Real life Rev: The Bethnal Green vicar whose congregation has soared

Reverend Adam Atkinson: "The whole neighbourhood feels in some way my responsability"

Reverend Adam Atkinson: “The whole neighbourhood feels in some way my responsability”

Nestled in a leafy close between sturdy low-rise council blocks, St Peter’s Church sits in a calm corner of Bethnal Green.

Slick, day-old tarmac covers the surrounding road –a church-led action group has just succeeded in pressuring the council to resurface it. Inside, the wood-panelled vestry is cosy and quiet.

“I’m going to be a real cliché now – a vicar serving tea,” smiles Adam Atkinson as he enters with a tray. “I’ll try to find you a biscuit but you’d better not have one you’re sitting on – they’re for Hackney food bank.” My cushioned bench conceals boxes of edible supplies; Atkinson is the food bank’s trustee.

The 47 year-old Reverend is a proponent of ‘show and tell’ Christianity. The approach is working – in his four years at St Peter’s the Sunday congregation has grown from 20 to 120, earning it a spotlight on BBC London News. While church attendance has dropped 10 per cent nationally, the number of Christian worshippers in London has risen by 16 per cent in the last eight years. Nine per cent of Londoners go to church once a week.

“Living in the city presents specific challenges to do with purpose, calling and the future,” explains Atkinson. “These things prey on people’s minds quite a lot and we can offer support.”

Not just a feel-good factory

St Peter’s Bethnal Green is a cross-tradition church, offering services in a “high Anglican” as well as an informal style, which increases its wider appeal. Scanning the church’s Twitter feed, I find a photo of Atkinson preaching in his boxer shorts, the point being that “without the resurrection, faith has no trousers”.

Yet Atkinson is unequivocal on the heart of his mission. “This is not just a feel-good factory, what’s going on here is the serious business of prayer, scripture, spirit and sacraments. In the light of that we’re reenergized and – pop – off we go.”

Adam Atkinson: "It doesn't feel like a job, I'm just doing what comes naturally."

Adam Atkinson: “It doesn’t feel like a job, I’m just doing what comes naturally.”

Atkinson has built a strong church community dedicated to improving social wellbeing in the area, the food bank being just one example. He has established a safe haven on the notorious gang border of Hackney Road; a string of 15 shops that have signed up to shelter those fleeing violence. The church hosts an employment training programme, is building a credit union, and has given start up space to two local businesses.

The biggest of Atkinson’s plans is a funding bid to develop the underground crypt into a recording studio. Steel-reinforced from its past life as an air raid shelter, the crypt already offers perfect sound-proofing and could provide young people with another potential escape from the clutches of gang crime.

Love thy neighbours

It’s impossible not to be enthused by Atkinson’s evangelism for pushing local change. “The action of ‘love thy neighbours’ needs to express itself in more than just tea and sympathy,” he urges. “Around here people are so used to being done things to. We need to reverse that trend and make them feel empowered.”

His stirring political language harks back to a former life – Atkinson previously enjoyed a high-flying career as a lobbyist at the PR firm Weber Shandwick. “I thought I was a bit of alright, weekly commuting to Brussels. But I was hiding behind my briefcase and my gold card. It was a relatively immature existence.”

Fifteen years ago, the birth of Atkinson’s third child with severe heart and bowel defects was a stark reality check for him and his wife. “The experience of being in hospital for the best part of two years while he was comprehensively re-plumbed…made me really grow up. All the top soil that one often sits on was eroded away. We landed on the rock and we found that that rock was Jesus.”

The daily grind

Since becoming ordained, Atkinson’s days and evenings are filled with a plethora of one-to-one meetings, project planning sessions, admin duties and correspondence. He meets with affiliated charities during the day and fits in sessions with the 50 plus church volunteers in the evenings. Add to that two Sunday services (a third is on its way), a Thursday evening communion and four morning prayer sessions.

“It’s necessarily all-consuming. The congregation are my family and all the people in the neighbourhood are in some way my responsibility – I need to be ready and available. To close the door and retreat isn’t really an option.”

Indeed, Atkinson hosts many social events to open the church to the wider community, particularly Bangladeshis, who he admits are underrepresented in the St Peter’s family. “We really like the excuse for a party,” he smiles. Each month, he holds community lunches where everyone is invited to eat and take away dishes. “Whether you’ve got a busy job and don’t get back until 9pm or whether you’re on the breadline, everybody takes food. We don’t discriminate.”

Out and about

Atkinson is good friends with the head of East London Mosque, whom he supports on occasions like the EDL march in Whitechapel last September. “I was in my dog collar and cassock among the anarchists in Altab Ali park,” he laughs. “I’m less taken with structural interfaith relations, that’s sort of above my pay grade. It’s human interfaith relations that we can do. I don’t want to be naive – there are undercurrents and things going on. But actually it’s not me doing something for East London Mosque, it’s me doing something for Dilwar because he’s my friend.”

Each Wednesday in December, Atkinson’s team wheel an upright piano onto Columbia Road to sing carols with merry Londoners rolling out of pubs. But it’s not all jollity. “Older people often struggle, not just because of loneliness. I love the snow, but our elders are really frightened of it, because if you go over you break a hip and that’s it.”

The vicar buys bags of grit in the summer to spread on the doorsteps of elderly churchgoers. It’s a far cry from the briefcase and gold card.

“I sometimes miss really being in touch with what’s going on, but there was a part of that which was quite self-serving. I’m thrilled to have been shown my vocation in my mid-forties – I’ve found my groove and I’m just starting to hit my stride.”

Curriculum Vitae:

Training: Two to three years at theological college, then three years as a curate working under another priest. Email hello@callwaiting.org.uk

Salary: £23,000 – plus the use of the vicarage

Hours: “I’m working six 14-hour days a week.”

Best thing: “It’s not a job – it’s a vocation. It doesn’t feel like I go to work, I’m just doing what comes naturally.”

Worst thing: “The family misses out. I have to actively make time to see them.”

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