The Servant Church in Granby

By Don May and Margaret Simey

Introduction by Hilary Russell

This is an account of how an inner city church found itself forced by sheer weight of circumstance to move from the ‘gathered church’ pattern of ministry, focusing largely on its own membership, to one which acknowledged the importance of accountability for, and to, the community it was there to serve.  It is presented in the belief that there are lessons to be learned from that experience.  For both Don May and Margaret Simey, it was a significant period for what it taught them about their respective callings: one as a Methodist minister, the other as a City Councillor.  But its interest is not just personal and anecdotal because, though some of the terminology may change, its themes are recurring ones.

There are glimpses into the early ‘ecumenism on the ground’ which developed as the churches realised that only through joint action could they minister to the overwhelming need around them.

/files/images/section/margaret simey2.jpegMore than that: there was no escape from the necessity to translate moral imperatives into political action if their presence was to be effective.  It became evident that poverty can so easily go unnoticed or unrecognised even by those living or working in its midst and it was impossible to spate the impoverishment associated with low income and poor housing from that which results from stigma and prejudice.they minister to the overwhelming need around them.

There is additional food for thought about the nature of community leadership and the different forms in which it can be creatively expressed, ranging from that of the official brave enough to be open and answerable to those he serves, to the local resident prepared to put time and energy into community activities.

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Clergy occupy a potentially privileged no-man’s land in-between.  Compared with other professionals, they are less likely to be constrained by prescribed terms of reference, though they may experience the loneliness of having a vision not shared even by others in their own church.  Their title gives them an advantage over most of their neighbours when it comes to opening doors and gaining a hearing, but this should not become a substitute for vesting other community representatives with power and responsibility.

In this picture of a church trying to be “local, outward-looking and participating” with a “clear ecumenical bias” (in the words of Faith in the City twenty years on), the apparently paradoxical nature of its ministry emerges.  Total involvement in the real arena of people’s lives had to be combined with standing for a deeper reality than the political, social and economic.  Though not herself a member, for Margaret Simey the Church represented an enduring faithful presence in Granby – in Alvin Toffler’s phrase, a ‘stability zone’ – so that the flux and uncertainty all around could be more bravely confronted.  Hopelessness waited round every corner because of the scale of human need; the Church shared the anguish, but also embodied a future hope.

The Servant Church in Granby by Don May and Margaret Simey

The Servant Church in Granby was First published 1989 in the series Cross Connections, Occasional Papers on Church and Society edited by Hilary Russell and published by the Centre for Urban Studies, University of Liverpool.

The Granby ward is a compact triangle at the heart of the area of Liverpool known to the media as Toxteth.  It was developed in 1869 to cater for the housing needs of the new class of first generation white-collar workers in shops and offices and was therefore of such respectability that it was thought fit to allow Eleanor Rathbone to fight for the seat in the City Council elections of 1909.

The gentle decline into old age characteristic of every such area was abruptly speeded up in the 1960s by the evacuation of the neighbouring ward on its acquisition by the University.

Margaret Simey: Almost overnight, I found myself the nominal representative of two entirely different sets of people: the established residents and the incomer, many of whom were black, many of them unwanted by society and most of them alienated from it.  The inevitable problems were made all the more difficult by reason of the overall social and economic decline of Liverpool.  To be a City Councillor then was an unforgettable experience, torn as we were between the conflicting claims of the different sections amongst our constituents and swamped by the rising tide of needs.  We struggled to offer such first aid as we could without losing sight of the urgent need to attract national attention to the fact that what we faced was a hitherto ignored problem: the decline and death of the heart of the city.

By the late 1960s, with a population of about 17,000, Granby “contained the greatest concentration of social problems in Liverpool”.  Unemployment stood as 9.4% when it was 1.3% nationally; over half the households had not hot water, two thirds had no bath, over 10% were overcrowded.  Infant mortality was almost double the rate of the country as a whole.

It was at this time that a handful of neighbouring clergy formed themselves into an ecumenical group committed to the task of rallying local people to their own assistance.  How much support the leaders got from their congregations at first is doubtful, but at least it was enough for them to play an active part in helping people in Granby to survive the continuing crisis which was then developing. 

Don May:  I arrived in Liverpool after 6 years in Birkenhead in September 1961 to be the minister of St Peter’s Methodist Church, High Park Street, and Princes Avenue Methodist Church.  Some time after my arrival, Keir Murren[2] invited me to the Social Workers’ Lunch Club that he held at the Domestic Mission.  Keir emphasised that the Church is generally mostly concerned with helping individuals with their problems, but that in Toxteth tackling the problems of the community was an essential part of helping individuals.  He reminded me that Jesus saw his mission as being the Servant of God and the Servant of people (cf Isaiah’s Servant Songs – particularly Isaiah 42: 1-4 and 53).  The role of the Church in Toxteth was the same – that of the servant.

There could be no evasion of the challenge which this presented to the churches in the light of the shocking housing conditions in the area.  Father Whittaker (Roman Catholic) had been approached by a distressed parishioner about her apparently insoluble problem with rats in her home.  Father Whittaker approached the Rev Brian Green (Anglican) to see if there could be a united effort to find some solution to the dreadful condition of some of the houses in Joliffe Street.  Brian Green rang me and we agreed to seek to widen the awareness of the problem through press publicity.  We all had church members living in the street.

The result of the press publicity was that a meeting was arranged between the three clergy – armed with a copy of the 1961 Housing Act detailing the powers of the local authority in such cases – and Alderman Leslie Sanders, Chairman of the Housing Committee, the Director of Housing and the Medical Officer of Health, Dr Semple.  The families (38 people in one of the houses) were rehoused and the 3 most dilapidated properties demolished.

Further moves towards area improvement came out of discussions at the Toxteth Community Council which came into being in 1962. Founded some years before other community councils in Liverpool, it provided an inspiration and model for others.  The idea for it came from Keir Murren, Warden of the Domestic Mission and together with the Warden of the University Settlement, he had laid the ground by organising various events designed to give residents a greater sense of identity with the neighbourhood.  Don May became Vice-Chairman.

DM:  At an early meeting, I outlined the needs of the Granby and Princes Park area: a multi-racial population with many multi-occupied properties, with great social deprivation, much vice, crime and delinquency, and an educational priority area.  I was asked what I was going to do about these conditions.

By way of response, I called together the local MP, Dick Crawshaw, the local councillors, the Chief Welfare Officer of the city, local head teachers, probation officers, doctors, etc.  Significantly, during the meeting, Dr Cyril Taylor, a local councillor and GP expressed his opinion that in the area we were sitting on a tinder box, that it only needed a hothead from one side or the other to ignite and there could be an explosion of violence that most people in Liverpool thought impossible in this most integrated city in the country.  The meeting supported him.

All were agreed about the problems, and the opinion was expressed that their solution lay mainly with the residents.  It was obvious that there was a need for greater unity between different churches as an outworking of the Christian Gospel (Good News), but in an area where the indigenous population has half Catholic and half Protestant, with a history of antagonism between the two groups, it was vital for any united community action that the churches be seen to be working together.  The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church was a factor in encouraging closer relationships between Roman Catholics and Protestants at local level.

DM:  Accordingly, I wrote to Father Flynn of St Bernard’s R.C.Church asking if we could discuss sharing in services of prayer in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and in looking at the social problems of our community.  His reply was in the following terms:  “You will appreciate that this is new thinking for me but my two young priests feel strongly that we should meet to discuss these things over a meal, together with the Vicar of All Saints whose problems I have come to appreciate.”  We accepted the invitation to share the hospitality of the Presbytery.  After the meal and discussion about future united services and action, Father Flynn’s reply was: “You are asking me to ask my people to join you in a united service of prayer next January.  It’s November now.  I have to be frank with you, if I asked them now they would be scandalised.  But give me a year to prepare them and the January after that we will join you in the service in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.”

Father Flynn himself turned up alone at the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Service at St Margaret’s in January 1964.  In January 1965, the two young priests led a large group from St Bernard’s to join in a United Service in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in the Presbyterian Church, possibly the first time that Catholic and Protestant congregations had worshipped together in an actual church in Liverpool.  In other parts of the city, united services seem to have been held in church halls.  The formal formation of the Princes Park Neighbourhood group of Churches in 1965 was evidence of the growing together of the different church communities which proved so vital in future efforts to united the whole area in its search for a fuller life.

MS: Twenty years of work in the Granby ward in association with an ecumenical group of churches has convinced me that the churches had a particular capacity for this task, and a special obligation to undertake it.  Firstly because in a disintegrated society, they are unique in possessing the resources and the manpower as well as the established structures which are necessary if altruism is to find practical opportunities for expression.  Secondly, because the churches stand for a fundamental declaration of respect for the individual, and for the duty of the individual to love his neighbour better than himself.

Meanwhile the discovery of serious structural faults in the Methodist Church in Lodge Lane led, after much discussion, to the demolition of both that building and the Princes Avenue church and their replacement by a single complex on the Princes Avenue site.  This decision coincided with a change of policy at the Department of Education which, for the first time, allowed government aid for the building of premises for youth work and eventually for the salary of a full-time youth worker.  In return, the Church promised to maintain ‘open’ youth work for the following three decades.  All of this was reflected in the plans for the new building, and the provision for youth work in the community centre part.  An unexpected bonus was the very practical evidence of co-operation between the denominations which developed during the rebuilding process.

DM: Addressing the District Synod in 1967, I was able to tell them that Methodist services were being held in the Trinity Presbyterian Church on the opposite side of the avenue.  Methodist youth organisations met on Presbyterian premises too.  As these were not available for the Scout Party, this was held in the Catholic Church Hall.  When the Catholic Young Wives found the Methodist Young Wives could not be accommodated on Presbyterian premises, they offered their room for a fortnightly meeting.  This offer was not taken up only because the Methodists wanted to maintain their practice of having a weekly meeting in the same place each week.  The Union of Catholic Mothers, the Anglican Mothers’ Union and the Methodist Young Wives all joined in a social in the Catholic Church Hall.  In this friendly atmosphere, neighbours from the different churches got to know one another better and recognised something of their unity in Christ.

This united worship, work and social activity on the part of different churches was a vital process in the growth of real community in a city where the words ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ had been used by so many Protestants and Catholics about each other so often in the past.  If the Church was to play its part in the fostering of community relationships, this was where it had to begin.  Such co-operation (increasingly recognised as essential today) then naturally extended to all who were working with the same aims in the community.

In this case, it involved working closely with Philip Doran, the Area Community Warden, the local councillors and head teachers in planning meetings and action.  Phil Doran was appointed by the LEA in 1965, one of only three such appointments in the city.  He helped to identify needs and resources in the local community and, through quiet influence and encouragement, inspired many people to develop qualities of initiative, leadership, co-operation and responsibility, already latent in them, only needing opportunity and challenge to draw them out.  For example, Phil drew up a questionnaire for a self-survey of the neighbourhood, and advised those taking part on the best approach to adopt.  From the churches’ point of view, the more lay training could be done on a local basis jointly for all Christians in the neighbourhood, the better it would be and the more effective it would prove.

In 1966, a Princes Park and Granby Social Workers’ Lunch Club was formed.  This provided a fortnightly forum for social workers, head teachers, councillors, clergy, doctors and other workers in the area at which their own problems and those of the neighbourhood could be faced and solutions sought.  It facilitated a sharing of experience, skills and insights that had been gained in the life of the community.  There was criticism because no residents were invited, public participation being very much the topic of the day, but the club was specifically intended to bring together all those who worked in the area.  Meetings were in ‘neutral’ premises, the Deaf Institute, and the catering was done by a group of Methodist women, aided by a Presbyterian until she moved away.

In 1967, the Princes Park and Granby Neighbourhood Council, later called the Community Council, was formed.  This was a development from the Social Workers’ Lunch Club and the Neighbourhood Group of Churches.  Margaret Simey was unanimously elected as the first Chairman but, because some people were saying the office might be used for political purposes, Don May was asked to take it on as people would accept him as politically neutral!

Housing problems occupied a great deal of the attention of the Community Council.  This was the period when the shortage of accommodation and its lamentable quality provided opportunities for the sort of exploitation by private landlords that came to be known as Rachmanism.  The Community Council made itself responsible for arranging meetings between residents and officials which were often boisterous and vociferous, but served to educate all concerned in the practicalities of democracy.

DM: I must admit that, when chairing such meetings, whilst my main concern was for the residents’ suffering of some appalling conditions, I did feel sorry at times for some of the officials, untrained and unprepared for facing such hostile audiences. 

Bringing together officials and their public was often profitable.  For example, the residents of one street complained that their water supply was totally inadequate.  Six houses were ‘supplied’ off the same pipe.  The supply pipe, which should have been provided for each separate house was so furred up that if one house filled a bath, the others were deprived of water for a long time.  Residents were having to get up as 5.30 am to ensure they had a kettle of water.  I expressed the naughty thought at one stage that if no remedial action was taken, we might organise a continuous pram walk over the pedestrian crossings to snarl-up the rush hour traffic.  Fortunately, remedial action was taken.

Another vivid memory I have is of a heated meeting at Tiber Street School at which the Chief Health Inspector asked those with complaints to see him after the meeting.  He would take a note of their details and see that action was put in hand when he got to his office at 7.30 am the next morning.  (I was interested to find later that he was a Property Steward in a Methodist Church in the suburbs!)  His audience was rightly appreciative when he carried out his promise.

At another noisy meeting in Windsor Street School when a Police Superintendent was hearing the many complaints about the vandalism in Windsor Street flats, one resident spoke up on behalf of a neighbour living in dreadful flooded conditions.  Miss Jones, the local headmistress, and Don May visited the house the next day.  There were duck boards in the kitchen because of the water coming in from the street, the toilet was chock-a-block with faeces and there were 6 buckets full of sewage in the attic. Apparently all efforts to get someone to unblock the toilet had failed.  Miss Jones took some slides of these conditions and of the damp walls in the bedroom, together with a picture of books on the bookshelves.  She said that from the cleanliness and good behaviour of the two boys of the family in her school, she would never have dreamed that these were the conditions they lived in at home.

Experiences such as these had led earlier to the formation in 1965 of the Liverpool Housing Trust.  This was formed to supplement the work of the local authority by buying up property, renovating it and letting it at reasonable rents to homeless or inadequately housed families who, for one reason or another, fell through the net of the official system. The acute difficulties of such families were brought to our attention by Harry Thacker, who in his capacity as Chief Welfare Officer for the city, had first-hand knowledge of the extent of need.  A Management Committee was set up by Methodists (in the majority at first), Anglicans, Roman Catholics and a Quaker.  Harry Thacker himself was a Methodist Local Preacher.  Professor Simey was elected Chairman.

LHT started with four properties, but the Shelter Campaign for the Homeless provided resources that eventually made possible more rapid expansion.  Don May was on the Management Committee and Chairman of the Tenants’ Committee.

DM: Jeremy Sandford, whose documentary “Cathy Come Home” shocked the nation with its moving portrayal of the plight of the homeless, told me that he gathered some of his material from Mulgrave Street. When I took him round the area some years later, he was saddened to see how much improvement in the situation was still needed.

Shelter Neighbourhood Action Project (SNAP) began in 1969.  The Housing Act of 1969, by encouraging the modernisation of whole neighbourhoods, gave an opening for involving residents in suggesting ways to improve existing communities instead of bulldozing them away.  Shelter, welcomed by Liverpool Corporation, chose the Granby ward for its inner city initiatives, seeing there a process of disintegration so total that “only an equally total process of recovery could possibly save it”.  The SNAP Association was set up to run the project representing residents, the Community Council, Housing Associations, Liverpool Corporation and Shelter.  The SNAP housing aid centre opened and immediately had people pouring through its doors, but its main support came from the members of church congregations who could be contacted through their clergy.

Another source of chronic distress was the increase in kerb crawling after the Wolfenden Report resulted in the shift of prostitution from Lime Street to Princes Avenue.  Some of the big houses on the Avenue were already used as social clubs by groups of various nationalities and this opened the way for commercial night clubs to operate as well.

DM: The problem was brought home to us most painfully when, on the opening of the new Methodist Church in 1967, we were dismayed to find that girls waiting for kerb crawlers were using the low wall surrounding our premises as a seat.

At one of the preliminary meetings about the SNAP scheme, one resident declared that no number of indoor bathrooms or other improvements would be of any use unless the moral problems were dealt with.  Frequent meetings were held to discuss the situation.  Car numbers were taken and given to the police. The Community Council opposed the renewal of a licence to a club in Kingsley Road because of the disturbance to local residents, and succeeded.  There was opposition to a licence for a betting shop near Granby Street School and an application for planning permission for a ‘hotel’ on the Avenue was also successfully opposed.

As the law needed changing to strengthen the powers of police to take action against kerb crawlers, evidence was compiled in the hope that steps would be taken to amend the Street Offences Act so that it would be an offence for a man to accost a women on the streets.  As a result, three attempts to amend the law in the House of Lords were made.  Although each attempt received more votes than the previous one, the proposal was rejected by the majority of peers.  Nevertheless, the campaign constituted a most valuable training in practical politics and citizenship, serving to draw the community together beyond the immediate issue of kerb crawling.

Residents involved in the Neighbourhood Community Council provided a nucleus of keen people involved in the various Task Groups of SNAP.  A reason for choosing Granby for the SNAP experiment, in addition to the obvious great needs of the area, was apparently the extent of involvement in improving the quality of life of the community.  The Community Council provided opportunities for people to develop their potential, such as John Hughes, who had been made redundant at Fords.

DM:  At a meeting he once said to me, “Mr Chairman, you’re talking a lot of bloody nonsense like a damn fool”.  He was probably right.  We got him a place at Ruskin College.  He didn’t manage to get a degree but he returned to Liverpool to become a dedicated Education Welfare Officer on the Speke estate.  He literally worked himself to an early death.

This practice of enabling individuals to develop their potential was adopted by the Methodist centre as a matter of policy with striking success.

MS:  Looking back I realise that what distinguished the church from the welfare agencies operating in the area was that the churches openly and bravely took their stand on the side of the people   . . .  Even so simple an act as making available a room for a meeting, and providing mugs of hot coffee into the bargain, was symbolic of support for the people in their struggle . . .

Although the tendency was to look to the clergy of any denomination for leadership, and to act in turn as Chairman, the democratic principle was maintained by representation of street groups on the Community Council.  Every endeavour was made to encourage the formation of such groups and the election of other members of the executive was made at open public meetings.  Later on, a palace revolution inspired by young workers and volunteers, who had come to work in the area because of the increasing attention paid to inner areas, resulted in the adoption of a constitution which went to the opposite extreme by restricting membership to representatives of street groups only.  Though this was properly intended to give ‘power to the people’, the consequent exclusion of professional workers in the area, the clergy amongst them, brought home the fact that somehow a balance must be struck if progress is to be made.

The Community Council, as might perhaps be expected, attracted its main support from the streets where the tradition of neighbourliness and community feeling still lingered.  But it was not possible to ignore the needs of the increasing numbers of incomers following the clearance of the neighbouring ward by the University, many of whom were from overseas.   The Methodist Centre was particularly conscious of this because, though the new premises were used on two nights a week by the continuing Scouts and Cubs and Guides and Brownie packs, the open policy of the Youth Club eventually resulted in a virtual take-over of the club by the increasing number of young black people after the Youth Club at Stanley House was closed down.

In 1964, even before the centre opened, a conference was held at Princes Park Methodist Church on “Our Neighbours from Overseas”.  Arrangements were also made to meet people from overseas when they arrived by ship and to help them to settle in to the local community.

In 1967, the Hunt Report, Immigrants and the Youth Service required all local authorities with immigrant communities to report on what positive action  they were taking to integrate “coloured and immigrant young people” into the community as a whole.  When the Liverpool Youth Organisations Committee were discussing the implications of the Hunt Report, Don May was asked about the experiences of the young black people in the Princes Park and Granby area.  As a result, it was decided to set up a working party “to study the situation of young coloured people in Liverpool”.  The report Special but not Separate was eventually produced in 1967, causing widespread consternation by its revelation of the reality of racial prejudice in the city.

Following on Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech on immigration in 1968, the Parliamentary Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration visited Liverpool and, in due course, the Liverpool Community Relations Council was set up, with Dorothy Kuya as its first officer.  Dean Edward Patey was elected as its first Chairman and clergy of all denominations were active supporters.

Another source of conflict was the unveiling of a sculpture by Arthur Dooley of the Resurrection on the outside wall of Princes Park Methodist Church. /files/images/case_studies/dooley_body02_150x150.jpeg[See photo].   This sparked considerable controversy in the local and national press because it portrayed in brutal terms the suffering of a multi-racial Christ, but the support of Revd. Rex Kissack, the Chairman of the Methodist District, was demonstrated at this time.  His backing had already been shown when he asked Don May to speak to the Synod in May 1967 on developments in Granby, and in the agreement of the Synod to set up a mobile force of volunteers to help in community projects in Merseyside.  The unveiling of Arthur Dooley’s sculpture had initially been planned to be a purely local affair.  However, Mr Kissack said he would like to attend the unveiling to demonstrate that what was being done in Princes Park and Granby had his support and that of the Methodist Church in Liverpool.  As he was going to be present, it was only courteous to ask him to do the unveiling. (Unfortunately, that meant that subsequently, while he was away as a Conference, his wife received abusive phone calls.)

DM: My involvement as a minister in what was seen as a disruptive and divisive issue was deplored by some (including some in the local churches) and similar protests were directed against Margaret Simey by the party she represented.

In general, as far as my own relations with the churches were concerned, I think that initially there was some difficulty in understanding the type of ministry I was being led into in the community.  No direct criticism was directed to me personally as far as I can remember, but I do recall hearing that some members of the congregation had complained about the amount of time I spent on work for the local community instead of concentrating my energies only on the church folk.

However, the church members did gradually come round to accept that what we were doing together was right after all.  Hence they accepted wholeheartedly the considerable financial burden of building the new church and maintaining the youth centre – in addition to having to raise by themselves all the expenses (including the stipend) of having a minister with only the one church in his pastoral care.  In September 1967 the new church and youth centre were opened free of debt – thanks of course to the very generous grants from the DES and LEA for the youth centre, but also evidence of the sacrificial support of the church members.

MS: In effect, the churches stood for an alternative way of life to that of the individualism and materialism which threatened our survival as a human society.  Their efforts were often as futile as our own but I am convinced merely to exist amongst us on those terms was a positive contribution.  I know that I personally found that my own sense of commitment to what I call socialism and they call Christianity was refreshed by even the most casual contact at some committee meeting or youth club.  Those whose values are put to the test of extreme and continuing stress learn by harsh experience that no man can live wholly unto himself, but the struggle to keep alive any sense of social duty is often a desperate one.  The mere existence in our midst of a handful of people who were there for no other reason than to keep that flag flying I believe to have been of greater importance than we, or perhaps they realised.  There was unspoken comfort to be derived from the fact that someone still had faith in the ideal of the caring community even though bitter disillusion had eroded our own conviction.

DM: When a Sunday morning service was broadcast from the church on Radio 4 on 23rd November 1968, the text of the sermon was the Manifesto that Jesus accepted from Isaiah 61: 1-2 as partly defining his role:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."  Luke 4: 18-19

The Church saw this as a description of its role in the community.

[2] Keir Murren was Warden of the Domestic Mission.  His work was cut short by his untimely death in the late 1960s, but his vision and perseverance formed the rock on which many attempts to activate local participation were built.  As Monsignor James Dunne put it: “It was the likes of Keir Murren who made the theological breakthrough: people needed the church, not to make them holy, but to affirm and support them in their struggle.” 

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