Posted in Church of England, coronavirus, Poverty and Justice

Radical Christian Equality

If you’d rather listen than read, you can hear this as  a sermon at buff.ly/2UizTaT (Apple) or buff.ly/2y75QdD  (Spotify) – with thanks to St Mark’s South Norwood.

I was struck this week by St Paul’s comment recorded in the Book of Acts – in passing, stating an obvious, incontrovertible starting point – when addressing the sceptics in Athens about this new religion he was preaching. “From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence”. Paul rightly takes as his starting point the fundamental equality and common identity of all human beings, all created by the one God, all equally God’s offspring, as he  goes on to say. I’ve read that phrase many times without really noticing it, but this week, as the divisions within our society have been cruelly exposed by the different death tolls from COVID19, I had to stop and think again.

Although it may be a self-evident truth – to Paul, and to anyone not infected by that really powerful virus, racial prejudice – it’s also so very obviously not the way the world is. As a white middle class man in a professional role, my chances of dying from COVID19 are much lower than most. COVID19 disproportionately affects the old, the ill, the poor, and members of Black and Minority Ethnic communities. Among the conspiracy theories going around are ideas that all of that is deliberate – that the virus was designed to kill off people in precisely those groups, and especially people of colour. It’s not true; a virus which originally emerged in central China doesn’t know the skin colour of the people it’s infecting – as far as the virus is concerned, all humans are equally good targets.

What the coronavirus shows us – in shocking detail – is the inequality that already exists in our society. The virus isn’t targeted at anyone, but it finds it easiest to attack those whom our society values least – the old and the ill, those whose housing isn’t good, those in low-paid jobs, those who are regarded by society as less significant, less worth looking after, the ones at the back of the queue for PPE regardless of how much risk they may be exposed to. And in most of those groups people of colour are vastly over-represented: doing those jobs without which society would collapse, but which society doesn’t want to pay much to have done, suffering higher levels of poor health, living in substandard housing. Racial prejudice feeds into that spiral of inequality: BAME people are filling many less well-regarded jobs, and those jobs in turn are regarded as less important because of the BAME people doing them.

The coronavirus has shone a light on the structural inequalities in our society, had made us see the realities we mostly know are there, but invest a lot of time and energy in ignoring. We know that there is huge inequality in our country, justified sometimes by the language of austerity, but even better just kept out of sight and therefore out of mind. And now we do have to notice those doing the suddenly dangerous jobs, we applaud: which is good, and appropriate. But there should also be a reward for those who are due applause, an appropriate recognition of the service they have done for us. But that is a problem of course for our society: the debt we owe is not one that can be appropriately recognised merely by doling out applause for all, and medals to a few. The injustice that has been exposed is deeper than that – and far more expensive to put right.

We have discovered that the people whom society has treated as being expendable are really essential. Carers, cleaners, bus drivers, posties, refuse collectors – the list goes on and on – they can’t work from home, and society as a whole depends on them. The question is what we do with that knowledge.

And that’s where I return to Paul. As he introduced his preaching of the gospel to a crowd of Gentiles, he began by establishing the common humanity that he and they shared. Paul’s ministry was founded on breaking down the barriers that the Roman Empire took for granted – in Christ he says there are neither slave nor free, male nor female, Greek or Jew – he systematically disassembles all the ways in which society was kept neatly ordered. Along with ethnic and gender differences, he challenged power differentials by establishing communities of believers in which the rich did not have the authority by virtue of their money. Paul didn’t encourage Christians to rise up and fight the secular authorities – but he did teach a way of living which radically undercut the norms of the Empire.

That is what the Church should have been doing ever since. But instead for too many centuries the Church has found ways to baptise structures of injustice and oppression. The Church of England has the disadvantage of having been around a long time – there’s plenty of history of which our Church needs to repent. This time of coronavirus should help us I think understand what repentance means. It’s not just about feeling sorry – it’s about doing things differently. When confronted again by the inequalities of our society, we must look at ourselves and the ways in which we continue to reflect those inequalities in ourselves – and as Paul taught us, live differently.

The Church will come out of the coronavirus crisis poorer than we were. Will we also come out of it wiser, more aware of our calling? At every level, parish and deanery, diocese and nation (and in every nation), will we do the hard work of returning to that basic assumption that underlay Paul’s preaching and church-building – that all people equally are created, loved and called by God? And in our very different culture and time, will we use the resources we have to demonstrate that repentant return to the roots of our faith? It will be difficult – at a time of constraint, people naturally retreat to what they have known, defend what they have. But the light has shone onto the inequalities we have lived with too happily and too long.

If and insofar as we can change ourselves, we in the Church of England will also have something to say to our nation of which we are the church: and all Christians will equally have something to say to the societies in which they live. A truly radical sense of the equal dignity and worth of each individual is a political statement, because it has implications for the society in which we live. Human beings are indivisible wholes: bodies deserve to be treated with equal dignity just as much as souls do. It should be the desire and task of any society to enable all of its members to live healthy, purposeful lives, and a scandal and a sorrow when it is impossible to achieve that aim (and alongside that, to desire the same for all people worldwide). Through whatever political policies they may believe will achieve it, it is this end that we should ask and challenge our leaders to seek.

Whoever you are, whatever your background, age, ethnicity, wealth, (dis)ability, gender, sexuality – you are included in that universal love of God. You are God’s offspring. In a world and society which acts as if some people were more in God’s image than others, have the confidence to believe that God looks and sees in you God’s own image. And likewise God sees God’s image in everyone you meet, whether you can discern it or not. St Paul went into the marketplace in Athens and told those whom he met that they were made and loved by God. If you know it for yourself, will you also say the same to others? Then the good news of the love of God will truly be a power in our world, nations, our neighbourhoods, our communities.

Posted in Church of England, Croydon, Poverty and Justice

Suffering – the little children

It’s been nearly a year, but this has provoked me to return to the keyboard …

In the last few weeks, OFSTED judged children’s services in the London Borough of Croydon to be inadequate – the lowest rating. Last year, the same thing happened in Wandsworth and the year before in Lambeth – and that’s just in the diocese of Southwark. Across the country, the services that local authorities offer to the most vulnerable children are buckling under the pressure of (rightly) increasing expectations coupled with decreasing resources.

The normal range of reactions have followed. Those who are sufficiently distant look on in alarm and anger; those who are more nearly involved, or who think they might be able to make something of it, begin to look for ways to cast or shed the blame. Among the many failings identified in the OFSTED report are suggestions that some people may have focused more on making the systems look better, rather than responding to the practices which were putting children at risk. When things go wrong it’s a natural though not a noble human reaction to try to cover your own back.

It’s a normal human reaction – and maybe one that we all share, particularly when we look on, and don’t think about how we might also be in some way responsible, or what we might do in response. There is more to it than being involved in the work of children’s services, in Croydon or anywhere else. We are all connected to one another in our society, so it doesn’t feel at all right to be angry at the conduct of others without asking the question ourselves about how we might need to answer for this state of affairs.

When something goes wrong so often, and so drastically, it asks a question of all of us, not just those of us in Croydon (or in Wandsworth, or Lambeth, or …). What is happening in children’s services is an effect of a wider phenomenon for which we are all responsible. As many commentators have said, UK voters demand Scandinavian standard services while only being willing to pay USA level taxes. That contradiction is now paying out in the lives of the poorest and most marginalised. At that national and political level, it is all our responsibility.

But in our local church communities as well, in our schools and chaplaincies, it is our responsibility actively to work for the wellbeing of our communities. It is at the heart of our mission as God’s people. Of the five marks of mission identified by the Anglican Communion, the third is ‘To respond to human need by loving service’; and the fourth
To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation’.

At a time when statutory authorities are struggling more and more, will we just criticise? Or will we take our part in mending a broken world?

Posted in Poverty and Justice, refugees

When they needed a neighbour

I’m proud today to have had a part in the letter from many leaders of many faiths, encouraging the government to adopt a more generous and inclusive policy towards those who seek asylum in this country. You can find the letter here, and coverage of it here and here – and these are my reflections:

Our government is committed to offering asylum to those who come to this country and who have a genuine claim. It is even more committed to preventing them from doing so. Successive governments have made it more and difficult for anyone to get here in order to make a claim: the ‘wall of Calais’ is just the latest attempt. We levy heavy fines on those who transport people to this country without passports and visas – and those genuinely in need of asylum are exactly the ones who can’t get documents to allow them to travel. We take advantage of the fact that few asylum seekers can get here direct, to insist they should have made their claim somewhere else.

The result? We drive asylum seekers into the hands of people traffickers. Those who only have to spend all their resources are the lucky ones – they didn’t die along the way. We increase the profits from organised crime. I hope that very few people, as individuals, would treat another human being that way. And it’s still wrong when it’s done by the government on our behalf.

There are simple things the government could do which would have a huge impact. To issue humanitarian visas so that people could come here to have their claim assessed, so that refugees don’t have to risk their lives to reach their families. To reduce the many restrictive rules that prevent families from being re-united, by preventing lone refugee children from bringing their parents to the UK, and making it extremely difficult even for adult British citizens to do so.

These changes would be neither expensive nor impossibly complex. In Italy, the government is working in alliance with churches and charities to issue visas in the Middle East and North Africa which allow those seeking asylum to avoid the traffickers. On arrival, the sponsoring churches look after the new arrivals, teaching them the language and helping them become integrated into the community. In this country likewise, there are thousands who have family members still in areas of conflict, there are hundreds of churches, mosques and charities who would be glad to offer sponsorship or support. But the UK government isn’t interested.

These moves should not be controversial. The wonder to me is that we have ever put in place measures which divide families in this way. The leaders of many faiths who have written today to the Prime Minister have done so in the conviction that the proposals we make are in the best interests of our country as well as those we should be reaching out to help. All our faiths compel us to affirm the dignity of all human beings, and to offer help to anyone in need. We rejoice in the mosaic of different faiths and British communities that we now represent. Some of us came to this country from other countries of birth; others, like myself, have been British for many generations. But we all recognize that the best of this country is represented by the generosity, kindness, solidarity and decency that Britain has at many times shown those fleeing persecution, even at times of far greater deprivation and difficulty than the present day. The U.K. should be proud to take its fair share of refugees, as we have done in the past, to exhibit to those in most need the very best of Britain.

 

Posted in Croydon, Poverty and Justice

So why are you doing this, bishop?

Last night I presented the findings of Croydon’s Opportunity and Fairness Commission to the Borough’s Cabinet. It has been a privilege to chair the commission. I logoam immensely proud of the work put in by Commissioners, Young Commissioners, the support team from the Campaign Company – and happy that the process seems already to have led to some specific initiatives which will make a difference in Croydon, especially to the poorest. It’s been very nice to be thanked and congratulated. But no-one’s asked me why I’m doing it – why did I say yes to what turned out to be another part-time job for a year, when I am pretty fully occupied anyway.

So I thought I’d ask myself, and share the answer here. It’s all because of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Behind my desire to make things better for people in Croydon; behind the pressing need to bring together parts of a fractured and sometimes mistrustful community; behind the desire to help Croydon tell a story of itself which will make its inhabitants proud to live here. All of those things spring for me from the incarnational mission of God in Christ.

God does not engage in a helicopter rescue for human salvation: he doesn’t lift out the lucky / righteous from the world while leaving the rest to burn: that doesn’t seem to me to be true to the biblical story. God comes among us, lives with us, lives as us, so that the whole world may be saved. God’s ambition is not so small as to want to save just a few: God wants to save the whole world. The whole world, not just the human beings – the whole of creation is in God’s sights for his renewing and saving love.

That is the gospel of incarnation as I understand it, and it is that that makes me passionate about working in the world for the good of the world. Why did I do it? Because I hope that in a small way, with all my imperfections and mistakes, I was joining in with God’s mission of love to the world.

Posted in Poverty and Justice, refugees, Roman Catholic Church, spirituality

Year of Mercy – Year of Welcome?

Yesterday, December 8th, was the beginning of the Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis. It was also a day of prayer and vigil for refugees, organised by the Churches’ Refugee Network and generously hosted by St Margaret’s Westminster. The Vigil was entitled 20,000 Welcomes – alluding both to the traditional Irish greeting, and to the 20,000 Syrian refugees that the UK government has decided to allow to resettle here. During the vigil, the following reading was read, and I offered the meditation that follows

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus comes to judge the world, and he doesn’t ask people how religious they were – at least not in the sense of going to church a lot, reading their Bible, even praying. Those whom Jesus praises are those who lived lives given to serving others – particularly those who were despised or ignored by everybody else. They visited prisoners, cared for the sick, looked after the people who were at the bottom of the heap. In fact, they did exactly the sort of things that Jesus did. I can’t imagine that any of them managed to do all that without having lives that were radically dependent on God: but the proof of all that was in lives which were lived in love for the world. They receive their reward through being the sort of people who didn’t look for it. They weren’t aware that they were serving Jesus when they helped people in trouble; they weren’t doing it in order to tot up spiritual points. They just did what needed doing.

These, along with providing burial for the dead, are six of the seven corporal (bodily and physical) acts of mercy, and they all flow from this parable:

To feed the hungry

To give drink to the thirsty

To clothe the naked

To shelter the homeless

To visit the sick

To visit the imprisoned

Today has begun the Roman Catholic Church’s Year of Mercy – a year of receiving, and also giving and living, the boundless mercy of God. As Pope Francis put it in his letter setting out his vision for the year

I have asked the Church in this Jubilee Year to rediscover the richness encompassed by the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The experience of mercy, indeed, becomes visible in the witness of concrete signs as Jesus himself taught us. Each time that one of the faithful personally performs one or more of these actions, he or she shall surely obtain the Jubilee Indulgence

Whether or not we are Roman Catholic, the Pope’s call should have resonance for us. We will connect most readily, many of us, with that encouragement to continue in the practice of mercy, and to encourage others to join with us in offering 20,000 welcomes. But we should also hear that other side of the Pope’s call – that we should be ready to receive the mercy of God in our own lives as well.

That action will take different forms for us according to our own traditions and spiritualities. For some the Pope’s call to renew the sacrament of confession will be a gateway to God’s grace and freedom; for others there will be other ways – the grace of God is confined only by our willingness or not to receive it. But receive it we must, if we are to have grace and mercy to share. The commitment to continue in the acts of mercy is demanding and sometimes draining. We have all met, and probably all sometimes been, those people who are still giving when they have nothing left to give – and we know that that is not sustainable, or healthy, or good.

We need to allow ourselves to receive acts of mercy as well as to give them, if we are to live out the spirit of the gospel reading. It is not for nothing that the corporal acts of mercy are linked with the spiritual acts – traditionally they are

To instruct the ignorant.

To counsel the doubtful.

To admonish sinners.

To bear wrongs patiently.

To forgive offences willingly.

To comfort the afflicted.

To pray for the living and the dead

The spiritual and the bodily do not live in separate compartments – they are dimensions of the whole human beings that we all are. In the giving and receiving which is the breathing in and out of the grace of God, may we be open doors of mercy in ourselves – doors that open in gratitude and thankfulness who come bringing gifts to us, and doors that open in hospitality and generosity to those who need our shelter, so that we are indeed able to offer 20,000, 50,000, any number of welcomes.

Posted in Asylum, Poverty and Justice

In the Jungle

2015-11-14 15.20.27
A fairly average photo of where people live in the Jungle – which is actually a piece of ex-industrial waste ground off an industrial estate

Last Saturday I was in Calais visiting the Jungle Camp. I’m still not sure what to make of the experience. The conditions were atrocious, especially on a dismal, chilly November day of perpetual rain. If you will forgive the seeming inappropriate analogy, I was reminded of attending music festivals in the 1980s – disgusting toilets, occasional standpipes for cold water, rubbish everywhere. And this is how people are living not for a weekend, but day by day, week by week, month by month. There had been a fire the previous night, and some of the refugees staying there had been burnt out even of what little they had. But no wonder, when there is no alternative but to cook on an open fire inside your tent.

A cooking fire in a tent in the family area of the camp
A cooking fire in a tent in the family area of the camp

And in these atrocious conditions we met some remarkable people. We met Solomon, who led the building and now is the guardian of one of the two churches in the Jungle. Dedicated to St Michael the Archangel, it reflects the Orthodox tradition of Eritrea and Ethiopia, where most of the Christian refugees come from.

Inside St Michael in the Jungle
Inside St Michael in the Jungle

And we were made welcome, given tea and cake and biscuits, and shown around the camp, by a most remarkable Sudanese man who ran one of the little shops and cafes which have emerged to serve the needs of the camp residents. He also kept a store of tents and sleeping bags to give to new arrivals, who might turn up at any time of day or night; in an environment that might drive others to despair, he was a sign of hope.

And that was the strangest thing for me – that I was not driven to despair by visiting the Jungle. I felt I should be – but I wasn’t. In the Jungle I found signs of the antidote and opposite to despair, which is hope. Not foolish optimism – there’s no space for that. The situation of the people in the camp is by objective standards unbearable, and will only get worse as winter comes on. The political situation is stuck, with doors across Europe closing ever more firmly against refugees. But hope is about something else, and in these two characters, one Muslim and one Christian, I saw hope at work.

Christian hope is not unrealistic about the world – in fact, Christians have often got distracted from the hoped for kingdom by concentrating on the travails that come before its arrival. But that’s not meant to be our focus. The end of the world may look like it’s coming, but God’s salvation does not come to an end. Hope is not a fleeting emotion, like happiness after seeing a good film, or contentment after a good meal. As Vaclav Havel said, “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.” That is the call of the kingdom, too, to work for something that is good, regardless of the chances of its coming to be.

As Jesus told his disciples, we do not know when the Kingdom of God will arrive, neither the day nor the hour. But as the church year winds down, as we move into the darkest time of the year, we also turn once again to the anticipation of the season of Advent and all it foretells. We turn once again to hope in the Light of the World, the hope of our redemption, and the promise of God’s kingdom.

Posted in Church of England, Croydon, Poverty and Justice

A living wage you can actually live on

In case you’re wondering, that’s the difference between the real Living Wage, and the government’s rebranding of the minimum wage as the ‘National Living Wage’. The
genuine article is calculated to provide a basic income which will enable a family to live without needing to get extra jobs – which will enableparents to spend time with their children, and have some of the rest and recreation time we all need. It doesn’t give anyone a luxurious life, but it should enable people to live with dignity.

That’s why I don’t believe wages should be set purely according to what the market will pay. The market will always pay the least it can get away with and still obtain a decent product. That’s what markets do. To treat wages as purely an affair for market forces means thinking of people as no more than the work they do. I can’t think about people like that, and I don’t think any Christian can either.

Markets are powerful and effective at many things, but they should not dictate our beliefs about human beings or our decisions about how we live together in society. This morning’s reading from the prophet Isaiah at morning prayer reminds us what a society is like that forgets its purpose, and what is the remedy:

Cease to do evil, learn to do good;

seek justice, rescue the oppressed,

defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

I believe that the Living Wage is one of the ways we can do in contemporary society what Isaiah was telling the people of Judah God wanted of them. As simple as that.

It’s very encouraging to see that a good number of dioceses and other church bodies have taken the step of becoming Living Wage employers, and some big employers have signed up, which is great news for many many people. I’m very glad that the London Borough of Croydon has now become an accredited Living Wage employer. But there are still many many others who haven’t taken that step.

Many parishes and churches are also employers (have a look here for one story), even if only of very few people in many cases. And many may be paying the Living Wage anyway. But it would be a great witness to society at large, and to the many employers who are members of church congregations, if each church which can was to sign up, and display its commitment to a society which exists for a higher purpose than the market: which exists to ensure to all its members the dignity of a decent human life.

Posted in Croydon, General, Poverty and Justice

Croydon to Zimbabwe and back

It feels odd to be back in Croydon. I’ve just spent a couple of weeks with others from the church in this area, visiting the Anglican churches in Central Zimbabwe. It’s a link we’ve had for a long time, supporting each other in many different ways. While we were there we dedicated a hospital the church is building (at present the whole area has none at all), and attended an anniversary celebration. If any of you find church services a bit long, in Zimbabwe they can be into five hours on special occasions like that.

What’s really amazing to me is what the people in Zimbawe achieve in a country whose economy is at rock bottom. Unemployment is 80% (that is not a misprint). The currency collapsed years ago so everyone uses US dollars, and it seems to me, they have to pay US prices. But they haven’t given up, or just sat there waiting for someone else to sort out their problems. Despite the country being in deep trouble, local people – especially in the churches – are doing extraordinary things for themselves and one another: building their own schools and hospitals, setting up projects to grow food and develop jobs. While I was away Croydon’s Opportunity & Fairness Commission, which I’m chairing, published its interim report. I was sorry not to be in the country for that, but I’ve come back all the more convinced that despite national and other forces we in developed countries have many of the solutions for our local needs in our own hands. If the people of Zimbabwe are able to do so much with so little, why is it we feel so powerless?

I’m beginning to think that one of the most profound difficulties facing us in the developed world is that we’ve developed such a strong sense of our own impotence that we’re scared even to try. And of course there are far more rules and regulations.

I’m not suggesting we all just ignore the rules of our society. I am suggesting that maybe we have, collectively, internalised a sense that someone else will always stop us if we do anything that pushes the boundaries, that’s really new or radical. Maybe we’re living a myth of powerlessness, while all the time having power we just don’t use. I think it could be worth finding out.

Posted in climate change, Poverty and Justice

for the love of …

An intriguing name for a day lobbying parliament about the dangers of climate change.

For the love of – the world? humanity? God? … well, it depends what you really love, doesn’t it? other options suggested on the website include, chocolate, heron, farming in Ethiopia, coral reefs, cheese and – picture of a young father with a baby  -‘my son’ (and there are lots more).

Human beings, very naturally, tend to love what’s close, what’s immediate. We love (most of us) our families and friends; we love places – if we’re lucky, the places where we live; we sometimes love our jobs. We don’t really love people we’ve never met, or places we’ve never been to. And not all of us connect the future lives of our children or grand-children with the sort of car we drive or how we heat our houses

So how can we love the world of the future, and the people of the future, enough to do something now which is difficult, costly and extremely inconvenient: like stopping burning carbon-based fuels? What can possibly give us the energy to make such a change? At the moment, the answer would appear to be, nothing very much. Politicians reckon, probably rightly, that if they were to implement the sorts of measures which would actually demonstrate that love for the distant future, they would lose their own jobs in the immediate future.

the for the love of … website tries to make the connections for almost anyone to something they really love – something worth doing something about. But it’s really like trying to get water to run uphill. Let me share with you the one response we got on twitter when the Diocese of Southwark shared this photo:

CHsdaHnWEAAEr9_.jpg-large

It went: ‘the good Lord stuck the Sun up there to keep us warm by another 2 degs get over it’. Not so easy for those who will lose their land, or their livelihood, or their life.

What can we do? Well, those of us who preach can preach – unashamedly. We can sign up to the Lambeth Declaration, launched today, and use it to provoke our churches into discussion and action. And we can encourage our MPs that they’re more likely to get our vote, not less, if they support meaningful action, soon.

I’m very much looking forward to reading the authorised version of Pope Francis’ encyclical. (Incidentally, has no one told those Republican Catholics that they’re meant to be obeying the Pope, not the other way round? Yes, even when he talks about things they don’t like.) I hope he brings this whole issue back to love: the love of God. In both directions: the love God shows in creating a world of such beauty and richness; and our love which should be shown in taking up the gift given to Adam and Eve – of being stewards of such a great gift. It’s not a job we’ve done very well up to now, but for the love of God …

Posted in Books, Church of England, Poverty and Justice

Parochial ministry: lessons from an unlikely teacher

Earlier this year, I spent a couple of weeks in the US and Canada, and rather to my surprise found myself learning from a true expert what parish ministry is all about. Churches in N America are all (stereotypically) gathered congregations of the like-minded and often the like-skinned – but amidst that there has been a return to the idea of “the parish” – driven not by the churches you might expect, but by a motley collection of Anabaptists, Presbyterians and – in particular for me – a Baptist minister.

Grandview Calvary Baptist Church doesn’t to UK ears sound like it’s going to be a place of radical hospitality, a rich and disciplined common life of prayer and service, and deep commitment to a local community in all its variety and diversity. I wasn’t expecting to see the Stations of the Cross either. But all of those things were there. I took the Skytrain over to what is now an increasingly trendy part of Vancouver, in the same way that Hackney is a trendy part of London. That is to say, there is an overlay of young professionals, but the majority of the people are poor and there is a great diversity of ethnicities and social groups. After fifteen years in Islington and then Stoke Newington, I felt right at home.

Tim Dickau has been the minister at GCBC since 1989. He describes the question that faced the church at the time he arrived this way:

We were at a crossroads that many churches at the end of Christendom have had to face. Would we continue on as a chaplaincy supporting the present members until their death? Or would we face this death, which after all is so entwined with the story of Jesus, and share in the larger mission of Christ by living out the gospel in our changing neighbourhood?

GCBC did face up to the death of Christendom, and it has found new life. And lest UK readers think “it’s OK for them, there are loads of Christians in N America” – this is an area which recorded 31% ‘no religion’ in the 1981 Census. I wonder what it’s up to now?

Tim took me for a walk around the neighbourhood. He knew pretty well everyone, and they knew him: it was like being with a parish priest in the CofE who really knows, loves and walks their patch. But for him and for his community, discovering a local, neighbourhood, ‘parish’ ministry has been a voyage of deliberate discovery and exploration. It has involved huge change and a commitment to keep going through significant downs as well as ups. It’s been no quick fix. Among other things, it has made me question the now-conventional wisdom that clergy ‘should’ move on after say, seven to ten years. I don’t think any of what I saw at GCBC would have taken root without Tim’s constancy of vision and commitment to that place.

As I left, Tim generously gave me a copy of his book Plunging into the Kingdom Way (from which the quotation above is taken). One of the joys of being on sabbatical is catching up on some of those books which accumulate unread; as I’ve been reading Tim’s book, I’ve been struck once again and even more, how he has a huge amount to teach us in the CofE about renewing our parish life in a post-Christendom setting. (I’ve also been reminded not to judge a book by its cover or title!)

Parishes, and all our structures around them, were constructed for a world in which the services of the church were a natural part of the life of the community. That just doesn’t apply any more in most places. In the parishes under my care, especially the suburban ones, Christendom church is now a living reality only for the older generation (though the part of my patch south of the M25 seems to be an exception). Last year’s Church Times survey found that parish clergy were, perhaps unsurprisingly, deeply committed to the parish system. So am I. But that doesn’t mean it will be the same in another generation as it is now. In fact, if it is to exist in another generation, it will have to be on the path to a radical transformation.

We need to be taught how to renew our parishes, and this word from someone who carries none of our baggage is I think hugely important. But don’t just take my word for it: read, mark, learn, inwardly digest.