Where have all the prophets gone? Is divided Britain a reality to 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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15 Responses to Where have all the prophets gone? Is divided Britain a reality to painful for the Church?

  1. I suspect much of this is to do with the changing demographics of the churches. Many of the most successful urban churches are overwhelmingly middle class and the cuts have not yet hit them – but they will.

    There are also large and successful churches in poorer areas, but many of these hold to a theology that equates God’s favour with personal prosperity. So there’s a problem there too.

    But I think there are many who are ready to speak up and speak out, but don’t quite know what the cause is or how they want to articulate it. That’s where the prophetic voice comes in – but prophets tend to arise outside institutions rather than from within them.

  2. Tim Watkins-Idle says:

    As a fellow Greenbelter, I regret I can see your point. As the father of two small boys I spent far more time in the kids area than in the seminars.

    My understanding is that issues of UK inequality would have been raised in the “Kitchen” because I know Andy, who was was hosting a lot of the sessions but generally they were thunderously absent.

    As were the poor themselves, come to that. greenbelt is a regrettably white and middle-class gig. As festivals are in general.

    I want to fish out my old programmes from the Knebworth years and see if it was the same then……..

  3. dphodgson says:

    I sense in last 20 years the prophetic mantle of social justice passed over from the “social liberals” of the historic churches, who drunk in too much of the Blair/Blur post-modern, millennium end-of-history, class war is over, networking solves everything, vision/illusion… and has now shifted to the allegedly “conservative” independent churches who increasingly are involved in social and community action with the poor.

  4. Anon says:

    During the last 30+ years, theological ‘action’ (almost) overwhelmingly came from America and I was as guilty as many Brits and imbibed fully. Having worked extensively alongside very nice though conservative American Christians (I never met any other kind), I came to realise their biblical underpinnings was as intertwined with the ‘American dream ‘- family first with an almost idolatrous worship of “God given” American power and wealth – as with biblical teaching.You’d be forgiven for thinking that the biblical message began an ended with Israel and white American middle class values. Even gentle questioning that, perhaps, Christ wasn’t a republican and abortion wasn’t as central to every political debate, was met with such coolness antifreeze was a necessary for protection.
    The global Occupy movement is questioning the (Christ?) endorsed Capitalist/free market consumerist doctrine of most of the Western world. We as Christians urgently need to recapture radical Christian prophetic message which prefigured and reflects their concern: the upside down kingdom – good news for the poor.

  5. Alan Hilliar says:

    I think there is a need for a clearer prophetic voice from the church, if only to demonstrate that we do have relevance to today’s problems in our society. I get uneasy when I see the church walking around issues for fear of creating dissent.

    The Church of England (where I’m training to become a Lay Reader) has traditionally welcomed a breadth of views. The corollary to that is surely that we should be welcoming and promoting debate.

    As somone who has been a parliamentary candidate, I’m less dismissive of the role of MPs. I think MPs can have a prophetic voice, and can stir up the debate about change. I’d like to see the church making links with those in Parliament who share both faith and a vision for change in our society.

    We do ourselves no favours when we stand outside an issue and throw brickbats when we could demonstrate that we bring a perspective and a voice which can bring a very different form of change

    • niallcooper says:

      Thanks Alan. I’m certainly not dismissive of the role of MPs – as part of my role at Church Action on Poverty I help to service the All Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty – and we certainly see our role as working alongside MPs (of all parties) in ensuring these issues are firmly on the political agenda.

  6. David Rhodes says:

    People who speak with anything like a prophetic voice are marginalised by the institutional church which is (understandably) afraid of the gospel demand for justice. Some of us are still around – contributing to excellent groups like CAP, CUF and the Iona Community, but it’s a struggle to stay alive. Try reading Faith in Dark Places!

  7. unadara says:

    Niall-it’s a reality “TOO” painful..in more ways than you say.

  8. Trish Burns says:

    I’ve lived in Cheltenham for a long time and always found Greenbelt too expensive for ordinary families – and I’m not poor. The poor don’t go and their interests are not represented.
    Additionally, poverty is an embarrassment to those who don’t suffer from it, it’s tied up with the class system whose existence is denied but whose dismantling has always been resisted. We end up with a big taboo area, and Greenbelt provides a feelgood by concentrating on poverty elsewhere.

  9. Rowan B says:

    Maybe reading the book of James would help.

  10. Andrew Herbert says:

    Hi Niall – we met briefly on Saturday night at the public debate on poverty and welfare organised by the Chester and Ellesmere Port Foodbank. In the main I agree with your analysis of Greenbelt which I’ve attended for 20 years. The campaigning side of it is strong but has become focused on particular issues, with significant large blindspots. Your comments have prompted me to email the festival, which I’ll do now. However, you’re not quite accurate, because I went to a very good talk at a big venue by Nigel Varndell of The Children’s Society, which I’ve subsequently made available to our action group. I think there was also a panel event about welfare and the state’s role, but I didn’t get to it.

    • niallcooper says:

      There was indeed a panel on the future of the welfare state – which I was on! There have been some encouraging discussions with Greenbelt since August, so I’m hopeful of a better outcome next year…

  11. Nim Bees says:

    Facebook tells the truth. My facebook friends are mostly Christians but when I ‘Like’ your posts or post about Inequality, this iniquitous governments cuts, or impacts of Climate change, there’s barely any response. I can’t figure it out? One possible reason is that during the last 30 years, under relentless “teaching” from those white American speakers you mentioned, British Christianity has moved steadily to the political Right where individualism and self-interest reigns supreme and the gospel of good news for the poor has had to adjust. Why I point the finger across the pond is for reasons of my personal experience of American evangelicals; almost to a man Republicans, and just as the Republicans have become evermore extreme, so too has radical prophetic teaching been watered down or shown the door and the new individualised gospel exported here in myriad forms of implicit teaching.

    I could be wrong (I’m certainly not wholly right), these are just some thoughts I’ve held for some time. I hope it doesn’t offend anyone.

    • niallcooper says:

      Nim, whilst I concur with much of what you say about the American situation, there are also strong US evangelical voices promoting a different and more ‘progessive’ agenda in terms of social justice – including the likes of Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo. Sadly, they aren’t always the ones that we hear over here (and I suspect aren’t always the ones that get the airtime in the US either).

      • Nim Bees says:

        Thanks for your response. I agree, Campolo, Wallis, Brian McLaren..are exceptional. Over here, NT Wright, former Bishop of Durham, is like a breath of fresh air.
        While I worked abroad among quite a number of American colleagues, it was a constant surprise to me that they were (almost) all Republicans, but they seldom gave me any coherent answer, if anything, they were very reluctant to discuss it. I still wonder why that is and perhaps I’ll never will really get it.

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