It’s the Church and State that should ‘consciously uncouple’

church and stateThis Wednesday, the Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard went with Rev Keith Hebden to deliver a letter to David Cameron’s constituency office in Witney.  The letter, signed by 46 Bishops and over 600 Church leaders, called the government to take urgent action about food poverty after it was revealed that over 900,000 people have used food banks this year.

David Cameron’s office refused to even open the door to the Bishop.  And after the priests refused to leave quietly and continued to seek to deliver the letter properly, Cameron’s staff called the Police.

Practical and political

This Lent has seen Bishops and other Church leaders make a loud noise about the reality of food poverty.  On Wednesday, the End Hunger Fast campaign had created front page news in three national newspapers.  The campaign has combined the compassionate activism of churches that run food banks with the concerns about the injustice of food poverty.  The practical and the political have been a powerful combination.

Anchored to the state

But the crazy thing is this: when the next vacancy arises and a new Bishop is appointed, who will make the announcement? Will it come from Lambeth Palace or Canterbury Cathedral?

No, the announcement will be made by the Prime Minister from No. 10 Downing Street.

Despite all the disputes and disagreements, the fact is that the C of E is still anchored to the state.

Uncoupling religious and state power

Gwyneth Paltrow’s phrase to describe her split from Chris Martin as a ‘conscious uncoupling’ may have been widely derided but it’s a good phrase to describe what should happen between the Church and the state.

And of course, Easter is a good time to talk about the relationship between religion and state power.  The interplay between the Jewish establishment and Roman authority, both seeking to maintain the status quo which Jesus threatened, is at the heart of the Easter story. Jesus’ death was a political execution.

As regular readers of R&R will know, this is not because I advocate a withdrawal of the church from public life.  Whether anyone likes it or not, the church will always play a role in the political life of the nation.  This is why the early church was persecuted by the Roman Empire – because it challenged their authority.  The phrase ‘Jesus was Lord’ was intrinsically political – if he was Lord then Caesar wasn’t. This is why the New Testament always calls the church the ekklesia, which means public assembly.  It was never understood as a private cult with a purely personal message.

More time in politics

But the church’s public role should be one which bears witness to the radical message of Jesus.  And this is not one bound up with the trappings of state pomp and power.

Just as when Tony Benn declared he was leaving Parliament to ‘spend more time in politics’, the C of E should recognise that disestablishing itself would liberate it to be more influential in the public square.  The fact that 24 Bishops automatically get in the House of Lords, irrespective of their abilities to play that role, compromises Christian witness, rather than increases it.  It is a hangover from history.

Disestablishment would mean relinquishing this kind of power awarded in a previous age. This is not easy to give up: the institutional ego and vanity of the church and key individuals is easily tempted by being close to power.  Having key roles in national events such as coronations, Royal weddings and the baptism’s of future kings is seductive – but it is in forsaking them that the C of E will find greater integrity.

Status quo

Make no mistake, however many disagreements happen, the C of E will have to make the first move to disestablish. The status quo suits the state too well.  As we have seen this week David Cameron, like many PMs before him, likes to herald the church’s ‘good work’ in communities.

But this simply illustrates the problem for the C of E. Just as people don’t want to get rid of pretty country churches with a kind but ineffective vicars, but this is not a role the C of E should accept. The Church that will survive (of any denomination) in the future will be a church of conviction and courage.

The church’s best role in society comes from its faithful service in local communities and its willingness to speak the truth to power.  It is a role which has been illustrated by the End Hunger Fast campaign and by previous campaigns for justice led by the church.  It is a role summed by brilliantly by Martin Luther King:

‘The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority’

Posted in Theology & Church | Tagged | 7 Comments

Make a stand this Wednesday against food poverty: join the End Hunger Fast Vigil, 6.00 – 8.00pm, Westminster

End Hunger Fast Vigil - click here for details“Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions which strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.  Such a religion is the kind the Marxists like to see – an opiate of the people” Martin Luther King

During the weeks of Lent, the End Hunger Fast campaign has had a remarkable impact. It has highlighted the scandal that in the UK, the world’s 7th richest nation, over half a million people are dependent on food banks.

Concern for justice

The campaign has focussed the concerns of the volunteers who give their time to help at food banks onto the underlying causes for the growing demand of their services.  A commitment to compassionate service is building into a growing demand for justice.

It is significant that the Evangelical Alliance has recently thrown its weight behind the campaign, along with the Bishops and the traditional denominations. It shows how End Hunger Fast has united the Church in a rare and powerful way.  Instead of the dry-as-dust religion that MLK spoke of, it has illustrated how the church is engaged in communities and united in its concern about the reality facing ordinary people.

Vigil on Wednesday 16th

This Wednesday, shocking new statistics will be released which will show the significant rise in food bank use this year.  The collective reality of what is unfolding in communities up and down the country will again be presented to the government.  Will they listen?  Will they launch a proper enquiry into food poverty in the UK?  Will you help us by adding your voice?

So on Wednesday 16th April between 6.00 – 8.00pm, End Hunger Fast have organised a vigil at Parliament.  If you are able to get to central London then please consider coming.  There will be speakers, candles lit prayers and a symbolic act of breaking bread together. Come along and let’s make a stand together.

Join the End Hunger Fast Vigil: Wednesday 16th April, 6.00 – 8.00pm at Old Palace Yard Westminster

More details, map and to register see the End Hunger Fast website

Posted in Poverty | Tagged , | Leave a comment

‘The Weight of Mercy: a Novice Pastor on the City Streets’ – by Deb Richardson-Moore [Review]

Click to buy 'The Weight of Mercy'Deb Richardson-Moore worked as a journalist in the deep south of the USA for over 27 years. When the newspaper she worked for wanted her to cover religious and faith issues, she decided to study theology.  This led her to leave journalism and become Pastor of the Triune Mercy Centre, a church in a desperately poor community in Greenville, South Carolina.

The Weight of Mercy is the story of how this first-time pastor makes sense of ministering to drug addicts, prostitutes and homeless people who make up her congregation.

Bitter-sweet

It is not a book full of either political or theological analysis. Instead, Richardson-Moore displays her journalistic skills by simply allowing her story to do the talking.  With deep humanity and good humour she re-counts story after story of the complexities, struggles and heartbreak of ministering among such broken and damaged people.  Almost every page includes bitter-sweet experiences of the pain and joy of her daily work.

A good example is when she re-counts the experience of starting up a Women’s Bible study group:

Seven women attended the first class, four of them with severe mental illnesses. Few could sit still. One ran back and forth to the bathroom throughout the 45 minutes.  One rambled for 10 minutes about the Holy Spirit lurking in her house in the guise of her dead brother-in-law, flushing toilets and slamming doors.

“Actually I am not sure that’s the picture of the Holy Spirit we get in the Bible,” I said.

The next week another prostitute joined us. She was jittery and wired, talking fast and hardly able to remain in a chair. She talked manically about being ripped off after ‘giving a blow job’ the night before.  I stared at her. She took my look to mean I didn’t know a blow job was.

“You know”, she said, miming the act “like a popiscle?”

“Um yes, I do know”

“I was supposed to get $20″ she continued “but what really upset me is that after I shared with everybody, I only got a $5 rock out of it.”

“All right, I get that, but this is a Bible study, OK? We are here to look at Scripture.”

“Sure!” she said “I was just saying…”

I thought of my seminary classmates debating the finer parts of Calvinism, and had to laugh.

Authentic struggles

What makes this a brilliant book is the utter authenticity with which Richardson-Moore recounts the challenges, difficulties and self-doubt which she has had to contend with.

She is very honest about her concerns about the model of helping homeless people which is purely focussed on giving out free clothes and free food to anyone who asks.  She comes to see how, especially for those with addictions, this kind of ‘help’ can make their situation worse.

Another sign of authenticity is her willingness to write about the challenges she has faced managing her staff and volunteers.  As anyone who has worked in similar charities can testify, hassles with staff are often more stressful than the issues presented by the homeless people themselves.  Richardson-Moore is honest about the pain caused by having to dismiss staff who simply could not fulfil their roles adequately.

Transformation

Laced throughout the book is story after story of those who the Triune Center helps to make slow, painstaking steps forward. Many do crash down and fail again – but many do experience remarkable change as grace of God and his people is at work.

There are few fairy-tale endings because this is a book rooted in the real world.  But it is not gloomy – actually it is upbeat and full of hope because many are helped to make steps on the long, hard road of transformation.

Recommended

So I would strongly recommend The Weight of Mercy if you are reflecting on how the church should welcome, support and share the gospel with those on the margins of society.

And the best thing is that this has been written by someone still leading the front-line work at this centre, day after day.  Rather than another best seller from a high-profile Christian celebrity, or academic theology written from comfortable surroundings, this is the kind of authentic story of hope that can inspire us all to put our faith into action.

Posted in Homelessness, Recommended books | Tagged | 2 Comments

National Day of Fasting, April 4th: spiritual resources for justice

National Day of FastingFriday 4th April is the National Day of Fasting.  I want to encourage anyone who is reading this to join the fast and stand with those experiencing hunger in the UK today.

In the last few weeks, End Hunger Fast has achieved an incredible amount for a truly grassroots campaign, started by a group of friends who had a vision to challenge the way things are.

Massive respect to the organisers – especially the faith, courage and commitment of Rev. Keith Hebden who is fasting from all food for 40 days.  Let’s join him for just one day.

Be the change we seek

End Hunger Fast has brought together the concerns of those who are making a practical difference through helping in foodbanks, with those who take a political perspective.  It has shown the power of bringing together compassion and justice.  Its no coincidence that the church is at the heart of the campaign because it is spirituality which helps make this connection.  Faith should be personal, practical and political.

As Keith Hebden’s example shows, personal commitment makes all the difference.   His fast is a spiritual act for a political purpose.  Its significant because the powers that be will never be worried much by armchair commentators.  We need to have our hands dirty, to know the people who are hungry.  We must be the change we seek.

Spiritual basis of social change

It is when actions and words come together, that things start to change.  This is why so many of the most effective social movements have a spiritual basis (see this post on the ‘The Secularisation of Martin Luther King‘).

True spirituality reaches into the deepest core of our being – but this is in order to prepare us for a life lived in the real world.  Authentic spirituality gives us resources for compassion and justice.

A counter-cultural presence

I’ll end with this great quote by the former Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks:

“I believe the time has now come for our faith communities to become a counter-cultural presence, a force to challenge the tin gods of fame and power and success which are great for those who win, but hell for those who lose; to protest against a world, a society, that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, as it travels the road of economic affluence and spiritual poverty, of ever stronger governments and markets and ever weaker families and communities. That is a road that can only end in tragedy”

Join the National Day of Fasting and spread the word via Facebook and twitter.

Posted in Ethics & Christian living | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Me, My Selfie and I – by Hannah Martin

My Self[ie] photoIn the last couple of weeks the #NoMakeupSelfie has gone viral. Thousands of women have taken pictures of themselves without any makeup and posted them on Facebook, then nominating their friends to do the same.

The craze quickly became an incredibly successful fundraising campaign as people also donated to Cancer Research, raising to date over £8 million.

Relationship with make-up

The whole thing has made me reflect on my own relationship with makeup.

There was a time a few years ago when I pretty much stopped wearing it altogether.  I was feeling particularly healthy at the time, following a military style fitness regime. I was loving the feeling that I could run from a wild boar and jump over a fence if I needed to.  I felt strong and my body felt strong too – Hunger Games strong.

So I stopped wearing makeup for a while but I remember my mum persuading me to put on a bit of mascara for my graduation pictures.  And when I saw the photos I remember thinking I didn’t look quite like me that I’d grown to love, the one with freckles and eyes that showed how I really felt, tired or bright.

The re-lapse phase

Fast forward a few years and I would describe myself in the ‘re-lapse’ phase.  A move to London has meant being confronted with seemingly a much more ‘groomed’ peers – ones, which make my frayed edges, unmatching socks and hair that hasn’t been cut for over two years feel like I want to hide under the nearest rock.  And so, as I sit on the tube and people-watch the faces around me; shaded, defined, smoothed, refined, lifted, plumped, glossed and balanced – I have started wearing makeup again.  As in, properly.

As in, I carry a small bag full of make up with me in my rucksack.  And I replenish it when it’s getting low.  And I spend money, time, effort and energy on shading, defining, smoothing, refining, lifting, plumping, glossing and balancing my face into acceptability.

Because, let’s be honest, that’s what this is really about – being acceptable.

An acceptable face

A made-up female face, is a normal-looking face, is an acceptable face.  I wouldn’t dream of going to a work meeting without makeup on – I would feel ‘unfinished’ even ‘unprofessional.’

And that’s where the ‘makeup free selfie’ comes in.  Because it is a sure-fire sign that it requires bravery to be bare-faced in the daily external world.  To show to peers, colleagues and friends the realities of your own face, your ‘blotches’, ‘imperfections’ – or, just more simply, your ‘self’ is just not done.

Nominated

So, when the inevitable notification popped up informing me that I had been ‘nominated’ for the #NoMakeupSelfie, I stopped.  I stopped because it came from someone I love and admire – as a professional, as a parent, as a woman.  I stopped because I’m proud of her and I’m proud of all my female friends and relatives who care enough to do something brave in aid of others.  I stopped because I knew in that instant, that I simply could not do it.

I couldn’t do it because it made me sad that I was being reminded again of the small and daily oppression that we are under, that spending time, energy and money in order to make our faces acceptable is so completely normal, that NOT wearing it is seen as brave.

I couldn’t do it because it made me angry that the men who share photos of themselves in make up are celebrating an oppression that they couldn’t begin to understand (see this useful deconstruction of male privilege here).

Even if I appreciate the money raised for charity I can’t help but see the links between this issue we have around make up and gender inequality, domestic violence, FGM and everything inbetween.

So, I write this and I’m sad and I’m angry and if I were to cry, my mascara would run down my face, and I’d be covered in product that is unnatural.

Dangerous and unhealthy

It’s just yet another reminder of how much pressure women are under to appear acceptable, how little difference is truly appreciated.   Emma Watson flagged this when she tweeted recently, ‘I did NOT wake up like this’ with a pic of her flawlessness before her latest film premiere.  Later she said:

“With airbrushing and digital manipulation, fashion can project an unobtainable image that’s dangerously unhealthy.”

She’s right.  It is dangerous.  It is unhealthy.  It’s the commodification of our very selves in action.

So you know what?  I nominate you.

I nominate you to see your face without makeup as completely acceptable.  I nominate you to resist any pressure to buy into a culture which primarily functions to make you feel unworthy.  I nominate you to express yourself, your true self in whatever way you choose.  And if you want to donate to charity while doing that, please go right ahead.

Hannah Martin lives in Brixton and tweets @Hannah_RM

Posted in Social commentary | Tagged , | 1 Comment

What would you include if you could write your own obituary?

'God of Suprises' by Gerard HughesWhat do you really want to be remembered for?  What legacy do you truly want to leave?

Actually sitting down and writing your own obituary is one of the exercises recommended at the end of the first chapter of the book God of Surprises.  I am currently re-reading it for Lent.  The author, Gerard Hughes explains:

“Do not write the obituary which you are afraid you might have, but the kind of obituary which, in your wildest dreams, you would love to have. Do not analyse it, or try to think it out too clearly, but allow your fancy to run free.  This can be a very useful exercise for getting more in touch with your inner life, above all with your desires which are at the core of our inner lives and determine our direction”

You might, like I did, find this a daunting exercise.  Even if no one else is going to see it, it is not easy to really be honest about what our true hopes are.  As we get older it is easy to suppress the dreams we have – bury them under the reality of messy relationships, pressure of work and the demands of the mortgage.

Facing reality

Some may fear that writing down our deepest desires makes us face up to the fact that our lives have not gone how we wanted it to.  Others may be self-conscious about exposing, even just to ourselves, what we fear are delusions of grandeur. Facing up to, accepting and reflecting on your deepest desires is a core theme in God of Surprises.

Rather than repressing or denying the longings of your heart, this book encourages us to embrace and understand what drives these desires.  By getting them out into the light, we can bring them before the God who loves us and wants us to have life to the full.

Repressing real feelings

Too often, religious devotion fosters a repression or denial of real feelings and thoughts. But try as might to bury our desires under mountains of guilt or self-hatred, we cannot ignore the deep-seated desires which drive us.   Like weeds which grow up through pavements, repressed desires end up warping and fracturing us.  As we have seen with too many church leaders caught up in scandals, denial often leads to disaster.

It is the truth which sets us free.  Reality is liberating.

A journey inward

Whether you are a church-goer or not, I cannot recommend the book God of Surprises highly enough.  It is full of deep humanity and rich spiritual insights.  Rather than just stimulating intellectual thoughts about God, which is often the most effective barrier against a true encounter, this is a book invites us on a journey inward into our own hearts. Its a journey where anyone, whatever their deepest desires, can discover the God who will surprise us with his love and grace.

Buy ‘God of Surprises’ by Gerard Hughes

Posted in Ethics & Christian living, Recommended books | Leave a comment

Justice, mercy and humility: three ways to a transforming Lent

I see Lent as an opportunity to realign ourselves.  A time to re-commit to an integrity between who we are on the outside and who we are on the inside.  To seek a wholeness between the person that we present for the world to see, and the person we are when no one sees. 

And faith is an inside-out journey.  It starts on the inside because change and transformation have to mean something to us as individuals if they are to make sense in the world outside.  ‘Authentic faith is always personal, but never private’, as Jim Wallis puts it.

What God wants

In Micah 6:8 there is a famous summary of the life God wants us to live:

‘Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.’

How can a verse like this become more real for you this Lent?  Here are three suggestions that I am going to do:

1: Acting for Justice 

End Hunger FastJustice is the focus of the End Hunger Fast campaign.  Rev. Keith Hebden, a priest in Mansfield is actually fasting from food for the next 40 days to highlight the scandal of food poverty in the UK. The campaign launches today – we can stand with him and the 500,000 people forced to use foodbanks in the UK and speak up for justice by joining in the National Day of Fasting on April 4th.

2: Being merciful and generous

40actsMercy and generosity is the focus of the 40Acts initiative which over 30,000 people have already signed up to.  Each day during Lent the participants will be sent a reflection via email as well as a practical challenge to live more generously and show kindness to others. It is something really positive and hopeful that a whole family or a small group could all commit to and do together to show faith in a practical way.

3: Walk Humbly with God

'God of Suprises' by Gerard HughesFinally, Lent is a time to renew your inner life: your personal walk with God through prayer and reflection.  The best book that I have ever read on this subject is ‘God of Surprises’ by Gerard Hughes and I am re-reading it this Lent.  Hughes writes:

“Our treasure lies in our inner life. It is our inner life which affects our perception of the world and determines our actions and reactions to it.  We tend to ignore this inner life, but it refuses to be ignored, either in individual or in national life.  If ignored, the inner life will erupt in some form of violence.

In religious language this inner life is called ‘the soul’. and the art of knowing it, healing it and harmonizing its forces is called spirituality.  Religion should encourage us to become more aware of this inner life and should teach us how to befriend it, for it is the source of our strength and storehouse of our wisdom.”

Buy ‘God of Surprises’ by Gerard Hughes

Posted in Ethics & Christian living, Recommended books | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Relief and Hope in South Sudan – by Anna Chilvers

Anna photoAnna Chilvers manages Tearfund’s emergency programme in the Juba area of South Sudan. Here she talks about not only their response, but more strikingly the response of local people and churches.

Radical sharing

The assessment we did in Katigiri (100km west of the capital Juba) at the end of January has led to us intervening there. We’re distributing tools to 2,000 households there in the next few days, with seed packs to follow in a month’s time. There’s over 3,600 households – 18,000 people – who fled into the area after nearby fighting. The host community welcomed them and have been sharing their tukuls (huts), food and household items.

I find it quite incredible that families who have very little, barely enough food to see them through to the next harvest, are so hospitable to others. They’re sharing their food, despite the fact that they’re aware that it means they’ll run out in March, because they can’t let other people go hungry. Their generosity makes it quite a privilege to work with them – another agency is distributing food whilst Tearfund distribute seeds and tools to enable them to plant and cultivate at the next harvest.

We’re also repairing some of the boreholes that were broken from overuse – now it won’t take the women and children 2 hours to obtain just a small amount of water that they have to make do for drinking, cooking and washing. So simple to do, yet makes such a big difference to people’s lives.

Queuing for water

The queue for water at one of the few working boreholes in Katigiri village

South Sudan 2

Women and children pump the borehole to get water at Katigiri

Church support

As well as Katigiri, I’m also managing our response at Don Bosco school (where I met Monica, a lady who gave birth shortly after walking 180km to escape the fighting). There are 110 households who are now living on land that the Church have provided, and with the tents it does now look like a ‘camp’. The Church has been supporting the women and children with food, but as they’re running out of funds we’re now providing food for distribution.

Monica and her 1 month old baby Don Bosco (named after the Church who took her in!), in the tent that is her new home.

Monica and her 1 month old baby Don Bosco (named after the Church who took her in!), in the tent that is her new home.

SouthSudan 4

A boy takes some water outside his home, from a cup and jerrycan that we distributed

Latrines and Duck, Duck, Goose!

We’ve constructed emergency latrines and bathing shelters, and a group of us went there last week for a ‘Hygiene and sanitation day’ where we helped to clear and tidy the area, as well as playing games with the kids. The children were so eager to do anything; the fact that they probably didn’t completely understand the games was irrelevant! Father David is now trying to set up some school sessions for them which will be great – I’m trying to find him some money for stools and blackboards! It’s been so encouraging to see the Church responding as the Church is called to do; despite all the fighting and suffering there is also such care and open-handed generosity.

South Sudan 6

Playing ‘Duck, duck, goose’ with the displaced children at Don Bosco!

Work, worship & service

The sheer amount of work seems impossible at times, and in the back of my mind there’s the awareness that this is stuff  that has consequences to people’s lives, and my delaying a purchase order means another day that people go by without enough food to eat… It can be a lot of pressure – which I’m normally too busy to think about! I am trying to remember that it is God’s work, and therefore He gets the problems, and He gets the glory!

As someone recently told me, the Hebrew word Avodah means a combination of ‘work’ and ‘worship’ and also ‘service’ – which all in all sounds like a pretty good description!

This piece contains Anna’s personal views and should not be taken as representative of Tearfund’s as a whole. You can find out more about Tearfund’s work in South Sudan here.

Posted in Ethics & Christian living | Tagged , | Leave a comment

‘Good news to those who need it most’: evangelical social action

homeless-man-public-domainThe term ‘evangelical’ is a tricky one to use.  Similarly to the word ‘liberal’, people can mean very different things when they use it. The actual word ‘evangelical’ has its etymological roots in the Greek word for “gospel” or “good news” so it can rightly be used as a description of anything which embodies and carries the Christian gospel.  In this sense, the task of all churches is to be evangelical.

However Evangelical with a capital ‘E’ represents a distinct tradition within the Church.  It is often tarnished through association with fundamentalism or the highly politicised, right-wing form of Evangelicalism prevalent in the US.  But the UK Evangelicalism is generally very different in character and outlook to its US counterpart.

Growth of social action

One illustration of this in the last 15 years is the huge growth of social action projects and concern for social justice within UK Evangelical churches.    Alongside running the Alpha course, influential churches like Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) run a wide range of social action work with homeless people, prisoners and the unemployed. 

Thousands of young people have been involved in practical service in communities through massive initiatives like Soul in the City and HOPE 08.  Also Evangelicals have put huge energy into practical projects alongside other churches such as Street Pastors, Debt Advice centres, Night Shelters and Foodbanks.  Instead of being unwilling to participate in ecumenical activities, many Evangelical churches are now at the centre of such initiatives. 

Theologians such as Tom Wright and Elaine Storkey and activist-writers such as Steve Chalke have been influential in this change. In 2007 the Bible Society even published the Poverty and Justice Bible highlighting over 3000 verses relevant to these issues in the text.

Practical and political

But these developments in the Evangelical world have been less relevant for an organisation like the West London Mission (where I work) because we have always emphasised the importance of social action.  During the period in the 20th century when many Evangelical churches tended to turned inward and personalise the message, WLM was emphasising the social aspect of the gospel and establishing its work with the homeless, single mothers and those leaving prison. 

The gospel message proclaimed by WLM was far from being just personal – it was a practical and political – and it had led to the major social work operation which WLM runs today.

Different challenges

And of course this leads to a very different set of challenges.  Just like all major Christian social action organisations which receive state funding, WLM’s social work exists on the borderline between the secular voluntary / statutory sectors and the Church.  Almost every day my role as WLM’s Director of Social Work involves grappling with the various tensions and opportunities caused by this borderline.  On each side, different language is used, different values expressed.  Open communication, transparency, translation and mutual understanding are essential to navigate what can be choppy waters.

And of course the inherent tensions of operating on this borderline means that it is easy for a chasm to open up between the church culture and the social action work it establishes. Many other social work organisations established by churches have ended up splitting from each other.  The challenges of holding spiritual and practical together have proved too difficult for many organisations. 

Strategic relationships

This is why a key part of WLM’s strategy in recent years has been to forge closer relationships between the church and the social work.  We have sought to communicate and partner more intentionally – employing interns who work across both church and social work.  And through the Westminster Churches Winter Shelter we combine the work of our professional Day Centre staff  with the hospitality offered by the church volunteers.

We have also seen an increase in the numbers of church volunteers working at services and we have employed a Chaplain who offers spiritual support to any of the residents and users of our social work services.  So rather than seeing the borderline between church and social work as a difficulty to overcome, we can see it as an opportunity.

Opportunities

Our current context gives us many opportunities.  Compared to 20 years ago, there is far greater acceptance of the relevance of faith and spirituality in social care.  The recent report Lost and Found: faith and spirituality in the lives of homeless people provides independently researched evidence of the relevance of faith to vulnerable people.

Also research by the University of York in 2011 debunks the powerful myth that Christian projects are busy coercing homeless people into religious activities against their will.  The era of homeless services forcing vulnerable people to ‘sing for their soup’ is long gone.

But even better than any report is the reality of our Chaplain’s superb day to day work which is giving us at WLM countless examples of what it can look like in practice.  Whether it is in our hostel for men coming out of prison, with the vulnerable alcohol dependent men, with the rough sleepers at the Day Centre, her work is hallmarked by a confidence in the relevance of the Christian message and a creativity and sensitivity about how it can be integrated alongside our professional social work. 

Carrier of good news

So whether we like the label ‘Evangelical’ or hate it; I believe the work of all churches and Christian organisations should be evangelical in the sense that their work should be a carrier or illustration of the good news at the heart of the Christian message. 

In the social work I am involved in, this will be generally implicit in the actions of our staff teams who work every day to bring care, liberation, hope and restoration to vulnerable people.  This work is the out-workings of our Christian ethos and we need to recognise and celebrate it as such. 

But increasingly we are also seeing faith being made more explicit in the life of our social work through the Chaplain’s work.  Festivals such as Christmas, Easter, Remembrance and Harvest have enabled fruitful opportunities for residents and users to engage spiritually, as have the sadness of funerals and the joys of blessing new flats for those moving on.

Dynamically connected

West London Mission CMYKThese are illustrations of how WLM’s social action remains dynamically connected to its foundational Christian ethos.  We will not coerce anyone, we will not have hidden agendas, but alongside our professional social work we will offer opportunities for those we help to explore the hope of the gospel.  In this way, our work is evangelical because it integrates practical and spiritual care and lives out words which were often used in another era of WLM’s history: ‘Good News to those who need it most’.

This article was originally published in ‘Cross Currents’, the internal magazine of the West London Mission.

Posted in Social action | Tagged | 1 Comment

‘The Bible is a blueprint for Marxism’: the theology of Jeremy Clarkson

Jeremy ClarksonIt has been an important week for issues of faith and social justice. 

On Tuesday, the Christians on the Left Summit debated how the church’s social action, such as Foodbanks and homeless shelters, connects to campaigning for social justice.  To use Desmond Tutu’s phrase, as well as pulling people out of the river, how could we ‘go upstream’ and find out who is pushing them in?

Speaking up

The news headlines the next day provided a great example, with the release of the letter signed by many Bishops and Church leaders to raise concerns about food poverty as part of the End Hunger Fast campaign.

This week the Church caught the headlines because it spoke up about what it is seeing in the communities in which it is serving people every day.  Issues of faith, community action and social justice cannot be separated.

Backlash

We should expect a backlash against us.  The response in The Sun today by Jeremy Clarkson caught my eye because he goes to the heart of the matter and does his own form of Bible study, analysing Jesus’ story about The Rich Man and the beggar Lazarus in Luke 16.  And he comes up with the following conclusion:

“The Bible is basically a blueprint for Marxism.  In Luke 16:19-31 we are told that those who work hard and buy nice things for themselves and their families will burn for all of eternity in hell. And those who sit about doing nothing all day will go to heaven.”

Clarkson’s take on the story is telling.  In the Bible, Jesus talks of a beggar named Lazarus who was ‘laid’ at a rich man’s gate, ‘covered in sores’ and desperately hungry.  For Clarkson he is just ‘someone who sits about doing nothing all day’.

This is exactly the kind of language that so many right wing commentators use to describe those who are poor.  Through being labelled as cheats and scroungers, often the ill, disabled and poor are simply condemned as being lazy.

‘Codswallop’

At least Clarkson is not mealy mouthed or trying to pretend that his views are compatible with Christianity.  In fact he is very clear about what he think of Christian leaders and of Jesus’ teaching:

“I certainly don’t want the country to be run by someone who believes in that codswallop. Or who believes that the meek will inherit the earth. Or that it’s wrong to covet your neighbour’s BMW.”

Of course, no one will be too surprised by Clarkson’s comments. The Sun pays him well to spout these kind of views. It’s just a shame that so many millions of people are influenced by such garbage.

Locking out the homeless?

Clarkson sums up his column by saying he will not accept lectures from ‘Men in frocks…especially when they close their churches to lock out the homeless.’ 

This is particularly ignorant. It is the churches who have been responsible for starting most homeless charities and today there is a vast network of churches (over 280 in London alone) who open up as homeless shelters every winter.  

And its because churches run night shelters and foodbanks that we have the right to speak up about the increasing poverty we are seeing.  It is the combination of community action and social justice – the practical and the political -which gives the church’s message its integrity and its power.

Posted in Politics, Poverty | Tagged , , | 8 Comments