How the Pope’s words 10 years ago challenge & changed us

Ten years ago this month, Pope Francis announced that he wanted "a church that is poor, and for the poor".

A poor church, for the poor.

Those words, issued during his first address to the media after his election as Pope, were a challenge to denominations and church leaders all around the world – and also to us, here at Church Action on Poverty. 

What would a poor church, for the poor, look like?

What would it mean for the way our churches operate?

How might it change our understanding of church, faith and community?

A profound challenge for us all

These words and this challenge became an ever-present context for our work here at Church Action on Poverty. It challenged our thinking and our priorities, and sparked countless profound, interesting and deep discussions. 

Church on the Margins

We began discussing the issue more and more widely. and by 2016 we published our first report, bringing together wisdom, insight and opinion from across the churches.

Here are just a few of the comments and reflections contained in that report:

It surely can’t be left up to what are typically small and struggling churches in poorer neighbourhoods to shoulder the burden of responding to the challenge. What priority does the wider Church give to the task of becoming a Church for the poor? ...For Church Action on Poverty this report is only the start.
Niall Cooper
Church Action on Poverty
There is no true commitment to solidarity with the poor if one sees them merely as people passively waiting for help … The goal is not to become “the voice of the voiceless” but to help those without a voice find one
Gustavo Gutierrez
Liberation theologian and Dominican priest
By locating the divine among the margins, we are challenged to address the needs of these people who are pushed into unemployment and poverty, for a Church with the poor is possible only by our becoming a church of the poor.
Revd Raj Bharath Patta
Liberation theologian

Church of the poor: a lasting work

That 2016 report, as Niall said at the time, was only the beginning.

In 2018, we produced a concept note, Church of the Poor? Helping the Church Hear the Cry of the Poor in 21st Century Britain, and then in 2020 we launched our Church on The Margins programme.

From the outset, we were impressed and inspired by the Church of Scotland, whose ‘priority areas’ work gives clear priority to low-income neighbourhoods. How would other denominations compare?

This work recently reached a very significant milestone, when we published two important new reports:

  1. What does it mean to be a church on the margins?
  2. Is the church losing faith in low-income communities?
The work from 2020 to 2023 has been in two parts.

The first looked at statistics, to see how the biggest English denominations were engaging with low-income neighbourhoods. 

Worryingly, the research team found that church closures between 2010 and 2020 had disproportionately happened in low-income areas, with only one of five denominations bucking that trend.

The second piece of work involved lots of in-depth conversations with church leaders and members in low-income neighbourhoods, discussing what faith, the church, community and marginalisation mean to people.
That second report documents frustrations with barriers around disability, literacy, class, language, leadership and power within mainstream churches.
The voices and stories shared are powerful and insightful. They combine faith and a desire for action.

Those two reports deepen our collective understanding or what it means to be “a poor church of and for the poor”. But they are not the end of the journey either.

We are now looking at new ways to engage and challenge churches, at local and national level, to respond in meaningful and tangible ways to the Pope’s challenge, ten years ago this week.


"Oh, how I would like a church that is poor and for the poor."
Pope Francis
March 2013

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