Abuse, collusion and cover-up in the C of E – by Stephen Kuhrt

Former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey

The Church of England and its senior leaders colluded with Peter Ball, the ex-Bishop of Lewes and Gloucester, rather than seeking to help those he had harmed or assuring itself of the safety of others.

That is the damning conclusion of Dame Moira Gibb’s review of the church’s handling of the sexual abuse committed by the bishop between 1977 and 1992. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, is singled out for particular criticism through his failure to pass on letters that he received about Ball to the police.

Collusion

The most tragic aspect for me, as a Church of England Vicar, is my total lack of surprise at these findings. I’m a fervent believer in the Church of England and its mission to share God’s love with as many people within this country as possible. But none of this will count for anything until the Church of England reaches a proper clarity over safeguarding.

The review acknowledges that safeguarding procedure has improved within the Church of England over the last few years. But this is not enough. The only thing that will prevent such cases and institutional collusion with them reoccurring, will be a change of culture within the Church of England.

Keeping the institution safe

At the heart of this is the need to make a crystal clear distinction between keeping people safe and keeping the institution of the church safe.

Far too often on the safeguarding courses that clergy attend, no distinction is made between these goals. In fact I have experienced a level of annoyance when I have attempted to get the leaders on such courses to make this distinction.

Within my own diocese of Southwark, the safeguarding policy is called A Safe Church perfectly illustrating this ambiguity. The problem here is that far and away the biggest motivation for hushing up sexual abuse is the misguided attempt to keep the institution safe. Whether it is the BBC turning a blind eye to Jimmy Savile or the Church of England colluding with Peter Ball, the fatal flaw is thinking, even for a moment, that the reputation or standing of the organisation should be factored in to the decision making.

Total openness

As soon as this happens, dealing with the issue is fatally compromised because people will always find excuses for hushing things up. At these points the Church, or any other responsible organisation needs to thinking purely about the safety of the victims and completely ignore any concerns about its own safety as an organisation. The dirty linen must be washed in public and with total openness if the linen is going to be washed at all.

The Church of England is right to apologise for the appalling actions of Peter Ball.

It is right to apologise for its collusion in its cover up.

It is right in the strenuous efforts that it is making to improve its safeguarding provision and training.

But the most crucial response is still needed.

The most urgent priority

Every single person with responsibility within the Church of England needs to become crystal clear upon the fundamental difference and frequent conflict between the aims of keeping individuals safe and keeping the institution safe.

The latter mustn’t matter a jot when it is dealing with horrendous abuses of trust – or indeed any other faults within the Church’s activities that it needs to address. Complete clarity over this is urgently needed and priority placed upon bringing this about. Policies with titles like ‘A Safe Church’ should be consigned to the bin as we become wiser to the factors that have caused the most awful crimes to be tolerated by an organisation that people should be able to trust completely.

Stephen Kuhrt is Vicar of Christ Church, New Malden

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Doing To or Being With? Re-thinking Christian social engagement

This year marks 130 years since the founding of the West London Mission.

It was in October 1887 that WLM began its work to bring spiritual and practical hope to people affected by poverty. Back then in Victorian London we ran food depots, clothing stores, soup kitchens and even a job service for unemployed servants.

Of course, much has changed since those days. But there is also much continuity as today we empower positive change among people affected by homelessness, poverty, addiction and disadvantage.  For more about our work see http://www.wlm.org.uk

As part of our 130th celebrations, we invite you to an evening at Hinde Street Methodist Church on 11th July from 6.45pm.

The evening will include a talk given by the Rev’d Sam Wells, the Vicar of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields, Visiting Professor of Christian Ethics at King’s College, London and author of the influential book A Nazareth Manifesto.

The evening will start with a buffet supper served in the basement at Hinde Street at 6.45pm with the talk commencing at 7.30pm in the church.

Tuesday 11th July at 2017: 6.45pm for buffet supper and 7.30pm for the talk 

Hinde Street Methodist Church, London W1U 2QJ (nearest tube Bond Street)

If you would like to come please contact Mark Palframan either via email mark.palframan@wlm.org.uk or by phone on 020 7569 5915 by the 1st July

www.wlm.org.uk

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‘This is for Allah’: overcoming denial about the deadly power of religion

Last night I was with a group of volunteers who have been running a night shelter for homeless people over the last eight months. They come from 13 different churches and a local synagogue in central London. As well as Christians and Jews, a significant number of volunteers are also Muslims.

Now in it’s seventh year, this scheme has helped 100s of homeless people come off the streets. And it has all been achieved without one penny of government funding. The whole enterprise has been faith-driven.

Faith which brings peace

Last night we started our meeting by reflecting on the words emblazoned on the ceiling of the church in which we met: ‘Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth Peace’. In light of recent events, the relationship between seeking to bring glory to God alongside peace on earth was worth reflecting on.

Only hours earlier, in the same city, violent extremists had shouted ‘This is for Allah’ whilst seeking to maim and kill as many people as they could on London Bridge and in Borough Market. Religious belief was expressed through crude and barbaric violence.

Denial

It is important to acknowledge what was proclaimed by the attackers while they stabbed their victims because there is a consistent desire among many to disconnect these acts of violent extremism from Islam.

Instead, many politicians and commentators seek a political, economic and sociological rationale. As a teacher in my son’s school said to his class yesterday:

‘The most important thing to remember is that this has nothing to do with Islam.’

Dangerous fallacy

I understand the good intentions behind this perspective – to not create further division or tar a whole religion with the same brush. But increasingly these denials make little sense. Actually, they block a true understanding of the problem we face and increase the dangers of Islamophobia and division.

Behind these views is a patronising misunderstanding that religion is something simply personal and inward. It is an expression of the post-modernism which wants to consider all sincerely-held beliefs to be equally true and valid – however incompatible – as long as they don’t affect anyone else.

But Islam cannot be domesticated like this. Like Christianity, it is a religion which claims its theology as public truth. It will always seek to have social and political influence.

Post-secular age

In our post-secular age, we are re-learning the raw power of religion. Just as it has the power to inspire people to go to great lengths to help others it also has the power to induce people to randomly kill.

Of course, religion never acts alone. All faith works within a social and political context. And at this time, radical Islamism is proving to be effective at attaching itself to people with social and political grievances. The combination of political extremism and the promise of a reward beyond the grave is incredibly potent. These men have clearly found, in a form of Islam, a cause powerful enough to motivate them to give up their lives.

Religious ambivalence 

We should be ambivalent about religion and not be too quick to defend it. The Bible contains many warnings about its dangers – prophets like Amos, Micah, Isaiah and John the Baptist all castigate the hypocrisy of religion which fuels injustice. And Jesus had virtually all his disputes with religious leaders.

And history tells us a deeply ambivalent story about what has been done in the name of God. Just as the US civil rights movement was fueled by the spirituality of black Christianity, it was a twisted form of theology which underpinned the racism of the southern US states. It makes no sense to say that groups like the Ku Klux Klan ‘had nothing to do with Christianity’ when so many of their members would be in white only Southern churches on Sundays listening to theology which supported their worldview.

Religion has provided resources for both oppressors and those fighting for peace and liberation.  It is not ‘good’ in itself but should always be judged by its fruit – what it produces. As Jesus said ‘Wisdom is proved right by her deeds.’ (Matthew 11:9)

The theological battle

So we must accept that the fight against extreme Islamism is in part a theological one. As Sara Khan wrote in today’s London Evening Standard:

‘We fail to understand the battle taking place among Britain’s Muslims between those who advocate for a pluralistic humanistic interpretation of Islam against those who subscribe to a supremacist, intolerant and anti-Western Islam.’

This is the battle that we must understand better. Rather than denying any link to Islam we should be supporting, in prayer and action, those Muslims who are fighting this theological and practical conflict. They are on the front-line in this vital struggle against destructive extremism.

Related on R&R: We cannot pretend this violence has nothing to do with religion

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Is it the Church’s job to be the nation’s paramedic? – by Andy Flannagan

All over the UK the Church is doing an incredible job.

We are running food banks…mentoring teenagers at risk…counselling those in debt… befriending the elderly…sheltering the homeless…running parent-toddler groups… homework clubs…music and arts workshops…healing on the streets…sports camps… working with prisoners…community choirs…

It is wonderful, but there is a danger.

The church may spend the next fifty years being the nation’s paramedic, treating the victims of a flawed system but failing to bring righteousness and justice to the system itself.

So what can we do? Well the answer is that we need to show up in places where we can make a difference to the system itself. This is what politics is all about.

Have a watch of this short film from Christians in Politics and share it with others…

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Re-discovering Narnia and rinsing out stale thinking about Christianity

I grew up in a Christian home as the son of a vicar. In retrospect it gave me loads of things that I am grateful for, but in many ways I disliked being the ‘vicar’s son’ in a large church.

People treated you differently: Sunday school teachers really did say things like ‘I would have expected more from you Jonathan’ or ‘Honestly, what would your father say?’

I think for the children of church leaders it’s hard to separate out the difference between the church culture which we are so immersed in and the actual message of Christianity itself.

I felt church was boring and never allowed myself to be personally convicted by what I heard. ‘Church’ was just somewhere I had to spend time each week and I built defences about engaging with the message at the heart of it all.

A fresh environment

So one of the things I am MOST grateful for is that my parents could see the importance of me hearing the message in fresh and different environment. And when I was 16, a time when I was most disconnected from the church, my mum bent my arm to go to a CYFA youth camp in Devon.

It was here that I heard the message in a fresh way.  I had a great time but I spent most of the week still keeping the message at a distance. But on the last night of this camp, the defences I had built crumbled. I remember the very specific moment, the 22nd August 1988, when I felt my heart changed through the Holy Spirit.  I knew I was a Christian.

Re-discovering Narnia 

When I returned home from the camp that I re-discovered the set of Narnia books that were on my shelf. It was as a 16 year old that these books had a profound impact on me. Following the camp, my mum had bought me a Bible and in the back I wrote down various quotes which inspired me.

The first one I wrote was the end passage from the final Narnia book, The Last Battle:

‘The term is over, the holidays have begun. The dream is ended, this is the morning…Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

To be part of ‘the Great Story’: this is what excited and inspired me.

A sense of adventure

I was captured by was the adventure of faith that the Narnia books portrayed. That following Jesus could be something like following Aslan and fighting his battles with him.

For a similar reason the Book of Acts became my favourite book of the Bible – as it shows how ordinary, fearful and flawed people are captured by faith in Jesus and risk everything for Him – and change the world. I think the theme of adventure was a key desire for me.

The point of Narnia

In his book on Narnia, the former Archbishop, Rowan Williams asks the question ‘What is the point of Narnia?’  His answer is:

‘Lewis is trying to re-create for the reader what it is like to encounter and believe in God…The point of Narnia is to help us rinse out what is stale in our thinking about Christianity – which is almost everything…the essential thing is this invitation to hear the story as if we have never heard it before.’

This is what it did for me. Alongside the summer camps, Narnia was a key way that my vision and imagination about what being a Christian was fed and nurtured – it rinsed out what had become stale in my understandings of the Christian faith.

Integrated in the everyday

Williams makes the point that there is no church in Narnia, no religion even – following Aslan is integrated within the everyday ‘something worked out in the routines of life itself’. And actually, this is how faith operates on summer camps – the idea of following Jesus runs as a thread through the whole day – very different to a Sunday religion. This is what makes camps magical and powerful.

We so need experiences which can rinse out what has become stale in our understandings of God. For our family, it is the key reason why we help run a youth camp at Lee Abbey every summer.  It gives us an experience of serving God and others which is real and powerful, utterly exhausting, but deeply renewing.

This post is taken from a sermon, Finding God in Narnia, preached at Christ Church New Malden in April 2017 as part of a series of seven talks on C.S. Lewis’  Narnia Chronicles. Click here to listen to an audio recording.

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Inspirational but OTT: review of ‘Dirty Glory’ by Pete Greig

The ambition to ‘form a movement’ is one I have heard expressed by many leaders over the years. Movements are perceived as exciting, purposeful expressions of collective will and spiritual energy. They often stand in contrast to the more mundane task of managing an organisation.

Pete Greig is one of the few contemporary Christian leaders who can legitimately be credited with starting a movement. 24-7 Prayer has had a huge impact in fusing prayer, mission and justice, especially with younger people.

And it is easy to see the qualities that Greig has brought to the movement. He is an inspirational communicator, brim-full of stories, infectious energy and positivity. His exuberance is contagious.

Provocative teaching

This book, Dirty Glory is packed full of stories, provocative theology and challenging teaching. Take this as an example when he discusses ‘dirty glory’ of God’s incarnation in Jesus:

“We believe in the blasphemous glory of Immanuel; ‘infinity dwindled to infancy’, as the poet once said. We believe in omnipotence surrendering to incontinence, the name above every other name rumoured to be illegitimate…The creator of the Cosmos made tables and presumably he made them badly at first.” (p15)

Ancient wisdom

A key strength of the book is the way that Greig fuses the spiritual wisdom of previous ages with the energy of contemporary evangelicalism. Greig quotes Augustine, Teresa of Avila, John Donne, St Benedict, as well as Karl Barth and Oscar Romero, in a way younger people will be able to connect with and appreciate.

Another strength is the continual emphasis on the integration of prayer and action:

‘Prayer must outwork itself in action…it is about the saying of prayers for sure, but also the becoming of prayers in a thousand practical ways’ (p7)

And there is a strong challenge for anyone who wants an other-worldly spirituality which is detached from the struggle for justice:

‘Down the ages, it has always been the tendency of the rich to reduce salvation to a purely spiritual experience…the consequences of the gospel are profoundly structural as well as spiritual’ (p278-9)

In these ways, Dirty Glory expresses an inspirational form of radical orthodoxy – challenging readers to integrate spiritual practices with a vibrant and activist faith.

Story inflation

Greig is a brilliant story-teller. Lengthy expositions of the journeys of a handful of activists inspired by 24-7 Prayer make up a large chunk of the book.

But as I read these I could not get away from a nagging concern about whether the reality behind the stories truly measured up to the way they are presented. I tried hard not to be cynical but I could not ignore a growing hunch that the stories being told are over-done: that too much was being made of the events and activity described.

Stories are a like a currency. And for writers and speakers, they are a fundamental way of trading ideas and inspiration. But like financial currencies, stories can be liable to a being inflated beyond their true value. Stories can be injected with a significance that they cannot bear.

Over the top

I know one person who is referred to, so I got in touch with them to ask them about their view on how they are presented in the book. They replied as follows:

‘It is highly dramatized. Enough truth in it to remember it happening but quite a lot of OTT stuff. And a fact or two at variance with the truth. It has left me scratching my head a little.’

I think this sums up my main concern with Dirty Glory. I am not saying there is outright deceit but there is too much of what the essayist William Hazlitt defined as ‘cant’:

“Cant is the voluntary overcharging or prolongation of real sentiment.”

The curse of evangelical sub-culture

The ‘over-charging or prolongation’ of stories is the curse of evangelical sub-culture.  Too often, inspiration is valued over all-else.

Time and again I have seen the damage caused by the disconnection between the stories shared by inspiring leaders and what is actually done in reality. It is rooted in a dangerous temptation among charismatic communicators to over-hype what they are involved in. It is a key reason for the growth of disillusionment and cynicism within the church.

Honesty and humility

The best antidote to hype is the counter-cultural example that Jesus gives us. He went out of his way to downplay what he was doing, avoiding big crowds and consistently not doing what his supporters wanted him to. And the Bible is littered with commands for us to be humble.

We need to have faith that humility and honesty increase the power and integrity of our message. This is truly the dirty glory that Jesus has shown us and the life God calls us to.

Posted in Recommended books | Tagged | 11 Comments

‘I am neither an optimist or a pessimist’ – the hope of Easter

“Mission begins with a kind of explosion of joy. The news that the rejected and crucified Jesus is alive is something that cannot possibly be suppressed. It must be told. Who could be silent about such a fact?

The mission of the Church in the pages of the New Testament is more like the fallout from a vast explosion, a radioactive fallout which is not lethal but life giving.

The story of the empty tomb cannot be fitted into our contemporary worldview, or indeed any worldview except one of which it is the starting point. That is, indeed, the whole point….It is a boundary event…the beginning of a new creation – as mysterious to human reason as creation itself. But accepted in faith it becomes the starting point for a whole new way of understanding our human experience…”

Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (p11 & p116)

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Also on R&R: Proper Confidence in the Gospel: the theology of Lesslie Newbigin

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Finding hope when burnt out – by Corin Pilling

Those on the front line of church, community and care work can from time to time experience a ‘hope deficit’.  The reality of dysfunction and poverty can easily start to outweigh the hope and energy that we can offer.

We may be called to cultivate hope but the reality is often tough. The ideal of community work can feel rather distant from the reality of grinding away at the coalface for many years. Our personal resources can feel depleted and we end up digging into our reserves. Burn out rears its head.

Burn out

Christina Maslach, author of Burnout: the Cost of Caring, describes burnout ‘as a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. It is marked by physical depletion and chronic fatigue, feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and negative attitudes towards work, life and other people’. She identifies the following symptoms:

  • Decreased energy -‘keeping up the speed’ becomes increasingly difficult
  • Feeling of failure in vocation
  • Reduced sense of reward in return for pouring so much of self into the job or project
  • A sense of helplessness and inability to see a way out of problems
  • Cynicism and negativism about self, others, work and the world generally

If you are experiencing this, you face a huge challenge. The experience of burnout is often accompanied by a deep sense of shame or guilt which arises from an acute sense of helplessness. This double-punishment can be hard to bear. After all, many of us build our lives, ministry or work on a stronger story of hope. We speak of thriving and resilience. When we don’t experience it due to exhaustion, we can feel an enormous burden of not living up to our aspirations.

Avoid comparison 

We can also unfairly compare ourselves to others. We all have such different capacities, gifts, and struggles. The comparison game may be fatal when we look to other leaders who seemingly have it all together. The reality is that we only see the ‘front stage’, and rarely what is falling apart behind the scenes.

Vulnerability can seem costly, yet it is important that there are relationships where we exhibit it. If we do not, we run the risk of living in denial of our unique needs.

Seven ways to help

In a short article such as this, we can only scratch the surface of a complex issue. The list below provides only some pointers of how to respond. It is borne of my own experience of rebuilding after experiencing burn out on the front line.

1) Ask for help. Change will rarely happen without the right kind of structured support. Commit to the time needed to make change, and recognise it will take time.

2) Let go of self-condemnation and aim to practice self-compassion. Our internal scripts might offer only negative thoughts. Instead, ask yourself ‘What would I say to a good friend who was experiencing these thoughts?’

3) Remember that your body needs extra care: It is easy to forget this. Increased rest and exercise are obvious starting points. Also, trying new things can help. Running and meditation worked for me – providing room to experience difficult emotions was also important.

4) Ask yourself the question ‘What gives me life?’ Compiling a list of simple daily pleasures, and spending time with those who ‘get’ you becomes essential. I also compiled of list of ‘death- dealing activities’ as a reminder of what to avoid.

5) Work to change your thinking. Know that this is often the biggest barrier. Just because it once worked, it doesn’t mean it works now – we all change and our needs do, too. Commit to reading up on the topic regularly.

6) Cultivate new spiritual practices. Is there a new gift to be discovered? There may be other ways to encounter God in the midst of struggle that can help you carve a life- giving path. Extroverts may even find themselves drawn to quieter spiritual activities such as retreats.

7) Recognise that your struggle is universal, yet deeply personal. Many of us recover remarkably well from burnout and our empathy may increase for those with similar struggles.

If you are experiencing ongoing exhaustion the first port of call should be your doctor. Don’t take chances with your health.

The burnout cycle of those is church and community work is a well- worn trope. Let’s start to change the script, so we might continue to live hope-filled and sustainable lives in our communities.

Corin Pilling is Assistant Director of Community Engagement at Livability where he supports churches connect with their communities. He lives in King’s Cross where he attends a small church on a large estate.

This article was recently published on Livability’s highly recommended Community Engagement eNews 

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Prophet warning: a response to Matt Bird – by Justin Thacker

Matt Bird recently wrote an article titled Be for the poor, but not against the rich. According to Matt, God’s material riches of Solomon is evidence that ‘God is not opposed to wealth or the disparity of wealth’.

He chastises a development charity for describing as ‘unacceptable’ the fact that the richest eight people in the world have more wealth than the poorest three billion combined. Such inequality, it would seem, does not matter as long as those billionaires continue to create jobs and give away significant proportions of their income. If they do this, they are to be ‘applauded’ rather than criticised.

The kind of argument that Matt Bird presents is increasingly gaining ground in certain Christian (and especially evangelical) circles. I don’t disagree with all that he has written. I think he is right that trade and business are the ultimate solutions to poverty rather than charity. While aid may be necessary in the short-term, it does not provide the long-term solution that jobs do.

Injustice

However, my difficulty with his argument is that it doesn’t address the way in which the wealthy often contribute to the problems of the poor. As Christians we need to be aware of how the biblical prophets saw poverty. As Donald Gowan put it:

“For Old Testament writers the cause of poverty which produced the most concern and true indignation was not what the poor do or do not do but what others have done to them … There were ways to deal with the problems of being hungry and ill-clothed and homeless; but all of them could be thwarted by injustice, and it is that against which the Old Testament rages.”

Gowan puts his finger here on what is at the heart of the prophetic lament: social injustice. It is not that the rich are not being sufficiently charitable or philanthropic, it is that the rich and powerful are exploiting and oppressing the poor. This theme returns time and again throughout the prophetic books (e.g. Jer 7:5-7; Amos 4:1-2; Zech 7:9-11).

Exploitation

There are a number of reasons why the prophets may have made the exploits of the rich their primary concern.  Firstly, following their return from exile, the economy of Israel changed fundamentally with the development of large agricultural estates. There was a sharp growth in inequality and predatory loaning became a way the haves could exploit the have-nots.

Secondly, there also exists archaeological evidence of increasing disparities in house sizes during this period. Before the exile, most houses in Israel were of a simple four-room design. In contrast, after the exile, there was a rapid and marked transformation whereby these 4 room houses disappeared to be replaced by estates staffed by peasant or slave workers.

The prophets speak of increasing inequality arises precisely because those with power and authority are exploiting the poor and the powerless. They build wealth for themselves at the expense of the less well off.

The prophetic perspective is that the problem lies in the exploitation and oppression of the poor – if only the rich and powerful would get off their backs then the poor could enact their own solutions to poverty:

The people of the land have practised extortion and committed robbery; they have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the alien without redress.  (Ezek. 22.29−30)

Charity smokescreen

Matt Bird downplays the role of the wealthy in contributing to poverty. He doesn’t acknowledge that the so-called generosity of the wealthy can sometimes be just a smokescreen for trade practices that continue to keep the poor in poverty.

At one point, I engaged with the philanthropic wing of a major mobile phone company from whom I was seeking funding for a healthcare project in West Africa. On the surface, this company was in Matt’s terms being very ‘generous’ and helping ‘to alleviate the poverty and suffering of others’.

However, what I hadn’t realized initially was that the same company was depriving the same West African country of millions of pounds of tax revenue through its trade mispricing activities. So while the company very publicly donated thousands of pounds in ‘charitable’ activity, it was also taking away in illicit financial transactions a far greater amount (see here and here for recent reports on this issue).

Caution about wealth

Matt’s argument would appear to ignore this reality. He would seem to believe that wealth creation never involves exploitation of the poor. While it may not always do this, the sad truth is that the rules remain heavily stacked against the interests of the poor. We should not be anti-the-rich, but as the prophets indicate we should certainly be very cautious about wealth. And this is a theme continued in the teaching and example of John the Baptist, Jesus and the early church.

For it is not just God who is the architect of wealth, it is also sometimes our sin:

Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning’s light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it. They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they rob them of their inheritance. (Micah 2.1−2)

Justin Thacker is the author of the newly published Global Poverty: A Theological Guide

Posted in Poverty, Theology & Church | Tagged | 10 Comments

A soft-touch? Why Christians need to stop being doormats

My recent article on Why Pope Francis is wrong about begging was re-posted on the popular Christian blog Psephizo and a number of church leaders commented on the challenge that this issue poses for them.

It again reminded me of how churches, vicarages and manses are at the front line of this issue because of how often people call on their doors asking for money.

I grew up in a vicarage and homeless people (or ‘tramps’ as we called them) used to come to our door to ask for help. My mum would make sandwiches but I remember one caller being very unhappy with this. Later we found the bag of sandwiches thrown in the hedge just outside the house. The sight of that discarded food stayed with me: a visible sign of the complexity involved in helping people.

The brilliantly researched BBC comedy Rev featured this issue almost every episode, with the crack addict Mick continually coming to the vicarage door with improbable stories:

What is the best way to respond?

The national Christian homelessness network, Housing Justice, have produced a common-sense guide to Helping Homeless Callers who come to your door.  It is very clear that people should not give money and offers some good practical tips, such as agreeing a policy and having information available.

I firmly believe that we should help people in need and be as human and kind as possible. But Christians need to stop being doormats. As referred to in the Rev clip, Christians are often seen as ‘soft-touches’ and this does little good – either for ourselves or for the person begging.

Rejecting the guilt transfer

One important thing to remember is to not accept the guilt transfer that people begging often try with a potential donor. This frequently happens by presenting a scenario designed to make you feel solely responsible for a positive outcome e.g. ‘If you don’t give me the money then I will not be able to see my sick child.’  Recognising and rejecting the attempts to maximise your guilt helps you see what is really happening.

Whether a sick child actually exists or not, it is not your fault that the person does not have the money to see them. The brutal reality is that the missing of an important appointment, or even a night sleeping rough, may have to be the consequence of previous decisions that this person has made about which you may know very little.

Good theology in action

Christian responses to people in need should not merely be pragmatic but be rooted in good theology. The first chapter of John’s gospel says: ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).

John chose these two words to sum up the qualities of Jesus: grace and truth.

When helping people in need, we need to balance our desire to show grace with acknowledging the importance of truth.  I think this is relevant to all pastoral situations but especially when it comes to the issues which surround homeless people.

Grace detached from truth

Churches are doing incredible work across the country with vulnerable people. But one legitimate critique of churches is that too much of the activity focuses on giving free meals and free accommodation which asks little of the person being helped. It can run counter to other agencies’ emphasis on encouraging and empowering them to face reality and take responsibility.  Churches can be in danger of offering a grace which is detached from truth.

We need to recognise that over the long term, transformative work with homeless people will always involve holding together these kinds of tensions:

None of this is easy in practice and it cannot be done by one person, or even just one agency. Joint work and coordination between different organisations is essential for good outcomes – and churches have a vital role to play.

But I firmly believe that balancing grace and truth gives us a strong basis for how we should respond to homeless and vulnerable people. Being a doormat or a soft-touch is tempting and can seem a generous way out of the dilemma. But it doesn’t really help people.

Posted in Homelessness | Tagged , | 3 Comments