A Response to the Church of the Poor Conference
2nd & 3rd November 2017, Manchester
I’ve just returned from an inspiring gathering of 35 individuals, organisations, research bodies and Churches drawn together by CAoP in Manchester and described as some of the key influencers on poverty and the Church nationally. The event was convened with a focus on how we might nurture a Church of/for/to/with the Poor and what that might look like.
As one would expect, with so many different lenses through which to view that issue, debate was broad, rich and open. But what arose time and again was the issue of language. We had been brought together to consider the ‘Church of the Poor’ but was that the same as Pope Francis’ ‘Poor Church’? How do we set out to create a Poor Church? And amid the natural and pragmatic desire not to get too hung up on semantics, the group generally moved on from the issue of which preposition out of of/for/with/to or indeed none was appropriate, feeling that there were more important issues to discuss.
But I think the language is actually key to the whole debate.
One research colleague in the room rightly said that we have to start with the Church as it is now, not how we wish it might be. So what form of Church, relative to the poor, do we have now?
I’d suggest that we have a ‘Church to the Poor’. We as Churches, and alongside other faith groups, are brilliant at serving and meeting the needs of the poor in our communities. Foodbanks, homeless shelters, holiday hunger schemes and, of course, the outpouring and response to major tragedies such as at Manchester Arena and Grenfell Tower. The Church and those of faith are hugely invested – in every meaning of that term – in caring for those in our poorer communities on the ground.
But is a Church to the Poor good enough?
I was struck by a presentation that was given at the event by an academic who was based in the community and parish Church where I grew up in Manchester. As a child forty years ago I remember that feeling of disconnect between my own family and the leaders at that Church who, though hugely well meaning, were not like us. And it was interesting, though sad, to see the film clip he brought which showed that in forty years little had changed. There was still that multi-racial poorer working-class community that existed under the leadership of a non-indigenous white middle-class Vicar. And though some really great things were happening at grass roots level there, and taking nothing from the clergy who have devoted so much over time, it all felt less than transformational. It felt like we are living out a calling in the Church to maintain poverty, to maintain the status quo, because without looking at any of the wider cultural and structural issues we end up doing what has been done in that Parish. With kindness and good will and the best of intentions, we maintain poverty.
And then I’m taken to Christ in the synagogue who reads from Isaiah saying that he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor. And I’m struck by that because he doesn’t say there that he comes to bring good news to everyone. Just as in the #blacklivesmatter movement in the US, which has been appropriated by those of the white right as #alllivesmatter, my feeling is that Christ meant just that… good news to the poor. Yes, of course, all matter to him but the good news, the preference is for the poor. And not the spiritually poor. Robert Beckford, a powerful theologian, spoke eloquently at the event about how black slaves were taught by white missionaries to read lines from the Bible, such as ‘setting the captives free’, spiritually, because that way it disarmed their formulating any more of a political response.
So that takes me to our calling and the need for a move towards a Church with the Poor.
In order to begin to transform unjust structures, as we are called to, and become neither complacent nor complicit in the maintenance of poverty, we need to begin to empower those who are currently powerless. In forty years of activity in my home parish the Church structures which held power remained the same. If we are to move towards a Church which acts in a transformational rather than maintenance capacity with regard to poverty, and thus has authority to speak out into the world to urge the same, we need to look at our structures and empower the poor within them.
Bishop Philip North spoke, on evening one, about the desirability of actively nurturing indigenous leadership on our estates and I would very much echo his words on that. However, that will take ten years to have any serious impact in terms of an empowered voice within our structures. What we could look to do more immediately and alongside that is to release the latent working class within ourselves.
Let me explain what I mean by that. I find the Church to be cripplingly middle-class, from the dinners at people’s homes, to the endless books, to the constant references to Radio 4. There’s a real sense that if you’re not in that world then you lack intelligence, ability, strategic vision and leadership potential. But that is a nonsense. I have worked in senior leadership in all kinds of organisations where that simply isn’t the case. We have created, in the Church of England certainly, a culture and a set of rules that bear no relation to broader equipping and the gifts and talents needed to lead a complex Church in our UK communities of the 21st century.
There’s the apparently true story of a current Bishop who was speaking to a potential applicant for a job in a deprived area within his diocese. ‘What do you know about Tertullian?’ the prospective applicant was asked. ‘Not a lot’, came the reply, ‘Well you’ll not get very far with me then’ was the Bishop’s response. There’s an immense amount of pressure upon those who wish to progress in the Church to conform to a middle-class worldview and the preferences of those above them. And this is allowed to prevail because those above them hold such arbitrary power over the appointment system to more senior roles. So you can be as ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ in all your working class glory as you like but if your Bishop doesn’t like that then it’s highly likely you’ll remain fearfully and wonderfully active among the lower ranks of the Church throughout your career. No matter how gifted or how well your skill set might suit some of that transformational work to which we’re called. ‘Success isn’t a Gospel concept’, I was told by a Church figure senior to me just recently. In that case, and looking at the latest figures for Church attendance, we’re doing rather well then.
With the profile that there has been recently on whether the Church of England is too middle-class I have been delighted to witness colleagues – some senior – begin to develop the confidence and the voice to embrace their own inner working class. ‘Yes, I was born on an estate’… ‘my mother was a single parent’… ‘I’ve just taken my children to look round the estate where I grew up, I felt it was important for them to see where I lived as a child’. Those working-class voices are there – formed, developed, educated now and rightly so – but they should be allowed to feel that giving their perspectives, and what they truly see as just, right, transformational and so on given their backgrounds and experiences, will enrich the Church and enhance their prospects rather than confining and thwarting their development and ambitions.
And, were all of that to happen, I’d feel we were approaching a Church of the Poor.
The Church of the Poor would see poor voices – those with first-hand experience of poverty, no matter how remote – speaking into Church decision-making structures. Empowered to be open about their experiences and their views without fear of any form of adverse institutional reaction. And, in missional terms, we would begin to be a Church which drew those in poverty to us more strongly, not in a dependent relationship but as channel of transformational hope, buoyed up with the affirmation of those who have been born within deprived circumstances and have seen their lives change through constant prayer and constant effort. Real, informed, rooted views on the reality of poverty would begin to inform Church decision-making at the higher levels and our praxis across the board. We would cease to be a Church who, with the greatest goodwill, does unto and become a Church that is of those who are and have been poor. And we begin to become that truly good news that we’re called to be.
And finally, changed from glory to glory, we become a Poor Church.
Bishop Philip spoke of the wealth held by the Church of England and our debate focused on the priorities of our Churches in terms of serving some of our poorest communities. Once we have more voices of the poor – powerful, empowered, confident – speaking out and influential within our Church’s senior decision-making structures then we would see a redistribution of such wealth across our activities, a realignment and reassignment of priorities, a Church which hoards less, a Church which uses what it has to transform the communities it serves rather than maintain an unjust status quo into the future. A Church which is built on rock and that has the moral authority to challenge those who mistreat and subjugate the poor, the weak and the vulnerable around us.
We would have a Poor Church that truly was good news to the poor.