Monday 23 July 2012

Community infrastructure

Funding has just been withdrawn from Walk Well, a health promotion scheme which uses St Michael’s each Tuesday. Those who are told they should take more exercise often either don’t know what to do or don’t have the persistence to go on doing it, so there have been advantages in having several places locally to which people can be directed where a serious walk and then some optional social time is on offer; over fifty people were setting off from St Michael’s when I called there last week.

The wider use of the church has done us no harm - we are glad to be partners in promoting well being, they pay rent, their presence helped us convince other funders that improvements to the church were not just for the benefit of the congregation, and a couple of the walkers have even started coming to services. The St Michael’s users would like to continue on a self-help basis, but they will only be able to manage a lower rent.

The local FE College is just withdrawing from its ten year old lease on the 1960s building which is our former Bishop Edward King Church. It stepped in when the church closed in 2002. We made an agreement that it would lease the building for no rent - but that it would invest capital in it and allow the church and community to use it.

This arrangement benefited everyone. The building was re-roofed and the toilets upgraded including the installation of a new toilet with disabled access. The College was able to deliver mainly computer based training in the middle of a local community at lower cost. Things like our own weekly Chatterbox group and monthly Songs of Praise service continued. Everything from art classes, Brownies and Councillors’ surgeries to piper’s rehearsals, WI and youth choir have somewhere to meet. Even the garden was developed as something of a local park in partnership with bodies like the local Tenants and Residents Association.

But the funding of Further Education in the country has changed radically in the last couple of years and what is now the Grimsby Institute can no longer afford to staff a training centre which will run at a loss. During August we will try to put together a budget to see whether the hourly rent paid by the large number of community groups will be able to cover the basic overhead costs so that we can go on running it as a Community Centre on a break even basis, as we have been doing with the Littlecoates Community Centre elsewhere in the parish.

And, although it does not affect us so directly, another Community Centre is closing. The Yarborough Community Centre is actually part of the school next door to it. The school is becoming an Academy so it appears the whole of the property will become part of the assets of a new independent group and will no longer be something the local authority can make available. I went along last week to talk with one organisation which has used the Centre for a while to check whether it had found a new home and, as it happens, it was a neighbouring church which has been able to offer it one.
One reaction to all this news (which has come in the space of the last two weeks) is that those who rely upon small church and voluntary sector groups to play their part in the ‘big society’ may underestimate the effect that these sorts of cuts and changes make to our viability. Tightening the health service budget, cutting the adult education budget, and pushing through the Academy process might not appear to be things which effect us.  But the cumulative result of the loss of £500 income here, new responsibility for building maintenance there, and the disappearance of a neighbouring community facility elsewhere puts us under unexpected pressure.

These sort of potential and actual losses in activities and facilities makes community action and service much harder. How will community groups serve others when they don’t have income streams? How will churches make their facilities available to others when they can’t afford to repair their roofs? Where will Brownies meet when the last hall closes?

Neverthless, this is all part of a larger picture. In this parish in turn the Wybers Wood Community Centre (as long ago as the 1980s), St Michael’s Church Hall (early in my time), the Great Coates Reading Room (more recently) and the Yarborough Community Centre (now) have closed (although money from selling the Church Hall site has been invested in equipping St Michael’s church itself for wider community use, and a new Village Hall may be built in Great Coates). So the process is not new. And, it must be said, this may in part be because people now choose to socialise and collaborate in such places much less than they did.
This is actually one of the points on which the Chief Executive of Voluntary Action in North East Lincolnshire challenged Churches Together in North East Lincolnshire at its recent AGM. She (and others) had been invited to give us a different perspective on our context. She actually mentioned what I think she called a surplus of community buildings in decline competing for the rapidly reducing grant income which had previously sustained them.
She hinted that a better future might include more collaboration and fewer but better centres of excellence. She also asked us to consider whether issues like new levels of unemployment and poverty should attract our attention and efforts as much as sustaining the old form of infrastructure.

Monday 16 July 2012

Fair Trade Chocolate

Why did he have to pick on chocolate? I wanted to make a difference. I was ready to put in a lot of time and effort. But the only thing he asked me to do was to make sure the chocolate I buy is Fair Trade chocolate. That would make the most impact, he said.

He was Steve Chalk. Steve is the Baptist Minister who heads up the Oasis charity which sponsors two of the Secondary Schools in North East Lincolnshire. He is also into a remarkable other range of things as a Christian activist. One of them is being a United Nations special advisor for community action against human trafficking.

He had been invited to Grimsby by a church based Justice and Peace Group. This is a group of Christians in North East Lincolnshire who want to think and act seriously about the way they live out their faith responsibly in the world. At the beginning of July, Churches Together in North East Lincolnshire promoted a Week Against Human Trafficking partly around Steve’s visit to this group.

So there I was sitting in St Pius’ Church listening to him. He revealed the extent to which human beings are bought and sold across the world for sexual exploitation and forced labour. It was quite a harrowing account.

I had then been asked to chair a time when people could ask questions. During a short break one person came up to me. ‘I don’t want to speak’, she said, ‘but I do want to know the answer to one question’. It was a profound question, so I began the next session by asking it for her. ‘Is my lifestyle the problem?’ she asked. ‘In what way would living my life differently make a difference?’.

And the example Steve used was chocolate. A huge amount of the raw material for the chocolate on sale in England has been harvested by trafficked labour, he said. He had tackled many of the major firms about this. They had not all responded well. It takes quite a bit of auditing to make sure a firm knows it only uses cocoa which has been harvested responsibly.

But it can be done. The work of people like Steve had meant that we are promised that four fingered (but not two fingered ) Kit Kat are made with fairly traded cocoa.

So, the message I took away was to be much more careful about the chocolate I buy. It is going to be quiet a challenge - although knowing that four fingered Kit Kats are alright is definitely going to be a help.

The article was the 'Pause for Thought' column in last week's Cleethorpes Chronicle.  The picture is a sign we spotted near Novartis when returning from a walk on the Humber bank wall at the weekend; someone must have put in a bit of planning and effort to adapt the speed bump sign.

Monday 9 July 2012

Building worries

It may be the tower of St Nicolas’ which is moving (or, more specifically, slowly sinking towards the south) rather than the south aisle which is moving away from the body of the church. That is the slightly disturbing conclusion of the measurements taken today based on the fixed points established not quite five months ago, although nobody is suggesting that the massive and majestic tower is about to topple over.

Today’s measurements actually show that the crack between the aisle and the tower has closed a bit, which wasn’t what we had expected at all. It is not this measurement but instead a simple horizontal pencil line drawn across the crack five months ago which shows where there has been vertical movement; the picture shows this looking at the west wall, with the aisle on the left and the tower on the right of the crack.

Given that a Churchwarden at St George’s rang this morning to say that some lead flashings have been taken from the building there, it hasn’t been an encouraging day regarding the stewardship of our buildings.

Monday 2 July 2012

Serendipitous links

Japanese researchers have found unusually high levels of carbon-14 in cedar tree rings laid down in 775. A report in New Scientist in June speculated whether a solar flare (rather bigger than ones otherwise evidenced) might have been responsible, or, perhaps more plausibly, a series of flares over a couple of years.

On a whim, I took down an edition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and was delighted to see that it’s almanac-like set of a couple of facts for every year has for 773 or 774 the information that ‘a red cross was seen in the sky after sunset’ (and ‘strange adders were observed in Sussex’), although the dating is difficult as the 776 Mercian-Kentish battle at Otford is recorded in the same sentence.

However long the shot, I was sufficiently taken by the vague possibility that I had stumbled across an interdisciplinary insight that I sent New Scientist a letter about it which, to my surprise, it published last week.

Meanwhile, I’m developing some single illuminated sheets for our three churches each with one slightly more secure bit of historical information.  I have just placed one about the Taylor memorial in St Nicolas’ (including the picture of the grave of Richard Taylor Esq posted here last week) and another about the Tickler memorial window in St George’s (including its references to the family’s Grimsby based jam manufacturing).

The two picture above are a first attempt (I need to go back soon and get something better) to capture what I need to illustrate an information sheet about the coat of arms of the Barnardiston family - which owned Great Coates between the 1300s and the 1600s and members of which are commemorated in the pre-Reformation brasses in St Nicolas’.

The top picture includes the Barnardiston coat of arms among fragments of mediaeval glass set high in a plain window in St Nicolas’ (which I guess was placed there as part of a re-fenestration at the time of the restoration in the 1860s). The bottom picture is of the entrance to Great Coates Primary School. I wonder at what stage the school adopted this as its logo (which appears on pupils' sweat shirts as well as the door)? And whether those who adopted it thought it was the Great Coates coat of arms or whether they knew full well that they were borrowing a design from a particular family of former Lords of the Manor?

Anyway, putting the two pictures together provides another serendipitous link which I hope some people will enjoy - certainly those at the school who gave me permission to photograph its front door did not know the design comes from the Barnardistons (and they tell me that the school is considering creating a new logo soon anyway, so the link may soon disappear).