Where have all the prophets gone? Is divided Britain a reality too painful for the Church?

Two events this week have reminded me of just how hard it is for the Church to take seriously the harsh realities of poverty and inequality in our post-Election divided Britain.

This year’s Greenbelt Festival was as ever, 20,000 people gathered for a huge eclectic mix of (almost) any conceivable purpose – artistic, creative, worshipful, social or conspiratorial – with Israel/Palestine high on the agenda.   Greenbelt is a living testament to how the Church could be if it was truly open, inclusive, radical or committed to social justice, in almost every way.

I say almost, as there was one a huge elephant (not) in the room:  Out of probably several hundred events described in the programme, there was not one mention of the impending public spending cuts, not one involved a Member of Parliament of any hue, and barely any that even acknowledged that since May we now have a Coalition Government intent on dramatically reshaping the contract between a dramatically smaller state and its citizenry.

Now, to my mind, a society without cuts, without bothersome MPs and in which the General Election never happened is certainly one that has more than passing attraction.  However, whilst it may exist in Planet Greenbelt, this is not the reality that we actually inhabit.

Having been a Greenbelt regular over several years, I can say that in many ways this is nothing new.  Greenbelters flock in their hundreds to talks by white male Americans on just about any topic going, and are thoroughly (and rightly) engaged with peace in Israel/Palestine, international development, climate change … but seemingly struggle with the notion that there are any comparable issues relating to poverty, inequality or economic justice closer to home.

To be clear, I’m not knocking Greenbelt: This apparent inability to want to see poverty or inequity on our own doorstep is deeply rooted in the national psyche – a malaise which the church (for all its fine statements to the contrary) is sadly not immune from.

The second event which brought this home to me this week, was receiving a report from the Dean of Rochester, Adrian Newman, on his recent sabbatical to research the legacy of Faith in the City 25 years on.   As Adrian outlines in the introduction to his paper, ‘So Yesterday’, the central question for his Sabbatical was the concern that:

“urban ministry no longer appears to be the ‘priority’ that it was 25 years ago. It has become, in the words of an un-named senior member of the clergy, “so yesterday”. Why should this be? If urban poverty was the divine priority 25 years ago, and things have only got worse, why is it not seen as a priority today?”

He continues:

“Does the loss of an urban agenda betray a weariness with an un-winnable struggle? Have we turned a cynical and blind eye to the growing inequalities within UK society, abandoning our prophetic call to take the side of the poor, in our anxiety for our own survival and our increasing absorption with internal politics?”

Adrian’s was not simply an academic study: He visited 15 of the most urban dioceses in England, and conducted 46 interviews and visits with a variety of Bishops, Urban Officers, clergy and lay people. 

His conclusion does not make for cheery reading for those of us who still remember the impact that the Faith in the City had (alongside the establishment of Church Action on Poverty) as a rallying point for those within the churches who were passionate about engaging in the struggle against poverty and inequality close to home.

Adrian clearly comes from a similar position: that justice demands that we take the widening gap between rich and poor seriously. But, 25 years on, his conclusion is stark:

“The silence of the Church of England on these matters is deafening…. As things stand, it is difficult to see where the prophetic voice about poverty and inequality is being raised from within the institution, which raises the questions: will CAP and CUF end up as the non-parochial prophetic voice of the Church of England on these issues? Will they help us rediscover the radical, liberation theology elements to Faith In The City? And if they won’t, who will?”

So, here’s to it Adrian!

In the week of the visit of the Pope who (qua Cardinal Ratzinger) did most to destroy it at root, are you up for rediscovering the radical, liberation theology elements of Faith in the City?

Are you willing to help renew the Churches’ prophetic voice on poverty and inequality?

Where have all the prophets gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the prophets gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the prophets gone?
Gone to Greenbelt every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

(With thanks to Pete Seeger!)

Don’t expect much support – and certainly not leadership – from the institutional Church.   And don’t expect it to feature too highly in the Greenbelt programme anytime soon – though I’m working on it ….

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One Response to Where have all the prophets gone? Is divided Britain a reality too painful for the Church?

  1. Adrian Wait says:

    How do we see poverty is it a political issue, or does it afford us the opportunity to take on the role of ‘helper’ thus fulfilling a ‘Christian requirement’ and it makes us feel good too. Unfortunately, we are also plagued by the philosophy that only identifies the ‘poor’ has an opportunity for ‘doing’ or ‘being good’. Reinforcing the gap between the disengaged and the trapped by insisting upon the status of remaining the ‘helper’ who has the power to give, thus reinforcing a kind of Victorian charity, rather than seeking justice we rest upon our notions of charity.
    Difficult as it is really to listen to someone in affliction, it is just as difficult for them to know that compassion is listening to them…God is not present, even if we invoke Him, where the afflicted are merely regarded as an occasion for doing good”
    (Simone Weil: Waiting for God)
    The ability to be heard, or recognised, acknowledged, listen to, the ability to give, to contribute rather than be constantly labelled and thereby ignored or categorised. Once again such labelling allows society to reinforce the gap between the disengaged and the trapped, to allow – even condone a Victorian mindset of ‘the helper’ and ‘the helped’ – and never the twain should meet, thus we continue to have our conferences, and our forest of reports – but, Is anybody listening to the voiceless?
    Often we may take up the cudgel for those we seldom invite to speak, and so rarely hear, We make more time for meetings about people rather than meetings with people. And, if we are not very careful our diaries become full of such events, meetings and the accompanying committees.
    Do our efforts ever bridge the gap between those who talk of social exclusion – well meaning though they are – and the socially excluded? The heart of the commission of the church was pastoral, which now has been abandoned for so many fresh expressions of church rather than engaging in a genuine expression – the positive explosion of mission shaped subjects was a recent virus that effected the church – I never saw a mission shaped approach to poverty though!
    The Faith in the City report was an incredible report, specifically chapter 12 – over my 25years as a community development worker this book was never very far from my side – it was grounded and it was engaged with the issues in our city, our urban areas, our communities – and I believe it is still has relevant today as it ever was – again, specifically I refer to chapter 12: The authors ability to listen was revealed by the depth and quality of the report… it was not just another report is was/is a blueprint for any church that believes it a vocation for engaging in Community work…in fulfilling the commission of pastoral care for their parish. The term parish means those outside the house. Is the Church a place from which we go out to seek our vocation, where Priests and leaders feed the sheep and follow Christ? Or is it a place where we seek to imprison Christ and keep him to ourselves – if it is the latter then be prepared to wither on the vine for Christ will break down the walls and vanish into the very streets and communities neglected by the Church. Christianity is not a career choice or a life choice it is a vocation, a very precious gift. A gift freely given that we may freely give to our communities. Just for a moment consider the time and energy spent on following our own wisdom our own ideas. Perhaps we labour too hard on our own ideas and short-term initiatives on how to give a fresh expression of church. Being busy is not the same has being fruitful. I wonder just how much our busyness has to do with our avoidance of Gods Will.
    Sometimes it is easier to be busy than it is to be still and know that God is God. The genuine expression of the church is found in His Word – perhaps if we diligently studied the Bible and got our noses out of the latest mission shaped book we may learn that we need to lean not to our own wisdom but lean on the everlasting arms of God, He has given us His Word – do we read it, do we seek to live it or does it gather dust?
    We would do well to realise that the church has not lost the ‘poor’ or the working classes, it never had them and in the last decade it has spent far more time speaking about them than it has speaking to them – I think they are frighten of a issue so close to every local church – too close for comfort, Where are the socially excluded at our events, our retreats? For example a forthcoming event to discuss the socially excluded – an opportunity to take a three day retreat in the country – cost £95 for a single person, how can a person on Job seeker allowance hope to engage with such events? – Think on! Do we have any idea just how socially excluding the limited budget of £65.45p a week really is?
    No matter how much we study the subject, how many reports are written, how many words are spilled upon the page, until you have experience of social exclusion we will never know what it really feels like, and the sword like impact it has upon our health and well being. You see, poverty is only an issue an opportunity to campaign; it is never a disabling problem until you experience the relentless effects. The effects upon your confidence and competence – the myriad of ‘helpers’ can, and do sometimes disable – charity is not the right virtue for tackling poverty, justice is – the first step for any who would enable and encourage is to – stop – Stop! And listen! The most important questions at the beginning of any conference related to social exclusion are:
    What is Happening here?…and,
    Who is it Happening for?
    Where are the voices of the poor?
    Often, far too often, the voices of the socially excluded are confined to statistics, dry statistics that over time we do become immune to, our minds wander for such statistics seldom reflect the stories of the lives they hide, thus enabling us to be suitable ‘shocked’ whilst remaining virtually unmoved – I mean if we were to take such stories on board we would run the risk of losing our lives to such stories, and that would not do would it?

    Adrian Wait. Leicester.

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