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Transforming the communities of Essex & East London through Christ’s presence

by Tim Elbourne, Director of Education - Chelmsford Diocese

Newham is a part of London where faith is taken seriously by a large majority of the population. In the last census only 0.03% of adults identified themselves as atheists and just 9.5% of ‘no religion’. It was entirely fitting, therefore, that the Church of England became part of a project to create a University Technical College (UTC) in Newham.

When I came to the diocese in 2013, one of my first visits was to meet a small group in Stratford beginning to plan this project and steer it through the complex process of getting established. I am very proud that the Chelmsford Diocese is now one of its members and a co-sponsor. We ae the first Anglican diocese to sponsor a UTC. Our contribution is twofold. First, we affirm the mission of the College, to provide an innovative technological education equipping students for the quickly developing workplace and offering routes into skilled employment and higher education.

Secondly, our commitment is to wholeness, ‘life in all its fullness’. That means creating proper space to explore questions of faith and meaning, which we do through providing Chaplaincy to staff and students. The College is not a ‘faith school’, rather a college in which faith is taken seriously. The Church of England’s Chief Education Officer and his Head of Policy visited the UTC and were greatly impressed.

Our diocesan appointed college trustee, Revd Chris Beales, subsequently attended a small meeting of officers, bishops, headteachers and people involved in policy to talk about the UTC project and technical education. His input was well received and there followed a stimulating discussion about technical education and, among other things, the need for technical teacher training. They also discussed chaplaincy and the model being developed at our UTC.

More than half the 180 students are involved with a faith group at the UTC. Some Christians attend Friday prayers and some Muslims attend Agape meetings. Chaplaincy is offered by a team through the Centre for Theology and Community based at St George-in-the-East, Shadwell. Shermara Fletcher, who is on site two-and-a-half days a week organises a Gospel Choir and Agape

weekly meetings and has started an Aspire Leadership Programme – with a faith and social justice theme – working with year 10s.

“People are making decisions that impact on them, so they need to know about that,” says Sharma. Her approach is often to ask people about how they see faith – “good, bad and ugly”.

Students come to her groups saying things like “I used to go to church but… Now I want to come back.”

Shermara has also observed that being a black woman has opened doors which may be sometimes hard to open for white male chaplains/clergy – “the way some BME students express and experience their faith is different. It helps me to engage with all students and it helps me to engage with young women.”