Rosalyn Murphy is Vicar of St Thomas’ Church located in an urban priority area in central Blackpool, UK. As a parish priest she is an advocate for government collaborations with faith-based organizations designed to address economic, cultural and social challenges that impact many communities. She recently delivered a public lecture on The Church in Hard-Pressed Cities in partnership with Cardus and the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of Niagara. Cardus Research Manager Stephen Lazarus later interviewed Rev. Murphy by e-mail.
Stephen Lazarus: What are the challenges your church and its people are facing in Blackpool?
Rev. Rosalyn Murphy: Our church is located in one of the highest areas of deprivation in England, so the challenges we face daily are sizeable — unemployment, teen pregnancy, substance abuse and addictions, child poverty and homelessness. One or two of these social ills would be more than enough for a church to commit to, but we really don’t have that option as all are present in our community. It’s really the love of God and inspiration of the Holy Spirit that empowers us to live out the gospel message of Jesus Christ in such a needy community.
SL: How have you seen particular lives changed by the love and power of the gospel because the church became more outward-focused and truly missional?
RRM: The rewards in serving in areas of deprivation are great. We are able to see the Spirit of God working in phenomenal ways almost weekly. It’s not unusual for us to see individuals delivered from addictions, others find gainful employment, and those who never knew the love of God have come to receive his grace and faithful generosity. The beauty of the gospel for us recently is that we are now seeing parents being baptised along with their children — so, entire families coming to God. We haven’t been given an easy vision, but we find with each day that if we’re faithful to God’s calling, the Holy Spirit miraculously does the rest.
We have six congregations, so we’re always in need of good leaders. Personally, I find inspiration in the great commandment Jesus gives in Matthew 28.19 — to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” Sometimes, I think we find it easier to do mission in other countries, rather than our own neighbourhoods. I begin teaching new Christians and members early on that we all have a vocational calling in Christ, and throughout our Christian journey we’re expected to discover all the gifts God has given us, and use them to glorify God. So, every day is Christmas as we discover some new gift or skill or way God can use us.
It’s truly amazing to see those who have recently become Christians — who are still ‘on fire’ with God’s love — willing to step outside their comfort zones and share the ‘good news’ with others. They’re an inspiration to us, who have grown comfortable over the years and need to have a little spark lit in our spiritual lives. By simply sharing their testimony, we see the Holy Spirit using simple words and genuine thankfulness to soften the hardest hearts and draw individuals into the kingdom of God. The key is telling the story of how God has transformed our lives.
SL: What were the stages of St. Thomas’ transformation? And how did the process of leading that change challenge you as a pastor and follower of Jesus while implementing and working for your vision against tough odds, difficult struggles and conflict?
RRM: Change and transition is always a challenge, because we grow quite comfortable in our relationships with one another and even with God. But, if we’re to “grow up in every way into Christ who is the head”, then there will always be challenges to shape, mould and change us. Very early on at St Thomas’ there were some who (for whatever reason) felt called to worship elsewhere. God was pruning, cutting away, and preparing our church for new growth. This can be hard to accept when it’s happening.
For me, the challenge was letting go and holding faith, trusting that I was leading others in the path God was revealing. When people you’ve been worshipping with choose to walk out the door and go to other churches, all you can do is trust that you’ve heard God correctly. Honestly speaking, I have to admit that I didn’t want to lose a single member. But, during those early transition years, my faith and total dependence on God and the work of the Spirit grew expeditiously.
When we step out in faith there really is no turning back. We simply have to wait and let God be God. I had to begin afresh because many of the leaders I had inherited were gone; but, this also gave God a free hand to shape the Christian character of those he would bring. One evening when I began (discipleship with) a small group of leaders, I experienced what I can only describe as a revelation as to how the Holy Spirit uses pastors, ministers, missionaries, teachers, lay leaders (basically all of us) to grow the Kingdom of God. My heart nearly burst; I felt infused with God’s love in such a way that I realized that everyone, and I mean everyone, has incredible untapped potential in Christ Jesus. More importantly, this love needed to be shared wherever I went and with whomever I met. So, now whether walking down the street or sitting in a waiting room I find it easy to smile and speak to others. God’s love simply flows. I literally see every encounter as an opportunity to share the love God. And I see every person (including myself) as someone with yet untapped spiritual potential that the Holy Spirit is waiting to awaken.
SL: What wisdom do you think the gospel has to offer in an age of Brexit and Donald Trump about how the love of Jesus and the gospel is "public truth" and how that can transform people, neighbourhoods and cities (although this of course takes much patient and steady faithfulness and innovation to see glimpses of the Kingdom.)
RRM: We live in incredibly turbulent times as we see entire countries moving towards protectionism with leaders using language that promotes fear to isolate the ‘other.’ Unfortunately, this is part of the human condition. It’s a big challenge t0 celebrate our unique commonality as human creatures in God’s image, and regrettably so much easier to attribute blame for our difficulties or sufferings on to others.
Our Bible and history books are filled with examples where those considered ‘other’ were demonised, shunned, and isolated — the poor and sick during ancient biblical times, indigenous communities during colonisation, slaves and former slaves during reconstruction, East European Jews and U.S. Japanese citizens during WWII are just a few illustrations of ‘fear-mongering’. The difficult bit is learning how (and remaining committed) to love in spite of difference.
The selfless example of the cross is one where Jesus reveals how we are to abandon fear and chose the better way — by being committed to love, forgiveness, and welcoming others into our lives (and communities) even at the point of death. What a beautiful message that sends to the diverse peoples of a troubled world. The Christian Church is called to be a great light that shines in the midst of darkness. This is the true power of the gospel that Christians proclaim. That light becomes quite dim when we build walls or blind others through exclusion and isolation.