who invented the spinning mule. Before this point, textile factories had been unable to produce yarn strong and fine enough – and in quantities large enough – to meet the demands of their newly mechanised looms. Combining the existing technology of the spinning jenny and the water frame, Crompton’s mule did just that. Consequently, it revolutionised the cotton industry.

Our project seeks to establish the role of the church in strengthening community relationships – and while many of the textile mills that built Bolton have disappeared, the creative legacy of Samuel Crompton is certainly echoed in local church efforts to bring modern Boltonians together.

One such example can be found at St Chad’s Tonge Fold: a church that was threatened with closure in 2015 and has not had a vicar since October 2017. Its Sunday attendance often falls below ten. Nonetheless, the congregation has determinedly kept it open through an extensive programme of community events held in the church building. It was after visiting one of these events that the church commissioners decided to suspend the church’s closure, and it is not hard to see why. Arriving at their fortnightly Over 50s Luncheon Club, my point–of–contact might easily have been any of the five or so people who rushed to greet me, so heartfelt was their collective welcome. Those attending told me that they greatly valued the opportunity to make new friends at St Chad’s Luncheon Club. Many of them didn’t know each other before the Club was founded and, at a time when 3.64 million people over the age of 65 live alone in the UK, this sort of space provides a vital opportunity for people to participate in their local communities. Neither are such opportunities restricted to traditional churchgoers, or to the elderly: St Chad’s holds regular Bharatanatyam dancing on a Saturday morning, and the organisers of the Luncheon Club itself include a young Muslim man and a Hindu. When I asked what motivated their involvement, they simply told me that they wanted to keep the church here for the community.

St Chad’s functions as a shared space for a range of different people in the surrounding area, and Bolton is full of similar projects run by churches across denominational boundaries. One Christian charity operates a pop–up café from a local community centre, offering English, self–esteem and art classes alongside hot meals cooked by Bhutanese refugees. Elsewhere, a church has set up a permanent on–site café whose customers include a woman who did not previously leave the house. And then there is Bolton Urban Outreach: a Christian charity which distributed 43,000 packed lunches for children eligible for free school meals in the last summer alone. The connection between social segregation and poverty is sadly well–evidenced: not only does a lack of financial resources exclude people from a range of social opportunities (starting at school) but up to 40% of jobs are secured through personal contacts and even having one additional employed friend makes employment 13% more likely.[1]

The church is undoubtedly making a positive contribution. However, it is not acting single–handedly – and the importance of the council’s support for local faith communities was particularly clear throughout our visit. Most tangibly, the council has funded a variety of local faith initiatives, including Bolton Interfaith Council, which provides a forum for diverse communities to form sustained relationships and facilitates events at which local people can meet and mingle. Yet it has also empowered these faith groups simply by offering them a seat at the policy–making table. Above all, it has worked with a range of local organisations to form the Bolton Vision Partnership – and having contributed directly to the resulting ‘Bolton 2030 Vision’, the churches have certainly promoted it enthusiastically.

Thus, it was Bolton Christian Community Cohesion (a collective of local Christian organisations) that hosted three ‘Passion for the Bolton 2030 Vision’ conferences throughout 2018 and produced the ‘We Support Bolton 2030 Vision’ plaques that are displayed at many churches and other organisations across the town. In response to the trust that has been placed in churches, they demonstrably feel ownership for – and actively celebrate – their town’s strategy.

Reflecting on Bolton’s industrial past and increasingly diverse future, the Chaplain to the Bolton Wanderers Phil Mason summarises such local partnerships aptly: Bolton is now ‘pulling together different threads across our diverse community… and weaving a new tapestry that is building on a strong cohesive community’.  And just as Crompton’s mule combined two previously separate technologies, the story of modern Bolton surely speaks of collaboration leading to greater success.

View The Church and Social Cohesion project page. 

 [1] Social Integration Commission, ‘Social integration: a wake–up call’ (2015), 13.

Image of Bolton town centre by Tupungato under a Shutterstock licence. 

Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine is Head of Research at Theos. She holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and previously worked as a research scholar at a retreat and education centre in Philadelphia. She is the author of ‘The Christian Quaker: George Keith and the Keithian Controversy’ (Brill: 2019), ‘Quakers, Christ and the Enlightenment’ (OUP, 2021), ‘The Church and Social Cohesion: Connecting Communities and Serving People’ (Theos, 2020), and ‘Cohesive Societies: Faith and Belief’ (British Academy, 2020). Outside of Theos, she sits on the Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations.

Watch, listen to or read more from Madeleine Pennington

Posted 17 December 2018

Britain, Church, Communities, Society


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