At the time of her visit to church leaders at Spurriergate on 17th March 2010, Kersten England had been in post as Chief Executive of the City of York Council for almost 6 months.
In her own words she regards herself as a ‘servant leader and a person of faith’. Although she was not brought up in church her family had a Christian Science background and her mother was a writer of some note in Belfast, some of whose work has been used as GCSE texts in Northern Ireland. Her writing focussed very much on bringing people together across the sectarian boundaries in an atmosphere of mutual respect. By acting as her mother’s proof reader, Kersten was exposed to these concepts in early life.
In an act of early rebellion she took herself off to Sunday School and ended up an Episcopalian (Anglican)..
By time she was 15 she was helping out in the soup kitchen for the homeless of Edinburgh and involved in running a project for the homeless. Her early passion was in reaching out to give a voice to the voiceless.
Although she denies any involvement, Kersten lived in Manchester at the time of the riots there and in Bradford at the time of their riots too. This did allow Kersten to see something of communities in crisis.
She went to Zimbabwe and did her doctoral research on the impact of colonialism, whilst living in Christian communities. On one occasion when ill, she remembers waking up to the sight of 26 nuns at her bedside praying.
Until recently Kersten was Chairing the ‘Church in the World’ board for Bradford diocese.
Of York, Kersten said that we had lots to be proud of but much to be concerned about too. She particularly mentioned the lack of connection felt by the Black & Ethnic Minorities and the Travellers community. Community relations aren’t only about ethnicity, but it is a part of the picture.
There are parts of York where lots of things are going on and others where there is almost no community cohesion or interaction. She observes that we sometimes exhibit a lack of ambition about our city – so much has been achieved but there is so much more we must do.
York is heavily dependent on public centre employment – and we lack entrepreneurial dynamism. Having a dependency on a number of larger employers can make a local economy fragile.
This administration is very committed to giving children a good start and the best outlook as they grow, and committed to the environment too. The city isn’t flowing as it needs to and we need to reduce the number of car journeys. A renewed commitment is needed to economic development too.
On the issue of how the council and the churches can work together more productively, Kersten recognised that we do more youth work than the council and that we can provide space and support for social enterprise.
Faith communities have a core role of bringing the worship community together and sustaining them, but communities need the church. The social care delivered by the church and the impact made in keeping older people active is vital in breaking down the potential for isolation of the elderly.
Kersten expressed concern about the spiritual needs of council workers, and will look into the possibility of acts of worship and prayer rooms for staff.
Managing a £30 million reduction in budget over the next 3 years with a commitment to avoid compulsory redundancy as much as possible, is a big challenge, but Kersten is committed to the task and believes that all groups need to play their parts in the years ahead, especially the church.