Time for the Church to recover a vision of society transformed

John SentamuDespite my best efforts, I usually find it hard to get excited about the workings of the Church of England’s General Synod. Mostly there is a feeling of frustration with the focus on internal legislation, when the more important issues that the Church is facing (even more important than the long road to approving women bishops) don’t get much of a look in. This week’s Synod has felt very different. The overwhelming approval today of the Women Bishops package is a great relief as well as a sign of what can be achieved when members of Synod gets their act together and work towards solutions rather than staunchly fighting their own corners. Without the distraction of the Women Bishops vote, the first two days have produced some genuinely worthwhile discussion on the important topics of evangelism and Church schools. The subject of evangelism has provoked plenty of interest in the media, although a good deal has been misguided and even nonsensical at times. I shall come back to this topic at a later date.

The Archbishop of York has been on particularly fine form. Along with Monday’s timely reminder that the Church’s call to evangelism is not optional, he used yesterday’s lengthy Presidential Address to raise the issue of poverty in this country and how both the Church and government should be responding .  This was picked up by the Guardian, which focused mainly on the effects of poverty and government intervention. Dr Sentamu also said a great deal more directed at the Church that is worth repeating. Here are some extracts:

Something new and terrible is happening to our society.   We see it all around us: Poverty.  More and more people are living below the breadline.  Some nine million people altogether…

Parishes up and down the country are striving hard to tackle the consequences of poverty.  It is this work that I want to discuss this afternoon.  Indeed for a parish not to be doing something about it is becoming the exception rather than the rule.  Take Middlesbrough in my diocese, for instance, where churches of all denominations are currently running 276 activities designed to help the vulnerable.   It has been calculated that these Middlesbrough schemes amount to 800 hours of love-in-action each week…

It may be that governments cannot do much more than tinker with the deep-seated trends [linked to poverty].  If that is the case, the requirement for love-in-action by the Church becomes more urgent.

The Church will and must respond positively.  For relieving poverty is part of what it means to be Christian.

St John, in a letter to a group of churches, asked:  ‘if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother or sister in need, yet closes his heart against them, and refuses to help, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:18).  ‘It doesn’t’, is the short answer.   We must “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18).

Through the centuries, poverty has often risen to the top of the Christian agenda.   St Francis of Assisi, perhaps the best-loved saint of all, lived poverty as well as relieved it.

And it was surely significant that the newly elected Pope took the name of Francis.   During his Inauguration he spoke of the calling of a pope to be close to the “poorest, the weakest, the least important, those who Matthew lists in the final judgement on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, those in prison”. And emphasising the necessity of the centrality of Christ, he said. “If we do not confess to Christ, what would we be? We would end up a compassionate NGO”.

St Francis of Assisi famously dismounted from his horse and pressed a coin into the hand of a leper and kissed him; in the same way, Pope Francis recently embraced and comforted a disfigured man suffering from a rare disease.   The incident made news round the world.

And, if I may take a completely different example, John Wesley. The movement he founded, Methodism, was strongly focused on helping the poor in the name of the Gospel of Jesus.

The Church of England, I believe, has arrived at another such moment.   Confronting poverty is again rising to the top of the agenda. How to do it? Last month the Church Urban Fund published an interesting paper that contrasted two methods of tackling poverty.  The first is needs-based, which is essentially handing out stuff to people.

The Church Urban Fund criticises this approach as having the unfortunate side-effect of developing a client mentality in those who are being assisted.

Such ‘clients’ it fears, may come to believe themselves incapable of taking charge of their own lives.   It contrasts this with what it calls an ‘asset-based approach’.

This starts with local individuals and organisations uncovering and identifying the assets and capacities already present within the community.   It is founded on the belief that everybody has something to give to those around them.   That is what ‘asset-based’ means.  This leads to a second insight:  that strong sustainable communities cannot be built from the top down, or outside in, but only from the ‘inside out’.   And as the Church Urban Fund describes it, this approach is also relationship-driven.  It is based on people talking with, and listening to, others.

To what extent, then, are the Middlesbrough projects I mentioned adopting an assets-based approach?   Very largely, I would say.   For one thousand volunteers from the local community are involved in the work.  Middlesbrough also has a food bank. Volunteers sort the food.  The local community is thus involved in the entire process.   It is literally ‘by the people, for the people’.

I admire the research and tireless work of the Church Urban Fund. I am a devoted supporter. However, I do not think we need to take an either/or approach: ‘asset-based approach’ or ‘needs-based approach’.  It is both/and. Yes, the starving person must be taught how to fish, so that they can feed themselves, but they must also be given a fish to eat…

The work I have described in my own diocese is going on throughout the Church.    So it is important to understand the full dynamics of what is happening.   When Church volunteers are asked why they participate in love-in-action, they almost invariably reply that they are motivated primarily by their faith, by the desire to reflect God’s Kingdom, and to demonstrate God’s love and care for all.

A large number of people in our communities never willingly darken a Church door. The only possible way to reach them is by showing them what the good news of God’s Kingdom revealed in Jesus Christ is.

In this spirit, one can surely call this work evangelism – signposting, albeit not by preaching but by example.   It deepens the faith of the Church volunteers and it attracts and involves non-members.    When we talk about the re-evangelisation of England, this may be one of the methods by which it will proceed.

What I have been describing is the real strength of our Church: its extensive presence on the ground in areas of economic stress and strain as well as in more prosperous places.   Local initiatives, when multiplied a thousand-fold, become a real force for good.    This work is not directed from the centre.   Most of it is self-generated, parish by parish…

When Beveridge, Archbishop William Temple and Tawney tackled the five giants of ignorance, idleness, squalor, disease and want, in the 1940s, they had a clear vision as to how things could be different. In part, they were also tapping into the spirit of the immediate post-war years in which there was a great hunger to rebuild a more equitable, more caring world.

It is that vision which we need to recapture today but remoulded in a way which is realistic for the circumstances which we face now.

We can do it but we need the political will; as well as ethical and religious conviction. “Acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

As well as the reality of poverty and growing inequality in our country today, we also face the problem of poverty of vision.

Put simply, we have lost a vision of how we might transform our society to bring about changes that we wish to see.

We need to recover a prophetic imagination and Christian wisdom, and not get bogged down with what does not work. Rather we must concentrate on what works, and breathe new life into it.

Our strength as a Church lies not only in our vision but also in our presence. Our place in every community of England gives us an unparalleled opportunity to make this new vision of freedom, service and fraternity a reality through our care for people in the parishes we serve.

And we share the virtue of Christian hope, born of the incarnation, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which go far beyond economic recovery and reach into the heart of every man, woman and child. Yes we lament our situation, but we do so knowing that our song will finish in hope: the hope in Christ’s message to us. “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one.  I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and Hades.  Do not be afraid”. (Revelation 1:17-18).

Well said Dr Sentamu.

Categories: Church, Faith in society, Poverty, Social action

Tags: , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Richard's Watch and commented:
    An exceptional address on transformation of society from Archbishop Sentamu, especially in emphasising, “We need to recover a prophetic imagination and Christian wisdom, and not get bogged down with what does not work. Rather we must concentrate on what works, and breathe new life into it.”.

  2. There were moment sin the past week I have wondered whether society is not he edge of the vision of a church transformed — but the present synod looked over the edge, decided that if they changed things would be different, and went “meh!”

    One was the studious ignoring of Gavin Oldham’s frightening figures on young people, coupled with the ludicrous notion that the way to get more than 3 people under 40 on GS was to make all the young in people in Britain change so that they would feel at him there and then they’d throng the place (is joke?) and the snarky comment from one speaker in the education debate undermining the work the Board of Education is undertaking by collaborating with Stonewall to try and reduce the shocking incidence of homophobic bullying in our schools. Apparently that’s a bad thing…

    So where’s the death wish? What are we going to do about it?

    • The age issue in Synod is deeply worrying and having one or two token younger people does nothing positive. If anything it can make it worse if younger generations views are not taken seriously. It’s Synod that needs to transform its attitude. It’s been quite capable of demonstrating how out-of-touch it is on some issues. Fortunately churches who care about evangelism and reaching out to a generation that has no connection with the Church aren’t going to wait for Synod to make any decisions. When I see bishops and clergy paying more attention to what works rather than systems, it gives me hope that the Church of England’s structures can remain relevant.

      Synod continues to give the impression of being detached from the situation on the ground and until that changes it will become increasingly irrelevant. Potentially it could offer so much more, but it currently reinforces my view that the Church is more effective when it is led from the grassroots up rather than from the top down.

  3. The age of synod is not, in and of itself, an issue. The issue is what those people on synod do in terms of representing issues and opinions from across the spectrum of the CofE. Synod, because of when it meets and the nature of what it does, is rarely conducive or viable for those under 50, usually due to time constraints and work flexibility, along with many young people not being in any place for a long enough time to put down roots and go through the system to get there.
    If the CofE was growing across the board with synod still looking like it is then this wouldn’t be a question anyone asked.

    • That’s a very important point Phil. it’s a bit like when I tried to become a governor at our local school, but couldn’t because the meetings were always at 4pm. There was no way I could get time off work to do it. Such restrictions limit who can participate in Synod, but that then makes it even more important that they deliberately attempt to listen to those groups who are not directly represented. I don’t always get the impression that those at Synod understand certain demographic groups in the Church of England -understatement!

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