Sacramental Socialist Discussion Paper No. 1
The Role of the Church in Community Regeneration – a view from the estate parishes[i].
This paper is written within the context of the Coalition Government’s Big Society agenda[ii], in which voluntary social action, public service reform and community empowerment are drawn together; the beginnings of partnership between the Church of England and other churches in delivering Big Society programmes; the start of stringent public spending cuts; opposition to this, particularly through street and campus protests.
This paper seeks to describe what this reality looks like from the perspective of a parish priest ministering in outer estate parishes in Birmingham. It attempts to articulate some of the questions, difficulties and contradictions that such ministry leads to, and it looks at some of courses of action that seem most fruitful. Please note that this is a discussion paper in which I am working out what I think. It is not my final word and I would very much value any comments you have.
It is useful to reflect that next month marks the 25th anniversary of the Faith in the CityReport. Those years have seen a marked change in the culture of anglican parish churches in neighbourhoods marked by multiple deprivation and poverty as churches have developed community projects, enabling them to serve those in need in their parishes. The Church has displayed a deep commitment to all people living in such areas.
In Birmingham Diocese, this commitment has particularly been through our parish churches (not least through the redistribution of resources from those in wealthier areas to those in poorer); through a commitment to being faithfully present in all areas of the Diocese; through service to our neighbourhoods (we are there for everyone who lives in them) particularly through parish based community projects, resourced by the Community Regeneration Department and Thrive West Midlands, and through city and diocese–wide work.
This commitment and presence of the church in the diocese has been deepened and made more effective by the partnerships that have been built up and established with local residents, local government, New Deals for Communities and other area based regeneration programmes, Third Sector organisations and many others. This model has been affirmed in the Church Reports Faithful Cities (2006) and Moral, But No Compass (2008) and in Crossover City (2010), the theological reflection commissioned by General Synod.
This faithful practice has been informed by a number of biblical and theological strands. For myself, I would focus on the service of the Kingdom of God; the teaching of the Gospels to work with Christ in the creation of that alternative reality in which all people, and especially those who are “the least of the Lord’s sisters and brothers” may flourish; the discovery and service of Christ in the least of his brothers and sisters; the desire and imperative to help individuals and neighbourhoods to flourish (to expand on St Irenaeus, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive” is also seen in a neighbourhood or parish fully alive); the preferential option for the poor; the transformation of Christian communities into eucharistic people. From a sacramental socialist perspective, we might look to patristic teaching on poverty and equality, to the example of the slum ritualist priests and parishes of a century ago, and to theology of liberation.
In her very helpful speech during General Synod’s debate of Big Society last week, Paula Gooder attempted to root the Church’s response to social and economic need in a biblical theology of community. This seems to me to be a rich theme that I will be reflecting on in the future. There is much here about the nature of corporateness; the nature of the Body of Christ; the Gospel tradition of community and Jesus being where the outcasts are; as well as much that can question and help us as we seek to understand and form ‘good societies’ in twenty first century Britain.
In the context of Birmingham, much of the grassroots-based work which is underpinned by such theological and spiritual vision has been informed and enriched by the key theological value of generosity, identified and reflected on so deeply by the late Bishop John Austin. The concept that a neighbourhood can only flourish when it is ‘clean, safe and generous’ has been a well-received and valued offering to Birmingham.
As a parish priest, I am interested to see that the Government’s ‘Big Society’ agenda is similarly shaped to much of the work that my parishes, and many similar ones, have been engaged in for many years. The parts of the Big Society that are about empowerment, mutuality, partnership resonate strongly with my own practice (and with such elements in the Labour tradition, and other strands such as community organizing and some anarchist thought).
It is also important to restate that anglican parishes (along with churches of other traditions in areas of deprivation and poverty) have been working in partnership with a whole stream of national and local government initiatives for the last couple of decades (as has most of the Third Sector)[iii]. In the areas I minister in, the Church is deeply enmeshed in the Third Sector and in partnerships and relationships with government. This way of working has been adopted in order to help both individuals and neighbourhoods to flourish. Parish based community projects have sought funding in order to keep their essential work going; the relationship between Government and the Third Sector has evolved to enable this to happen; while strands like community organising have put an emphasis on building relationships and partnerships. Another dimension of this is that church-originated projects have developed a great deal of good practice. We should therefore, as part of our generosity, be seeking how we can model and share what we do well with others.
I would see such work as being about Incarnation, service and the works of mercy; it is about empowering individuals and helping them and communities to flourish; about creating the possibility and vision for alternative futures; as such it is focussed on the Kingdom of God, on prophetic action, on the justice of God. Being pragmatic, it is difficult to see how the Church could withdraw from the partnerships with Government in its various forms without doing immense damage to the lives of vulnerable people in deprived areas. In the neighbourhoods in which I work, existing Third Sector work would be decimated if the Church withdrew from partnerships.
There are obviously deep questions and concerns about the Big Society. The key one is that it is being implemented at the same time as swinging public spending cuts. It has been good to see the Church expressing grave concern about the cuts and their disproportionate effects on those in the bottom ten percent of our society[iv]. I would characterise our work as being about creating a just society in which all can flourish, and am opposed to anything that casts an unfair burden on or which stigmatises those in poverty. The Church must be able to remain free to criticise Government.
I have worries and questions about the Church being coopted into the agendas of Government (of any party) or, indeed, of any funders, but believe that our faith in the God of the Incarnation impels us to take risks in the service of the world. It would clearly be foolish to go so entirely down the Big Society line when it may prove to be just the latest in a series of short-lived Government programmes (while recognising that it has the potential to reshape public life for a generation). We are bound to feel uncomfortable with a great deal of this, but this is not sufficient reason to withdraw from work that seeks to serve those in greatest needs and which tries to cooperate with the Kingdom of God. At the same time, however, we need to discern the lines that we should not cross.
The experience we have in developing areas of work which chime in with the Big Society allow us to see that Big Society type empowerment needs proper resourcing both in terms of finance and time if it is to be successful. It is important that the cuts do not leave us having to make bricks without straw[v]. It is essential for the Church to maintain the freedom and vision to be able to speak prophetically against actions that we identify as harming those in greatest need in our society.
On the same basis our churches in this time of austerity need more than ever to look at the resources that we have and to see how we can make a greater offering to the communities and neighbourhoods we serve. Anglican churches in many of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods of Birmingham have a history of presence, sustaining and offering when on paper they have nothing whether it is through people, buildings or money – in many cases this is a widow’s mite offering. The opportunity for the wider and wealthier church to understand and support this has not always been seized and perhaps it is time for us to model a Church of England Big Society to demonstrate what might be possible in wider society. We practice financial redistribution through the Common Fund and Parish Share. How might this be yeast that transforms all our life as a Church?
This leads to the related question of what we can do while living with the cuts. It is clear that life for parish based community projects and for people living in deprived parishes is going to be more difficult in the coming years. As individual Christians and as Church communities, we need a very serious engagement with the reality of this. In terms of estate parishes this might best be done by continuing to develop reflective practice whereby people reflect on the Gospels and their own stories, or those of people they know, so that they are led more deeply into the work of the Kingdom. The methods of liberation theology are of key importance in this first step. It is also important that those who serve the Church by teaching should help parishes in contexts of poverty and deprivation through Gramsci’s model of the organic intellectual.
It is vital that our work is connected with others. Many of us are engaged in struggle to make the world better through movements like the unions or campaigns like the Peoples Charter. It is essential that our work is as broad based as possible and as effective as possible.
There is a great importance in paying continuous attention as to why we are engaged in this work and this ministry. We pray that all we do is rooted in the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. As far as possible, we should model a life that is a beautiful, hopeful, creative and joyful offering to God. We know that it is easy to become deformed in the struggle for justice. Our life therefore needs to be strongly rooted in the disciplines of prayer and worship; we are here for the long haul.
Andy Delmege is a parish priest in Birmingham Diocese. He is the Convenor of Strengthening Estates Ministry.
An earlier version of this paper was presented to the Society of Sacramental Socialists Christ the King Meeting in November 2010 (https://sacramentalsocialists.wordpress.com/)
[i] Non-British readers should note that ‘estates’ refer to neighbourhoods made up of social housing, often with associated problems of poverty and multiple deprivation. In the US, they would be referred to as ‘inner city housing projects’. The estates that form the context for my work and ministry are ‘outer estates’ meaning social housing built since the First World War on the outskirts of British cities to house the white working class population as the inner city districts were slum-cleared.
[ii] See, for example Jesse Norman The Big Society: Anatomy of the New Politics, University of Buckingham Press, 2010
[iii] as Ken Leech has observed (private conversation, November 2010), partnerships between the Church and Government to overcome poverty and deprivation goes back at least to 1870. In this paper, I am concerned chiefly with the particular relationships developed over the last couple of decades as the Government has commissioned the Third Sector to undertake particular bits of work.
[iv] see for example Archbishop Rowan’s interview with Radio WM on November 7th, or the five bishops quoted by Jonathan Wynne-Jones in the Daily Telegraph on November 21st.
[v] this phrase comes from a private conversation with Andrew Davey.