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

The Lord’s Prayer – by Danny Kuhrt 

This post is taken from a talk given by Danny Kuhrt, aged 13, at a youth-led service at Streatham Baptist Church in March 2017. Danny spoke on the first half of the prayer (Matthew 6:9-11).


Firstly, I would like to ask everyone a question. And I want an honest answer.

Who finds praying easy?

It can be hard to remember to pray. Life is busy – with homework, computer games, sleeping and tidying my room.Finding time to pray can be a challenge.  

But also praying is not easy because we are talking directly to God, our Creator.  Perhaps it’s not supposed to be easy.


But in the passage we heard read, Jesus gives us a template of a perfect prayer. The Lord’s Prayer can help us to know how to pray.

I have heard a few sermons, and I heard it’s important to have 3 points. So here goes:

  1. Firstly we need to remember God’s holiness

Firstly, we need to remember God’s holiness. The first line of the Lord’s Prayer is ‘Our Father, hallowed be your Name’.  What does this mean? Well, hallowed means Holy.

I know it sounds simple but prayer is about focussing on God. It is not about us.

It can be easy to think that the world revolves around us. What we want to do, what we are interested in. So much time can be spent thinking about ourselves.

But at its heart, prayer is about setting aside time to focus on God. This opening line reminds us that God is holy. Our creator. He is perfect. Almighty. All-loving.

I am guilty of not remembering God’s mightiness. It is easy to get casual and lose sight of who we are speaking with. All the people I respect, I respect because they are smarter, or more experienced or nicer than me. We are praying to a God who is smarter, more experienced and nicer than you can possibly imagine.

This is why we worship God – he is a holy creator. His Name is hallowed.

  1. To pray with purpose

The Lord’s Prayer continues ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

It can be tempting to just lean on God – and leave all of our problems and the community’s problems to him. But God does not just want us to wait passively for his kingdom to come and for his will to be done. He wants us to be his disciples and make the earth slightly closer to his kingdom.

Asking God for help is an amazing thing but God gave us free will for a reason – so that we can be part of his work.  All of us can change the world a little bit.

For example, me and my brother Tom argue a lot.  I can get really angry with him. I do sometimes pray for help and for us to forgive each other. But no real change is going to happen unless I go make up with him, even if it is hard and involves me admitting I was wrong.  Perhaps especially when it involves me admitting I was wrong.

I don’t think that God is like a fairy with a magic wand.

We need to pray with real purpose – for example to ask for courage and hope so that we can fix problems and go out and make the world a better place.  Our prayers can help us be people of action.

Another example is Love Streatham’s annual Fun Day on the Common. Who has come to this?  You can see a picture of me up there if you look hard enough…

Praying for good weather, large crowds and safety and fun is essential. However, if people did not go out, work hard, putting up gazebos – even when it’s a rainy morning – the whole event would not happen. It is through prayers and action that we help God’s kingdom come and his will be done.

  1. To trust in God’s goodness

Lastly, we need to trust in God’s goodness. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer that God will give us today our daily bread. That he will provide for us.  This line is about security that God has given us.

God has assured us that we will not be without our daily bread – what we need for each day.  This assures us that God cares for us and even if things are falling apart then we can still trust in God’s goodness.

An example of someone who trusted God is the Apostle Paul. Travelling around the world, Paul was persecuted, beaten up, shipwrecked, arrested, imprisoned, and put on trial and almost certainly executed – all because of his faith in Jesus.

Despite all this, Paul never lost hope or trust in God. He was the author of half the books of the New Testament, some of which were written from jail.  It is this commitment through the hardship that shows his trust in Jesus.  It is an incredible example for us – we can know that God has our back and is not going to let us escape his love.

In Matthew 6:25 it says: ‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink or about your body, what you will wear’. This is possible because God has promised to look out for us and to give us our daily bread.

Worry can easily overtake us and dominate all our thoughts but God does not want this to be the case.

Praying and rowing

The Lord’s Prayer is like a template. It reminds us of the core of prayer.

I want to end with a quote from someone who knows a lot more about prayer than me: Pete Greig who founded the 24-7 prayer movement:

‘Prayer must outwork itself in action. It is about the saying of prayers, for sure, but also about the becoming of prayers in a thousand practical ways.  As the Russian proverb puts it ‘Pray to God but continue to row for shore.’

Pray to God but continue to row for shore. Let’s be people who both pray and row!

You can watch a recording of the talk on Streatham Baptist Church’s website (the talk starts at 2.20 on the video).

Posted in Theology & Church | 3 Comments

Why Pope Francis is wrong about begging

This week I was at a church in central London, talking with the minister when a man came to the door asking for help.

He explained that he was not from London but his wife had just been discharged from UCH (a London hospital) following an emergency operation.  He said they had nowhere to stay and he didn’t have any money to pay for a hotel. He was asking for cash to help them out.

He said that he was due to be paid the next day, so would return and pay the money back in the morning. He earnestly added that both he and his wife are Christians so ‘they knew the church would help them’.

He was convincing and in many ways his story was powerful and moving. There was just one issue.

Both of us were 99.9% sure that he was not telling us the truth.

Wisdom from experience

Many people living in busy cities are used to hearing such scenarios. I lived in Kings Cross for five years, just around the corner from where the main distribution centre for The Big Issue magazine used to be. It was virtually impossible to walk out of my flat without being being asked for cash.

In the situation this week, the minister kindly and calmly explained the places he could go for help. She did not judge, dismiss or treat him harshly. But she responded to the request with the wisdom that comes from her daily experience. She knew how unlikely it was that any money given would be used for the purpose being presented.  On hearing this, the man walked off in search of someone else to try his story.

Giving is ‘always right’

In a recent interview, Pope Francis was asked about how we should respond to people begging. He said that giving to someone in need ‘is always right’. When asked about if the person will spend it on alcohol, the Pope replies:

‘If a glass of wine is the only happiness that he has in his life, that’s OK. Instead ask yourself what you do on the sly? What happiness do you seek in secret?’

The New York Times said the Pope had provided “a concrete, permanently useful prescription” which is “scripturally sound” and “startlingly simple” and which will help all city dwellers with how to respond to people begging: Give them the money and don’t worry about it.

I greatly admire Pope Francis and find his humility and compassion inspiring. But I strongly disagree with this advice. My core reason is because all my experience tells me that giving money to people begging does not actually help them. Basically, it is not showing them love.


It sounds kind to tell people to give money to anyone who asks, but we do not have the luxury of such simplistic approaches. We should not be cynical or harsh toward those begging, but we need to have a compassionate realism about the nature of their problems.

People begging are not intrinsically bad people and almost always have genuine needs. But handing over cash to them simply does not meet those needs effectively.  The homeless charity Thames Reach estimate that 80% of those begging are doing so to maintain an addiction. Rather than helping, handing over cash can actually be killing with kindness.

Friends and family

My professional work is with homeless people, but serious drug and alcohol addictions have also affected close friends and members of my family. Tragically, addictions have contributed the death of people I love, taken far too early.

A key thing to remember is that each person begging or approaching us for money is a precious human being of infinite worth. They are far, far more than an awkward situation to be managed well. Our focus needs to be on them, not us.  We need the courage and confidence to do the right thing, rather than the easy thing.

Over the last 20 years I have spoken with hundreds of people who are currently or formerly involved in begging. My articles on this issue have been read by over 50,000 people on R&R alone. I am yet to hear anyone say that the money they have received through begging has been a positive part of recovery journey.  But I have experienced and witnessed countless scenarios where money gained through begging is part of the problem.

Addictions which kill

The Pope’s references to ‘a glass of wine’ are comically inappropriate for the kind of alcohol misuse which is common for many people who beg. Many of the alcoholics that I have worked with can be drinking up to 9 or 10 cans of super-strength lager or cider (9% proof) a day.  Additional cash often just enables them to buy spirits.

Money given to people begging does not enable them a celebratory tipple: it is generally feeding an addiction which is literally killing them.

The complexity of compassion

I know that the Pope intends to set an example of kindness, justice and grace.  But more and more money given to people begging will not result in a more just world.  We need to go upstream and invest in preventing poverty and family breakdown.  We need to support programmes which help people travel the hard road of recovery. And of course we need agencies which provide emergency help for people on the streets.

We can long for simple answers, but compassion is complex. To be transformative, our efforts to show grace must always be accompanied by a concern for truth. Helping someone in need is ‘always right’ but only if it is done in a way which actually helps them.

If you are left thinking how should we respond to people begging, see this brief article which gives specific practical steps on what you can do: How should we respond to people begging?

West London Mission works with people affected by homelessness and addictions

Posted in Ethics & Christian living, Poverty | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

How I became a Christian – by Andrew Ryland

This is the story of how I became a Christian. To some who know me, this may be a surprise. It’s no secret, I just haven’t been very open about it.

Recently I have felt moved to be more transparent about my faith and how it has transformed me.  I hope that this will help some people on a similar journey to my own.

I was brought up in a loving Christian family. But I didn’t truly understand or engage with Christianity and stopped going to church when I was 16.  I thought that religion was dreamt up by ancient people before science came along.

Dark place

Years later life dealt me a wicked blow.  My wife of 5 years left me.  I was devastated and in a pretty dark place. I was drinking a lot and this began to escalate to dangerous levels. And with the drinking came a return to the smoking that I had previously given up.

The love of family and friends proved invaluable at this time, and there are many people to whom I am so grateful for helping me through. It was reading the autobiography of the cricketer Graham Thorpe that initially got me interested in Christianity. He had been through a marriage break up and found solace through the church.

Wanting to find out more I went on the Alpha Course – an introduction to Christianity.


The course helped a lot. I respected Christianity because of my family’s faith and also because of the charitable aspect of it. I know for many Christians helping others is a way of life.

I was sceptical though. I couldn’t get my head around the belief that Jesus is the Son of God.  I believed in God, as I thought that a higher being must have created the universe.  But would he put a son on Earth to live as a human?

Years went by with this half-hearted engagement with Christianity.  I moved to Singapore with my job, where my life really changed.  I met a lovely, beautiful Christian Filipina called Annie. Just before we got married I started going to church with her. But I was still seeking proof to get over my scepticism.


Then, we were in church one Sunday, when I suddenly thought: “Why not just accept that Jesus is the Son of God…you don’t need proof!”

At that moment, I felt an energy surge go right through me.  It was an incredible sensation.  I knew in that instant that it was the Holy Spirit. If I needed proof, then there it was.

Since then my life has been completely transformed.  Annie and I have been blessed with a wonderful son, James.  When we got engaged, not wanting to overdo it, we decided to have just three weddings – in Singapore, UK and Philippines. This all took nearly a year but we didn’t wait for the last wedding to be over before we started praying and trying for a baby.

Answered prayers

Soon after our third wedding, Annie became pregnant.  James came along at the perfect time.  After he was born, the doctor told us that Annie has a condition which makes it hard for her to conceive.  We truly believe that James is a gift from God.

God has answered our prayers time and again.  Just before Annie gave birth there was uncertainty about my job.  We prayed for safe and healthy delivery and for certainty about my work.  Within a month both were answered: James was born, and I was contacted about an opportunity in Hong Kong – the job that I am now doing, which I really enjoy.

To quote one of my favourite comedy characters, Blackadder: “God is very quick these days!”

Inner peace

I have stopped smoking again.  Previously I tried to give up by my own efforts and failed but I know this time it is for good. This is an example of how our relationship with God works. Our faith and belief in Jesus allows him to transform us, not our own efforts.  The more we allow him into our lives, this transformation becomes all encompassing – physical, emotional, spiritual. And it leads us to helping others as a way of life.

Nowadays I feel an inner peace that I never had before.  That is not to say that being a Christian is easy. But I know it is the right way, and the only way.

Andrew Ryland is originally from Croydon and now lives in Hong Kong with his wife Annie and son James.  This is an edited version of his testimony which he shared recently at a women’s prison in the Philippines.

Posted in Ethics & Christian living | 4 Comments

I Believe in a Thing called Sin

speaking-of-sinA few years ago, I was on the south bank in London, near Waterloo station, and I got talking with a homeless man called Richard. He had approached me asking for money.

He was in a bad state.  He showed me the most terribly infected open wounds  on both his arms and legs caused by injecting drugs.  I urged him to go with me to the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital but he did not want to.

Even when he knew I would not give him any money, he made it clear that he did want to talk. He told me about his difficult family situation and his descent onto the street.He then asked me, somewhat out of the blue: ‘How do I find forgiveness?’

I explained what I believe about God’s offer of forgiveness which is available for everyone.  And he asked me to pray for him.  So sitting on a wall by a busy pavement, I prayed the Lord’s Prayer with him.  After I finished he asked me to write it down for him, as he put it ‘so I have the right words to say’.

As well as his obvious physical and medical needs, Richard had clear spiritual needs. He was seeking a form of restoration which social and health services alone cannot provide.

I don’t know what happened to Richard – but I’ll never forget that conversation.  It affected my decision to go back into the homeless work and seek to integrate the practical and spiritual aspects of care.


I was thinking of this encounter again, as I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s short book Speaking of Sin.  She writes about the loss of ‘the language of salvation’ which includes words such as “repentance”, “penance”, “salvation”, and of course “sin” itself.

‘When these words are pronounced out loud, many of them sound like words from an earlier age, when human relationships with God were laced with blame and threat. As old as the words are, they are redolent with guilt. We may not know what they mean, but we know that they judge us.’

Even in churches, these words are used less and less in order to make worship a more positive experience. ‘When we speak of God we go straight for the grace.’

Social and personal

But it is situations like Richard’s which illustrate the reality of sin because they show the end result of a lifetime of trauma, abuse and injustice.  A cycle of pain in which he was both a victim and a perpetrator.

It is in the brokenness experienced in such tragic situations where the concept of sin makes most sense. Homelessness somehow embodies raw reality more vividly than many other issues. There are the social sins of a lack of affordable housing, poverty, inequality and a lack of services. But, there are also the personal sins of abuse, domestic violence and the carnage created by addictions and self-sabotage.

Understanding the world

This is why I believe sin needs pulling out from the slag-heap of discarded, outdated words to which it was been consigned.  Rather than being an outdated way to judge others, it is actually the best way to understand the mess and injustice in our world. More than any other word, it inclusively and universally describes our human condition. As Brown puts it:

“Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away. Human beings will continue to experience alienation, deformation, damnation, and death no matter what we call them. Abandoning the language will simply leave us speechless before them and increase our denial of their presence in our lives.”

The depth of existence

Speaking of Sin achieves a rare combination of being bold about human failure without falling into any finger-pointing judgementalism. Brown argues that despite all the positive social developments, legal and medical concepts can never adequately replace ‘the great words of our religious tradition’.

She quotes Paul Tillich in saying that the best ‘way of re-discovering their meaning is down into the depth of our human existence. In that depth these words were conceived; and there they gained power for all ages.’  It was this line that made me recall my encounter with Richard and the raw pain and search for forgiveness that he expressed.

Helpful and hopeful

Rather than being bad news, sin is a ‘helpful, hopeful word’. In fact, Brown provocatively describes sin as ‘our only hope’:

‘Sin is our only hope because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again…it is the fire alarm  that wakes us up to the possibility of true repentance.’

I will reflect further on this book in future R&R posts. I think it is one of the best books I have read for many years and is incredibly relevant to problems we see around us in the world today.

Speaking of Sin by Barbara Brown Taylor is currently available at Aslan Books for just £2.99

Posted in Recommended books, Theology & Church | Tagged | 4 Comments

Elitism dressed as charity: the injustice of tax breaks for private schools


Whiftgift School, Croydon

Tory leaders have a habit of declaring social justice as their key aim when they come to power. Remember Margaret Thatcher quoting St Francis of Assisi ‘where there is discord, may we bring harmony’ on the steps of Number 10?

Or John Major speaking of his vision of ‘the classless society’?

In her first speech as PM, Theresa May followed suit:

“If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately….but the mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone means more than fighting these injustices…The Government I lead will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours…When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you.”

But what does this rhetoric actually mean in specific and practical terms?

Are private schools charities?

Yesterday, May’s former colleague, Michael Gove, wrote an article in The Times with one specific suggestion: ending the tax exemptions available to the 1200 private schools in the UK due to their charitable status.

I don’t aim just to start an argument about the pros and cons of private education. Rather, I want to focus very specifically on this question: is it right that some of the most elitist establishments in the country are able to present themselves as charities?

Breathtaking facilities

In his article, Michael Gove lists some of the facilities that top private schools enjoy: Millfield has an equestrian centre and clay pigeon shooting facilities, Stowe its own night club and Charterhouse its own stables and golf course.

Every week I go to Whitgift School (pictured above) because my cricket club hires their sports hall. The quality of the facilities are breathtaking.

Many of the top schools have fees of over £30,000 a year, per pupil.  This alone is well above the national average income.

Discounted privilege

Yet each one of them is a registered charity. As such, they get an 80% discount on their business rates and their school fees are VAT exempt.  As Gove puts it:

‘To my continuing surprise, we still consider the education of children of plutocrats and oligarchs to be a charitable activity. This allows the very wealthiest in the globe to buy a prestige service that secures their children a permanent positional edge in society at an effective 20% discount’

He also refers to other state-paid benefits enjoyed by private schools, such as the subsidised uniforms of their cadet forces. But I think this is just so he can fit in this one-liner: ‘The Eton rifles are welfare junkies.’


Of course, supporters of the status quo will point to the bursary schemes that enable kids from families with lower incomes to attend.  And, fair enough, many of these schools do provide for a limited number of people who are not in the tiny % who can afford the full fees.

Also, some will point to private schools allowing state schools to use their facilities. But according to the Independent Schools Council’s own figures only 3% of private schools sponsor an academy and only 5% loan teaching staff to state schools.

These efforts hardly scratch the surface of creating any authentic diversity.  And it is on this tiny thread of noblesse oblige that the legitimacy of their charitable status hangs.

Rampant inequality

For me it is clear that the richest schools in the country are not legitimate charities and should not be given tax breaks.  As Gove says:

‘Are the children of the rich intrinsically more talented and worthy, more gifted and more deserving of celebration than the rest? Of course not. But our state-subsidised private schools continue to give them every advantage.’

If Theresa May truly believes in what she has said then she should end this state-subsidy of elitism.

People on both the political left and right believe that the rampant inequality between rich and poor in this country needs to be addressed. And education is one of the best places to start.

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

‘Dethroning Mammon: making money serve grace’ by Justin Welby – a review by Gordon Kuhrt

justin-welby-dethroning-mammonMammon is money or possessions when they are enthroned.

The author says there is nothing wrong with money in itself, but when it exercises supreme power (is enthroned) it becomes mammon: evil, destructive and dangerous. A Foreword commending the book is from Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement which now has nearly 150 communities worldwide.

The author is, of course, Archbishop of Canterbury. This book has been written specially for Lent, that seven week period of preparation for Holy Week, and the death and Easter resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The six chapter headings give the flavour:

  • what we see we value
  • what we measure controls us
  • what we have we hold
  • what we receive we treat as ours
  • what we give we gain
  • what we master brings us joy

Re-thinking materialism

An introduction uses Jesus’ parable of a merchant finding an immensely precious pearl – to be gained even at the cost of surrendering everything else. Welby suggests that preparation for the Passion of Jesus might involve, not so much re-thinking chocolate and alcohol but, re-thinking materialism, mammon on its throne, what is good and bad in the economy.

Each further chapter is similarly based on a Bible story or passage. Chapter 1 (using the death of Lazarus) offers a more insightful kind of seeing. Money as an idol has a pseudo-divine authority in our lives, distorting our seeing.

Chapter 2 (Zaccheus the taxman) shows we like to measure – salary, budget, profit, even time. So unpaid caring of children, elderly and the disabled is less valued, as is the word of God. But mammon lies, deceives us, and controls.

Envy or generosity?

Ch 3 (Mary anointing Jesus) contrasts the economic systems of Judas and Mary, between fearful envy and ‘absurd’ generosity. Ch 4 (Jesus washing the disciples’ feet) explores the close relationship of money and power. Jesus’ challenge is not just for personal humility, but for a community of service.

Ch 5 (the burial of Jesus) is an intriguing and thoughtful critique of ‘financial man’ and ‘economic man’ in the light of the extraordinary behaviour of the rich Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. There are comments on international generosity, e.g. the Marshall Plan and DFID.

Ch 6 (the message to the church in Laodicea, and the fall of Babylon in Revelation) returns to the deceitfulness of mammon. Ways to dethrone mammon involve listening properly to God, repenting, and intentionally enthroning Christ in our lives – examples are given.

Exciting and fresh

I couldn’t read the book quickly because it is demanding in both information and challenge; but I didn’t want to put it down because it is winsome, exciting and fresh. Welby fairly says he is neither a professional economist or theologian – but he has substantial senior experience in oil finance, and a thoughtful rigorous approach to scripture. He was a member of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards following the 2008 financial turmoil, and has led a practical and successful assault on the pay-day loans business.

Highly recommended

I cannot recommend this relatively small book too highly. If you read it carefully you will be in the company of the Governor of the Bank of England.

Few subjects are more important and relevant; few books could have a greater impact for good, for grace and justice. Might you put it ahead of chocolate and alcohol?


Click here to buy: Dethroning Mammon: making money serve grace by Justin Welby (Bloomsbury)

Ven. Dr Gordon Kuhrt lives in Buckinghamshire and is a former vicar, Archdeacon and Director of Ministry for the Church of England.

Posted in Ethics & Christian living, Recommended books | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Moorside: Shannon Matthews and the three faces of poverty

shannon-matthewsEveryone who cares about poverty and community life in the UK should make sure they watch the BBC drama The Moorside. 

It is a thoroughly researched and brilliantly acted film about the tragic case of Shannon Matthews, a young girl from Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. In 2008, Shannon was reported as missing by her mum, Karen Matthews. Her disappearance triggered a massive search and the biggest Police operation in the region since the Yorkshire Ripper.

After more than 20 days, Shannon was eventually found at a relative’s house. But gradually the truth emerges: the abduction had been staged by the family in a crude plot to secure a reward.

There are many layers to the tragic tale: the comparison of media coverage with the disappearance of the more middle-class Madeline McCann, the arrest of Shannon’s Step-Dad for child pornography and how David Cameron used the case as an example of his narrative of ‘Broken Britain’.

Bravery and integrity

The Moorside tells the story from the perspective of the local community and it captures both the positive and negative aspects of the estate culture with bravery and integrity. Julie Bushby (played by Sheridan Smith) passionately mobilises the community to search for Shannon and organises marches and vigils. There are many painful lines such as ‘We’ll show the world the kind of community we are’.

When Shannon is found and the truth emerges, the same people who supported the efforts to find her, turn in understandable rage and anger on Karen and the others involved.

Truth and grace

In court, Julie gives evidence when Karen is charged with kidnap, false imprisonment and the perversion of justice. Sheridan Smith’s acting is remarkable and her words are extremely powerful:

“Karen Matthews is weak, cowardly and a liar. She put her child through a horrible experience, she let down her community and people who she said were her friends. And even when she eventually told the truth she went back to lying to save her own skin. 

Thats what you all want me to say isn’t it? 

And it’s the truth. But it’s a long way from the whole truth.

If you want to know the whole truth, you need to know that Karen is damaged. She has been used and abused since childhood, don’t ask me by whom but I am sure the list of people is a long one. Most are men who have used her for sex. Karen let them get away with it because she doesn’t understand that sex is not the same thing as love or affection, which is the thing she really wanted…

She has told lies and let people down but I will not join in with the lynch mob. Other people might want to use her as a human punch bag because it makes them feel better about their own lives and the shit they get up to but I won’t do it. I have stood by her before and I am standing by her now. She is still my friend.”

You will find it hard to find a more powerful expression of truth and grace.  And these words are made all the more authentic by knowing that Bushby continued to visit Karen Matthews in prison for the whole of her sentence.

Poverty of relationships and identity

3 Faces of PovertyThe Moorside captures an extreme example of the multi-layered problems of poverty that many deprived communities face.  Material poverty is compounded and deepened by the poverty of relationships and identity.  These forms of poverty are entrenched by child abuse – a theme which runs through the film.

It is another reminder of the need to hold each of these forms of poverty together and resist the simplistic polarising that so easily happens.

The role of the church

The local church play a small but significant role in the story.  When the vicar arrives to help with the search, Julie Bushby tells her ‘We don’t need no Bible-bashers here’. But her willingness to serve and get involved means that she plays an important role. And it is to her that Bushby turns, despite her lack of faith, when the reality behind Shannon’s disappearance becomes clear.

And it is a fascinating postscript that, according to some reports, Karen Matthews has found faith in God.  According to The Daily Mail, she said: ‘When I left prison I picked up a Bible and saw a passage about “God loves you”. I knew I was hated by everyone, cut off from my family. But here they were, saying I was loved’.

Feel free to comment or share this article, but perhaps a fitting response would be to offer a prayer for all those involved in this tragedy. Especially Shannon who is now 18 and living under a new name with a new family.

The Moorside is available on BBC iPlayer until 9th March 2017

Posted in Films & music, Poverty | 4 Comments

Sexuality, the C of E and the myth of Christian unity

c-of-e-sexuality-debateAnother week has passed with painful and damaging arguments within the Church of England. The Church’s governing body, the General Synod, voted against ‘taking note’ of the Bishop’s recent report on sexuality. The report followed three years of ‘shared conversations’ about how the church views gay relationships.

The argument between influential blogger Ian Paul and the Prolocutor of Synod, Simon Butler, is a sad microcosm of the dispute.  Butler, a gay clergyman, told Paul of his sexual orientation many years ago when they were at college together.  Now in positions of influence on either side of the polarised stand-off, they have been trading public accusations and counter-accusations on social media.

It reminded me of the dispute in the film Ben Hur between Judah and his former childhood friend Masala. Personal relationships, broken by conviction, ambition and tribal loyalty, have led to bitter enmity.

What is clear is that the whole church is diminished by such public conflict.

Toxic deceit

I have previously written on the need for honesty in these discussions because, alongside the disagreement, there has also been such widespread deceit. The accusations of lies add a bitter toxicity (and irony) to discussions about human and divine love.

After yet more talks and meetings, the Bishops have come up with a report which angered liberals and concerned many conservatives. The divides are deeper than ever and I believe are institutionally unbridgeable.

The myth of unity

Of course, everyone knows that the different denominations and traditions have different perspectives on all kinds of theological and pastoral matters. What makes the disputes in the C of E so painful is the denomination’s lingering ambition for national unity – or the pretence of national unity on this issue.

Anglican ecclesiology has ambitions beyond what is possible. It would be more honest to accept that much of the church believes one thing about gay relationships and another part of the church believes something else. Conformity to one approach will not be possible.

But I don’t believe that conformity on this issue has ever really existed. There have always been many, many gay clergy whatever the institution was decreeing from the centre.  And because Bishops have been complicit in maintaining the deceit it has made the situation all the worse.

Pyrrhic victories

The sexuality debates flow from fundamentally different theological traditions which have always deeply divided the C of E. Many conservative evangelical congregations have little to do with more liberal churches, despite them both having ‘Church of England’ on the noticeboard outside.

But the ambition for conformity on a matter like this leads to deeply unpleasant politics. Genuinely held convictions are fused with the desire to control resources in an unholy alliance.

There will be no winners from these conflicts. It will lead to many more years of bitterness with occasional Pyrrhic victory for one side or the other.

Unity in action

My dislike of a false myth of unity is because I have experienced such a different form of unity which can cross the divisions in the church.  Being involved in initiatives which bring congregations together in local mission such as Love Streatham has been a fantastic experience. In my previous job with the Shaftesbury Society, I worked with similar initiatives in Bradford, Eastbourne, Leeds, Brighton, Southampton and many parts of London.

In my work now with West London Mission, I Chair the Westminster Churches Night Shelter which brings together 13 local churches (plus a synagogue) to help homeless people come off the streets. The generosity and enterprise shown by these vastly different churches shows the power of Christian unity.

Focus on outreach

A focus on outreach and mission helps our perspective.  Often the local community are neither interested or understand the theological differences between the congregations. But they are interested when they see churches working together to make a difference they understand.

And it is not that theology is not important. But these forms of unity in action accept the kind of diversity that will always exist and allow people of different views to make a distinctive contribution.

And through working together on the frontline, they appreciate and understand each other better. Quite the opposite of how things have looked in the C of E this past week.

Posted in Theology & Church | 3 Comments

It is nice when religion and politics are kept apart…

It is nice when issues of religion and politics can be kept apart.

Religion is unsullied by worldly concerns. Going to church can be an inspiring escape from reality.  We can focus purely on God and listening to the Holy Spirit. We can reflect on our future hope in heaven.  We can think really theologically. We can have a deep personal experience which leaves us feeling uplifted.

But when religion and politics are mixed, things become difficult.

Fellow Christians start arguing on facebook about Brexit or Trump. Sermons become controversial, people who pray and sing together easily feel tension. Arguments break out about all-sorts of non-religious subjects like money, tax, justice, refugees, poverty and power. Religion gets messy.


…authentic faith cannot be never be neatly separated from politics. In reality there is no sacred-secular divide. God is concerned for the whole of his creation.

And this includes subjects like money, tax, justice, refugees, poverty and power.

Is it not wrong to disagree with those we worship with: a common faith should not lead to political conformity.  The resources of faith should actually help us disagree – but do so with grace and respect.

Check out this short film from Christians on the Left about the thorny issue of tax evasion, a ‘non-religious’ subject that Jesus was specifically asked about…

Posted in Politics | Tagged | 1 Comment