What is local about the local church?

The word local can mean many things. What exactly is local to you? What is your locality? As a church, where do local people consider to be local? It seems to me local, unsurprisingly, has to be locally defined.

In one place I lived and went to church, it was pretty clear that local meant from the particular estate we were on. If you weren’t from the Ford Estate you weren’t local. You might be from the town, but the estate had three walls surrounding it so that getting off was a pain anyway. And people didn’t want to get off the estate. They were mainly annoyed there weren’t enough shops and amenities on the estate itself so that they never had to leave the local area. Local was on the estate.

The South Oxfordshire village in which I mainly grew up, local was defined a bit differently. We lived in the dead centre of a Bermuda Triangle with Oxford to the North, Swindon to the West and Newbury to the South. We didn’t even live in the nearest town that we tell everyone we’re from because they definitely won’t have heard of our village even though they’ve never heard of the town we tell them we’re from either. Whilst the village was a defined area, local extended well beyond the village. My school was in a different county to where we lived, and lots of people from around us went there. One of best friends lived in a third county as far from my school in the opposite direction to me. We thought nothing of driving 45 minutes to Swindon, taking the hour long (or more) bus journey into Oxford or meeting mates in Newbury. These places were all local to us. Everybody was used to driving around and the markers of what was local went well beyond the village and covered at least the triad of towns we lived directly between.

Where I live now in Oldham, local is slightly different again. By and large, anything within the borough is deemed local. With the exceptions of most of Saddleworth – which is technically old Yorkshire and a lot of it up in’t moors – and Failsworth, which is the other side of a natural motorway boundary and feel very much like Manchester, everywhere else is deemed local. The town centre is very much central and most people, from most areas, are quite happy travelling in to it. People readily move between areas of the borough and consider them all local. The estates are not considered closed units that people stay on and never leave. People move in and out all the time and do not consider themselves to have moved outside the locality if they stay within the borough. Excepting two bits – mainly because of geographical markers – everywhere in the borough is considered pretty local.

This matters when it comes to thinking about the local church. What is local about any given local church has to surely be determined by what is considered local by the locals. It is not good planting a local church in Claughton hoping to reach what was once the Ford Estate. Nobody on what is now the Beechwood Estate would go. You might as well have planted it in another country. A local church will has to be particularly local if it is to reach the estate. And I thank God that there is a church in that place being a local church for the estate. You wouldn’t reach the estate apart from doing that.

But the local church in Grove, near the great metropolis of Wantage, can have a much broader reach. Actually, as it happens, there are a bunch of churches in Grove itself. As well as churches in Wantage. And there are churches in the nearby villages of East Challow and East Hanney too. There are churches in the town of Didcot to the East, churches in the town of Abingdon to the North and a whole bunch of churches in Swindon to the West. And Oxford, well there are plenty of churches there too. As a little area, full of little villages and medium sized towns, it is doing pretty well for churches. But the locality can be drawn a little differently. Few think very much of travelling to nearby towns for church and most people are used to jumping in their cars to go just about anywhere. What is deemed local and accessible has sizeable geographical boundaries. That isn’t to say there aren’t good reasons to have even more easily accessible churches in more tightly defined local places. It is just to say what the locals call local would include a large square mileage that would seem astronomical to lots of people.

In Oldham, local can be anywhere South of Rochdale, North of Ashton, East of Failsworth and West of Grotton. Which means the local church can be drawn relatively broadly. People are not tied to their estate, but would happily go from Fitton Hill to the town centre, from Royton to Chadderton and from Shaw to Lees without thinking they are going outside the locality. Of course, that Manchester is not local even if it is accessible on the tram and we don’t want to go venturing into Rochdale – one of few places that makes people from Oldham feel superior – or that Yorkshire. But local has some clear geographical boundaries, including a load of barren moorland between Oldham and Yorkshire and a large expanse of motorway between here and Manchester. Even though technically bits of Oldham’s borough cross those markers, locally those geographically boundaries mark what is deemed local. That means local churches can be considered local anywhere within those boundaries. Again, there may be good reasons to be more local still and plant more churches within the borough, but what people consider local and where they are willing and able to travel that they consider local has clear markers.

So what is local? It could be a single estate or area. It could be an individual village or town. It could be a city. It could be a borough. It could be a massive geographical area covering 3 or 4 counties. But whatever it is, it must be locally determined by local people who live in the locality. What they consider local will ultimately determine what we consider to be local when it comes to the church.