Image: Revd Dr Catherine Shelley with Barry, one of her clients at St Edward the Confessor, Mottingham.
Catherine Shelley is Vicar of St Edward the Confessor, Mottingham. She also happens to be a trained solicitor. When she came to St Ed’s in 2017, she soon found that her skills were badly needed by Mottingham’s community. The complexity of our housing system means that legal understanding can be useful just to keep a roof over people’s heads.
One evening after a church event, Revd Shelley was greeted by a queue out the door of people requiring advice, and people often simply knock on the vicarage door.
Catherine is now offering pro-bono legal and benefits advice in sessions twice a week. The nearest Citizens Advice Bureau is a long bus ride away, and so St Ed’s have helped over one hundred people to deal with important and difficult decisions.
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Housing, Church and Community is investigating how churches are responding to the housing crisis. Although the issues discussed at St Ed’s are far broader than housing, accommodation is part of many of the stories. With few one bedroom properties in Mottingham, people are falling foul of the ‘bedroom tax’. Our complex welfare system means that families are getting into rent arrears, putting them at risk of losing their home. The word ‘neighbour’ is associated with houses. Increasingly, ‘love thy neighbour’ means helping people cope with the housing crisis.
A gran, caring for her grandchildren whose Mum had died, was unable to stay in her house because the tenancy was in her daughter’s name. After negotiations with the housing association, Catherine helped her to get a tenancy.
Mottingham’s housing situation doesn’t just affect individuals, but the health of its community: young families are being forced to move away from their extended family, because they cannot afford local rents. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has said that ‘building homes is important, but it’s not enough. We need to build communities.’ St Ed’s are helping to keep their community strong.
Catherine’s not alone in providing this important service. Four other members of her congregation – including two with legal training - help run the service. By utilising their skills, they’re helping people to navigate a complex housing and benefits system, including filling out forms and accessing grants.
St Ed’s are lucky to have a legally-trained vicar, but how many churches up and down the country have members with legal and other relevant skills?
This speaks to a broader issue. We’re used to talking about vocation as a calling, and alongside our role in the church, but we rarely mix the two. In church, we have nurses serving the tea, accountants reading a prayer. How can we make use of our vocational skills in our church roles?
We have a housing crisis. The Commission believes that, as churches, we need to respond, using everything at our disposal. The work in Mottingham shows that legal knowledge can be invaluable in ensuring our housing system works fairly, serving local residents and strengthening communities. Could your church support people in this way?
- Support for advice can be provided by LawWorks and AdviceUK. This includes CPD accredited social welfare, family law and professional skills training, training materials and reference materials, best practice guides and fact sheets, and pro forma.
- Legal advice should not be given by churches without professional indemnity insurance. AdviceUK offers this. However, the work at St Ed’s is run through the law firm of one of the congregation, saving the church a couple of thousand pounds per year.
- Revd Dr Shelley’s work is a considerable part of her workload. This could be a big commitment, but if capacity doesn’t allow, then this model could work for any level of support.
- Although some of these issues are complex, with LawWorks training, some types of support and advice can be given without specialist legal knowledge.
- Revd Dr Shelley suggests that even without advice being provided, IT access could really help people engage with the housing/benefits system, including making and managing a Universal Credit claim. Although St Ed’s do not currently have enough laptops to offer extensive IT support, other churches may.