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Author Archives: Chris Baker

About Chris Baker

Chris Baker is Director of Research at William Temple Foundation and Senior Lecturer in Urban and Public Theology at the University of Chester.

Finding Radical Hope in a Year of Election?

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At the start of this election year of 2024, we at the Foundation are asking the question: If what we need to rediscover as a society is a sense of radical hope, then what might that look like; and how might we feed this hope into the policy areas that are already shaping the forthcoming election debates?

This task is as palpable as it is formidable and daunting. Most people you speak to in our country are chronically or acutely traumatised by the challenges they face on a daily basis. These are challenges that we thought we had banished for ever within a smooth and untroubled narrative of technical and ethical progress and evolution. 

And yet as a result of a decade and a half of broken economic and political nostrums, and more recently exacerbated by unparalleled and systematic levels of government corruption and unaccountability, old ghosts are once again stalking our land. Poverty, hunger, mental health, public disease, lack of hygienic waterways, inadequate housing, decrepit schools and failing hospitals, dangerously high levels of infant mortality at childbirth, lack of transport and other infrastructure that inhibits growth and connectivity – all conditions that we in the West used to patronisingly refer to as Third World conditions – are now perniciously embedded in several parts of British society and affecting millions of our fellow citizens. 

A passing anecdote relayed by Dr Val Barron, one of our Research Fellows and a former Foundation Scholar, sums up our predicament as the UK stumbles into 2024. Val works as a community organiser in the North-East and recently appeared in a cameo role as a vicar in Ken Loach’s latest film The Old Oak. The film centres on the arrival of a group of Syrian refugees to a poor ex-mining village and the feelings of resentment and hostility their arrival prompts amongst some of the locals. They see these new arrivals as receiving preferential treatment when their own lives are so impoverished and forgotten. A Syrian refugee appearing as an extra in the film wondered aloud to Val if there was a local civil war going on. The degradation of the physical environment and the impoverished nature of people’s daily lives in the ex-mining village had reminded her powerfully of the context from which she had just fled.

In other words, for many people in this country, the sense of brokenness, and the feelings of disempowerment and hopelessness that flow from it are palpably present and pervasive. 

History tells us that where this sense of disempowerment and hopelessness take hold then two reactions tend to follow. One is a depressive apathy which allows one to be gaslit into believing that the lack of decent services and opportunities to expand your family’s wellbeing is your fault for not trying hard enough, rather than the state of corrupted inequity and injustice that has held sway in this country in recent years. The other is to allow one’s emotions of frustration and powerlessness to be channelled into a sense of grievance bordering on a hatred of The Other. In this instance it is migrants and asylum seekers, 75 percent of whom, when their case is eventually heard, were granted the right to settle in this country based on the validity of their claim in 2022.

Recent European history shows how this manipulated sense of fear and hopelessness drives many into the arms of far-right or far-left authoritarian and so-called populist regimes, whose tactic is to leverage power and loyalty on the basis of ‘othering’ a minority group in society. Historically this has been Jewish people, LGBT + and Gypsy and Roma communities. In more recent times one can add Muslims and members of the trans community. Unfortunately, religious (usually Christian) narratives and tropes are also co-opted into these authoritarian narratives.

So where to define and locate a sense of radical hope in what feels for many an era of deep anxiety and uncertainty about the future? First, definitions. Radical for me has two meanings, derived from its Latin etymology of radix, meaning roots. For me, hope is anchored in deep roots that are attached to existential values and beliefs which are clearly both religious and philosophical. They invite us to excavate into the very depths of what we think is the basis of our shared human experience and the essence of life itself. In this sense hope is ontologically rooted. This ontological connection to political thought can allow a long-term perspective and therefore more resilient viewpoint to emerge as an antidote to short-term and reactive thinking. The German philosopher and social theorist Jurgen Habermas, who is fearful for the secular legacy of the liberal democratic nation state, uses a rare word ‘autochthonous’ (or self-originating and preceding subsequent cultures) to describe what he defines as the ‘pre-political’ power of religious and philosophical ideas and wisdom. This ability to be self-originating provides a proper ethical and intellectual balance to the ravages of a deracinated capitalism, and its attempts to co-opt important ideas for narrow political gain or exploitation.

Which leads me to the second dimension of the word radical which is associated with ideas of ‘alternative’ or ‘counter hegemonic’. It refers to the ability, based on our deep-rooted beliefs and values, to call out the toxic assumptions and practices of despotic and authoritarian governments and articulate a more just and humane understanding of a shared social life. However, a common critique of what are often religiously-based calls for alternatives is that they are simply that – i.e. ‘calls’ that merely tend towards the grandiose and rhetorical. What is also required therefore are a series of well-thought through and credible broad policy ideas that are capable of not only articulating a new ontological basis for change and transformation, but also providing a road map for the implementation of that transformation.

As we know, William Temple, in his book Christianity and Social Order, published in 1942,not only articulated an alternative vision for the future of British Society that broke profoundly with the Victorian and Edwardian traditions of laissez-faire economics. He also provided, through his use of middle axioms, broad policy ideas that would help ensure this vision was enacted as actual legislation. These included the right to access lifelong education and decent housing, through to the importance of belonging to what he called ‘intermediate groupings’ that lie beyond the power of the State and the Market. (You can find further references to this historical legacy of Temple’s radical hope from beyond the UK in references from Australia and America). So radical hope for me is a forward-facing political and policy agenda that reaches out across difference and generates a sense of joyful expectation that things can and will be different. It also creates a renewed solidarity in the common articulation and pursuit of that expectation. However, the truly radical nature of that hope is only fully realised when it comes with ‘data-backed solutions’ so that real structural change has a realistic chance of being implemented, rather than just simply protested.

To that end, the Foundation is holding a series of regional events that will explore experiences of activism and partnership, alongside fresh thinking and ideas on this theme of radical hope. These events are designed to influence the political debates about the future of our society in the run-up to the General Election. Part of this initiative is driven by the fear that major, upstream questions that reflect a hopeful narrative for our society will be drowned out by counter-narratives based on short-termism and fear – particularly on complex issues such as immigration and climate change, freedom of speech and human rights in an increasingly pluralised and digital world. As well as a Westminster event, we will be curating programmes in the North East and North West of England as well as Northen Ireland where some of our current research and thinking is contextually rooted.

The calls for change are growing more insistent and expectations are rising. However, there is always a danger that the opportunity for real change at a 2024 General Election will be missed, unless the ideas of radical hope are fully embedded and expressed in agendas and policy frameworks that are visionary, alternative but also practical. It is into this agenda that the Foundation is hoping to make a substantive contribution in 2024 and beyond. Come and join us in the debate!

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Revd Dr John Reader: Senior Research Fellow, William Temple Foundation (1953 – 2023)

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John Reader William Temple Foundation

Director of Research, Professor Chris Baker, offers a personal reflection on the life and contribution of a dear friend and colleague, whose sudden death earlier this week has left many of those who knew, loved and deeply respected John with a profound sense of loss and shock….

It is with a deep sense of shock and a profound feeling of sadness that we at the Foundation  have learned of the sudden death of Revd Dr John Reader. We are stunned at the unexpected passing of someone who has been so deeply influential on the trajectory of the Foundation’s work for so many years. 

John was a staunch supporter of the work of the Foundation and an integral part of our output thanks to his prodigious talent and gift for communicating in accessible ways the very latest ideas from Continental Philosophy, environmentalism and science including of course the digital and the post-digital. His thinking gave the Foundation an ability to always be intellectually ahead of the curve whilst at the same time being true to the liberal, progressive and inclusive Anglican vision that the Foundation believes is the enduring legacy of Archbishop William Temple himself. One vehicle for doing this was established by John himself in the form of our Ethical Futures Group. This is a network of around 20 global scholars working in the areas of theology, environmentalism and ethics which he curated and led with great delight and enthusiasm. Just a few weeks ago the Foundation hosted a very successful panel at Greenbelt 2023 on AI and the future of theology and society, based on his and Professor Maggi Savin-Baden’s inspirational research, and we were able to remind several hundred people there of their latest book published just two years ago on Post digital Theologies: Technology, Belief and Practice and which has already had a big impact on thinking both within and outside theology and the church.

John’s writing career spanned some 30 years starting with and including early on in his career volumes such as The Earth Beneath (1992), Local Theology (1994) and Beyond All Reason: The limits of Post-modern Theology (1997), all of which had a huge impact on the development of my own theological research. His legacy comprises several books and innumerable articles, book reviews and blogs, several of which are still available on the Foundation’s website on www.williamtemplefoundation.org.uk

One of the reasons for his abiding loyalty to the Foundation was his huge love and respect for the work and person of John Atherton. John, a former canon theologian at Manchester Cathedral, lecturer in Christian Social Ethics at Manchester University and former Director of Research at the Foundation was a mentor and profound encourager to John’s work – as indeed he was to mine.  The Foundation has arguably lost two Johns whose ground-breaking work and thinking it has been a profound privilege for the Foundation to act as a platform and conduit for.

In between all this he, as ever, found time to be a conscientious parish priest, rooted in the rich mysteries and vagaries of rural parish life, and always managed to move between the two worlds of the parish and academia effortlessly and authentically. His first commitment however was always his family and his grandchildren to whom he will have passed on so much knowledge and learning. He  was a fanatical sports fan and indeed sportsman – Southampton FC drove him mad, but cricket was arguably his first love and whenever he got somewhat stressed or frustrated – which could occasionally occur as the world, the church and the Foundation itself often struggled to keep up with his prodigious output and thought – he would seek solace either watching or playing it.

There is so much more that needs to be said, and will be said, regarding John’s long and illustrious career as a priest and as an intellectual thinker and writer whose work was, and will be, valued across the globe as well as on these shores. Much more on his remarkable contributions to knowledge, learning and networks will emerge in the days to come.

John was a funny, warm, generous, passionate but above all loyal friend. We were due to meet next week for a long-overdue catch-up pint in Oxford. It seems inconceivable that he is no longer with us, and that I will no longer receive an email from him, usually within 10 minutes of me having sent one to him! His intellectual legacy and pastoral ministry are immense and touched the lives of so many people. 

May he rest in peace and rise in glory!

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Hyperdigital Designs: A Report on Cybernetic Grammar at its Highest Point

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With the heaven-sent speed of Hermes, computers calculate in writing to shape the grammar of the world.  Although analysable into binary algebra, the calculations of computers are more than mathematical, and more than mechanical. For if computers can be said to write the script of their mechanical operations, and to do so with a grammar that is uniquely their own, then the grammar of cybernetic engines must exceed beyond, and enter in so as to shape the motion of any machine. And if, in shaping this motion, computers continuously gesture beyond the immanent frame of their mechanical operations, then we should investigate the cybernetic grammar of the digital from its highest points.

It is this higher way of writing of the grammar of computers that we have begun to investigate.  On Wednesday 14 June, we convened the Hyperdigital Designs workshop at the University of Cambridge for the purpose of exploring the hyperbolic cybernetic grammar of computers.  This workshop was hosted by Cambridge Digital Humanities, and co-sponsored by the William Temple Foundation and the Diverse Intelligence Summer Institute (DISI).

Hyperdigital Designs Workshop
https://www.cdh.cam.ac.uk/events/36499/

During the workshop, the ‘How to Play with Fire’ team of DISI 2022 hosted sixteen invited guest speakers to contribute papers reflecting on the significance of what we have begun to call the ‘hyperdigital’ for theology, philosophy, ethics, politics, and the arts.

The hyperdigital designates a higher or hyperbolic reflection on the creative origins and free use of the cybernetic grammar of computers.  It can be called ‘hyper-digital’ in the sense of a ‘hyperbole’ (ὑπερβολή) or excess of signification, in which cybernetic judgments both exceed beyond and enter in to animate the free creation and use of digital techniques. 

The hyperdigital can be doubly contrasted with the ‘digital’, which scripts the algebraic calculation of mechanical operations, and the ‘postdigital’, which reflects upon an indefinite bricolage of conceptually evacuated relations of material entanglement. 

Beyond both the ‘digital’ and the ‘postdigital’, the ‘Hyperdigital’ is a hyperbolic cybernetic grammar, which, in the sense of a hyperbole, exceeds so as more radically to enter and accelerate the free use of digital computation and communication – whether among the creators of digital systems, or from the oldest creator of the idea of the digital itself.

The ‘hyperdigital’ had been conceived at the 2022 Diverse Intelligence Summer Institute (DISI 2022) at the University of St. Andrews by the ‘How to Play with Fire’ team, consisting of Ryan Haecker, Jenny Liu Zhang, and Brandon Yip, with the later addition of Olivia Thomas.

During the course of DISI 2022, we argued that the postdigital had failed to accommodate the higher reflections upon the creative source of the idea and calculation of the digital.  Instead, it had recirculated the grammatical rupture and ontological violence of the digital in an apocalyptic rhetoric of the crash and release of the coherence of digital systems.

Since the conclusion of DISI 2022, the How to Play with Fire team has continued to meet for monthly discussions of recent developments in the philosophy of technology, especially as it relates to information, cybernetics, and the cybernetic grammar of computers.

At the conclusion of our year-long collaborative project, the How to Play with Fire team convened the Hyperdigital Designs workshop at the University of Cambridge, with financial and administrative assistance generously provided by Cambridge Digital Humanities.

We enjoyed a wonderfully thoughtful day examining the hyperdigital, as well as imagining solutions to promote human flourishing. Some key points of discussion included:

The videos, presentations, and photos from this workshop can be found in the links below:

Video Playlist
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL-d6U1dRcJENeqpiM9xDd6_FzYlF1-3PG

Presentation slides
https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1zGOzz601K–xX89Wk_7BFM0UGa2ve-Da?usp=sharing

Photos
https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1dLV4TWigiu4j2x3UMtMrHLTTztGoDAz1?usp=sharing

Following the Hyperdigital Designs workshop, Ryan Haecker, a research fellow of the William Temple Foundation, has published a new peer-reviewed article in Postdigital Science and Education, titled ‘Via Digitalis: From the Postdigital to the Hyperdigital’. He argues three theses: the postdigital has failed; postdigital theology is incompatible with Christian theology; and, for mystical theology, the hyperdigital is the truth of the postdigital.

With the publication of this article, he has presented a summary of the year-long collaboration of the ‘How to Play with Fire’ team at the Diverse Intelligence Summit 2023 at the University of St. Andrews.  A video recording of his talk can be found at the link below:

Video
https://youtu.be/xhpV0lV-hTg

In the future, we hope to publish the proceedings of the Hyperdigital Designs workshop in an edited volume. We invite expressions of interest in collaborating on this future project.

Email
hyperdigitaldesigns@gmail.com

Twitter
https://twitter.com/HyperdigitalDes

YouTube
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVN_wwMfYJDp2cVsBElAcVg

Finally, to continue engaging with the lively threads inspired at this workshop, please join us in our new community Discord server, Hyperdigital Designs. We will use this as an online hub to discuss ideas, share publications and projects, and stay connected about all things related to human flourishing while navigating the hyperdigital.

Discord Server
https://discord.gg/ZqwkUYNVT4

The Hyperdigital Designs Team

Ryan Haecker (University of Austin)

Jenny Liu Zhang (University of Edinburgh)

Brandon Yip (Australian National University)

Olivia Thomas (University of Edinburgh)

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A Greek Tragedy at Sea

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As 600 innocent people drown in the search for a better and safer life, will compassionate pragmatism ever replace hostility?

Our new Temple Takes feature offers the chance for those associated with the William Temple Foundation to reflect ethically and politically on those events that have made the news in a particular week.

This week’s news has been particularly grim: the report by the Parliamentary Privileges Committee into the deliberate misleading of Parliament by Mr Johnson over lockdown rules, and the subsequent undignified infighting amongst the Conservative party, makes me despair at how low the standards in our public life have become.

There was the tragic and senseless murder of three innocent citizens in Nottingham and the 6th anniversary of the Grenfell Tower disaster. Then there were the latest strikes by junior doctors, which however justified, nevertheless puts countless lives on anxious and potentially fatal hold. I have had two conversations with a close friend and family member this week. Both are living with cancer knowing that their treatment is facing constant delay and cancellation. It is a heartbreaking and unacceptable situation, and I am haunted by what they are having to face.

As ever in recent times, the global, national and personal seem interlaced in increasingly visceral ways.

But last night’s BBC 10 pm bulletin (June 15th) put even these harrowing events into a new perspective. The lead item was the coverage of the political fallout from the aforementioned Parliamentary Privileges Committee report involving Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak. The item showed images of Mr Sunak accompanying a police raid on what was loosely described as a ‘crackdown on illegal immigration’. Dressed in heavy boots and stab vest, the Prime Minister looked somewhat self-conscious and out of place as he watched from the sidelines. Nevertheless, the visual narrative we were being invited to consume was that of a leader on top of the fight against illegal immigration and ‘stopping the boats’ in the wake of an admittance by the UK Government that it has no realistic chance of meeting its own targets.

The next item covered the unbearable tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean Sea of the coastline of Greece. An old and overcrowded fishing boat carrying 750 refugees and migrants had capsized en route from Libya to Italy. The people on board where from Pakistan, Syria and Kurdistan and included over 20 women and up to 100 children, apparently quartered below deck.

Whilst 100 have been rescued, there is now a clear expectation that the rest will have perished on top of the 78 already pronounced dead. Apparently, no life jackets had been issued. The boat was dangerously overcrowded but for those who had already paid $5000 for the journey there could be no turning back. The vessel was heading towards Italy rather than Greece (a longer and more perilous journey) because Greece is surrounded by more ‘migrant-hostile’ Balkan states. There is speculation that the Greek coastguards should have intervened earlier in saving people within the 15 hours from when the boat entered Greek waters to when it capsized. The fear and terror experienced by those children and adults over that 15-hour period prior to their deaths is unbearable to imagine.

What links these two stories is they appear to show how a politically expedient hostility to refugees and migrants is deadening our collective compassion and sense of empathy.

One would hope that the awful scale of this tragedy might be the impetus for a strategic think on immigration in the UK and across Europe as a whole. The Prime Minister and some of the political and media establishment should at least feel queasy about the juxtaposition of these two events. If the PM chooses to express regret at the tragic loss of human life in the Mediterranean he needs to remember that, at the very same time this tragedy was unfolding, he was presiding over a media stunt purporting to show the toughness and efficacy of the ‘hostile environment’ towards so-called illegal migrants in this country.

Of course, immigration is a complex and global issue. The UK is clearly not alone in attempting to impose draconian laws that attempt to restrict migration. But the tone currently being set by our political leaders appears to be cruel, inaccurate and often baseless, and aimed primarily at covering up for the lack of political will to solve a global issue.

A change of government is looking increasingly inevitable, and potentially with may come some more pragmatic and compassionate responses. As others have argued we need to reopen safe routes to counteract the people traffickers and invest in a professional and efficient border control system and a well-equipped social infrastructure. We need to remove the rhetoric of hatred from the policy framework and recognise both the moral and economic arguments for welcoming those who wish to settle here and contribute to British life. The tides of human misery created by climate change, and wars over dwindling resources, are only set to increase.

Our best resilience in the face of these existential crises is not to draw up a drawbridge which cannot hope to withstand the overwhelming tide of human need. Rather it has to work with the flow of these changes, seeing people flocking to our shores as fellow human beings (a moral approach) and as a vital resource for own economic and social resilience and as a global contribution to problem solving (an economic and technical approach).

Not everyone who wants to settle in the UK will be allowed to do so. Exploitation or criminality need to be swiftly dealt with and provided that clear criteria for asylum seeking are transparently and fairly applied, then some people will not have a strong enough claim on the grounds of political or economic sanctuary.

But the current default culture of demonisation and othering must change. Our system is broken and needs radical re-imagination and investment. Its brokenness is not caused by those people seeking refuge or a better life. It is broken by a lack of political will, vision and up-stream thinking from those whose mindset can countenance no change, however much the evidence points to such a necessity.

We must not let these hundreds of children and adults, whose lives have been cut short in this horrific and tragic accident, die in vain for the sake of an outdated and inefficient ideology of managing global flows of human survival and need.

Dr. Chris Baker holds the post of William Temple Professor of Religion, Belief and Public Life at Goldsmiths, University of London.

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Doing God and Levelling Up: Religion as Sticking Plaster or Real Source of Social Renewal

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‘Doing God is often messy and controversial, but the social benefits far outweigh the negatives’ would seem to be the gist of this much-anticipated review by Colin Bloom into how Government engages with faith which was published this week. The delay (three years in the writing) is partly explained by COVID but also in fairness, to the sheer amount of data the report received. Over 22,000 submissions and a million pieces of data later suggests that the issues surrounding religion and belief and its practice is still incredibly live and important. As the review correctly observes:

Faith in England and Wales is alive and well, and the abundance of detailed and passionate responses to this review across many faith and belief communities highlights the importance of the topic to many in contemporary British society. Faith is a diverse and evolving force which government cannot afford to ignore. (p. 30)

It is also the first review of its kind ever undertaken and is linked to the government’s Levelling Up agenda. The connection between religion and levelling up is not developed in report (perhaps because there is little consensus on what is meant by Levelling Up in the first place). But it perhaps betrays a sublimated wish on the part of Government for religion to act as both a moral legitimator for a rudderless policy term, and the hope that the activities and motivation of faith groups in upholding and developing their local communities (often the poorest and the most deprived) will give much needed meaningful content to the idea.

The report frames its understanding with a typology of true-believers, no-believers and make-believers. Increasing numbers of people in this society may baulk at such a simplistic binary narrative as true believer or no believer on the grounds that their religious and spiritual beliefs are deeply felt but complex and nuanced in their public expression. Make-believers refers to those who distort religious ideas into fundamentalist national and identity politics. The report is at pains to stress that these are a minority but that their activity needs to be more tightly regulated by government for the sake of safeguarding and freedom of speech.

This typology is necessary for understanding the rest of the report; i.e. that government needs to support and understand religion and belief in the round, and strategically support good religion and belief as a vital resource for promoting social wellbeing, equality and participation. To this end the report advocates firm policies on religious literacy for all public sector bodies, increased resourcing for RE in education and for those key areas where religion intersects with public provision in prison and health care, and the appointment of a national independent Faiths Champion.

But the report is equally clear that it is the role of the state to crack down on bad (or make-believe) religions linked to forms of nationalist and religious extremism. All the main religious faith traditions in the UK (including Christianity and its co-option by some far-right groups) have clear links with banned international and domestic terrorist organisations. Bad religion also rightly includes the practices of forced marriage and spiritual abuse in its list of things that Government needs to actively prescribe. However, the uneven and disproportionate way these sections are treated – issues outlining Sikh extremism occupies twice the length of discussion than all the other faith groups out together – is likely to raise accusations of potential tarring whole communities in ways that the Prevent programme has done for the Muslim community. The repeated observation that freedom to practice Christianity in the UK is now perceived to be under threat (perhaps the point could have been made just once or twice) is likely to fuel the toxic culture wars rhetoric of right-wing media and far-right groups.

Ultimately, the Bloom Review, is something of a missed opportunity to move the debate on religion and belief in England in a ground-breaking way. The research I undertook for the APPG on Faith and Society analysed the pandemic as a ‘permission space’ that allowed us to talk about religion and belief in a new way that also led to innovative and effective partnerships with secular agencies. The anxieties that secular groups usually feel about working with faith groups (for example, proselytization safeguarding, a lack of accountability etc) were suspended for the sake of effective working together. Stereotypes were largely disproved in the relationships forged in the crucible of the pandemic. Instead of difference this crucible highlighted shared values and therefore the possibility of achieving shared outcomes through co-creation of policies rather than co-production.

I hope the Bloom Review will be a landmark document that brings about lasting and positive change to faith and secular relations. What is missing is a step-change in re-imagining the role of religion and belief in British society that is commensurate with the unprecedented nature of the challenges facing this country. Most of the report’s recommendations see religion more as a problem to be managed, rather than highlighting, for example, the potential of religious ideas to profoundly shape the overall policy framework that delivers the sort of society we want to create. There is a reference to round tables. Where, however, are the structural opportunities to devise and shape policy, as well as deliver policy?  William Temple did that 80 years ago from a Judeo-Christian perspective in his book report – Christianity and Social Order, which was published in1942 and paved the way for the post-war Welfare State. Levelling Up is a policy in desperate need of that sort of envisioning now, and it would be a multifaith and postsecular endeavour, not purely a Christian one.

As we negotiate the legacy of the pandemic, the ongoing cost of living crisis and the horror of climate disaster, religion and belief could – indeed should – be a real force for social renewal through this re-envisioning of levelling up, rather than applying sticking plasters and bandages to systems and policy plans that are already deeply broken.

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Review of ‘Archbishop William Temple: A Study in Servant Leadership’ by Stephen Spencer

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Stephen Spencer, Archbishop William Temple: A Study in Servant Leadership 
Published by SCM Press 2022
ISBN 9780334061670

Reviewed by Chris Baker, Director of Research, William Temple Foundation 

This latest text from Stephen Spencer is another biography of Archbishop William Temple, who died in 1944, and joins a small but enduring list of biographies published to date. This year is an auspicious year to bring out such a volume, focussing attention as it does on the 80th anniversary of the publication of the work that Temple is perhaps still best known for, namely Christianity and Social Order. This biography, focusing on what Temple’s life says about a model of public leadership and service within a framing of servant leadership is also incredibly timely, coming at a time when political leadership in this country has been proved to be eye-wateringly corrupt and tainted by self-service, sleaze, and purposefully orchestrated division. Will public confidence in political leadership ever recover at this time of multiple crises—which range from the cost of living, poverty, and collapse in public services to environmental disaster and a new European war in Ukraine? Also, as I write this review, controversy and disunity have surfaced at the 2022 Lambeth conference over the issues of same-sex marriage and LGTBQ+ rights. I wonder how Temple’s approach to leadership and reconciliation would have played out amidst the current political and ecclesial splits shaping our public discourse? Inevitably, these thoughts were playing in my mind as I read this latest addition to the Temple oeuvre.

Spencer’s biography starts with a brief overview of the theme of servant leadership. There is a clear root to Jesus’ radically kenotic view of leadership along the lines ‘whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all’ (Mark 10:43-44). But Spencer augments this allusion with two influential contemporary exponents of the concept (Robert Greenleaf and Kenneth Blanchard). These additional facets include providing vision and direction in ways that shape the present but define the future by having clear goals and acknowledging what others have done and offering clear and concise support when changes are needed—both of which are underpinned by a wider sense of hope and trust in what God is bringing to the world.

Spencer then cleverly moves to a description of Temple, arguably at the height of his leadership powers, caught on a news film report addressing a packed Albert Hall in September 1942 as the newly enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury on the theme of ‘The Church Looks Forward’. In the audience are leading politicians of the day, including those who will serve as ministers in the post-war Labour Government, as he lays out the principles for post-war reconstruction. Like a movie that starts at the end for dramatic effect, the rest of the book offers us the backstory as to how this pivotal point is reached.

Spencer moves with well-signposted chapters through the early stages of Temple’s life and career, suggesting a nagging desire to question and confound the easy and accepted trajectory for his life at the heart of the elite establishment, including a stellar academic career in philosophy at Oxford and becoming headmaster at an early age of a prestigious public school. Two events challenge that orthodoxy. First, is Temple’s experience of being initially rejected for the priesthood on the grounds of theological unorthodoxy, and second, his placement at Toynbee Hall and the Bermondsey Mission, sent there by Edward Caird, the master of Balliol College, Oxford. The book then becomes more gripping and intriguing. We move through to Temple’s middle and late phases of life, where a meteoric rise to being Bishop of Manchester at the time of the post-war General Strike, and his theological and political reflections on the nature of sin, evil, compassion, and social justice begin to meld into his formidable expression of public leadership.

Here, Stephen Spencer’s acuity as a theologian, as well as an historical biographer, comes to the fore as he expertly unpacks the trajectory of Temple’s thought from its Idealist roots to his Christian Realism, profoundly shaped by the influence of contemporaries such as Reinhold Niebuhr and by his calling to shape society in accordance with Christian principles. This approach required a deep pragmatism allied to a deep vision and the ability to hold together multiple perspectives in tension. Chapter 6, on the theme of ‘Changing Views of Human History’, is an expertly charted essay in philosophical thought, whilst Chapter 10, ‘From Logic to Imagination’ does the same from a theological perspective.

Spencer’s archival diligence skilfully brings Temple alive as a person, a thinker, and a leader. The structure of the book holds the interplay between life experience, its impacts on theological and political thinking, and pattens of leadership in firm view. Finding intimate, touching, and vulnerable anecdotes alongside sustained passages of deep thought as well as incisive and honest appraisals of Temple by his contemporaries is one of this book’s strengths. Spencer is not averse to presenting Temple as a work a progress, rather than the finished article. However, this merely serves to reinforce the phenomenal achievements of a person who, in the end, drove himself to an untimely death through the stress induced by the range of his work and mission. Spencer also highlights the cultural, and in some cases colonial, assumptions of Temple’s thought and idiom which may struggle to find purchase in the contemporary world

In summary, Temple’s leadership comes across as visionary and humble, confident but collaborative, and increasingly fearless in calling out God’s truth to institutional power, both within the church and the wider world. Above all, Temple allowed his personal experience of prayer and spirituality to be the touchstone for his decision making, a spiritual journey that he was also able to articulate and share as part of his leadership, and which continues to inspire others to this day. Yet at the end of this fine and engrossing book I was left with a nagging feeling. It is presented as a study in church leadership for a principally church audience, but should there not be a more ultimate purpose? I think this book has huge and important things to say to secular politicians and business leaders, because, as Spencer so skilfully draws out, Temple’s thinking and approach spilled out into the wider world and touched and shaped many from outside the church. When so much of our public leadership seems paralysed by compromise and corruption on the one hand, and timidity on the other, then here is a voice that needs to be listened to again. I hope churchy imagery and endorsements, fine as they are, do not prevent this book from reaching a properly wide audience.

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‘I can’t breathe’: lifting the lid on institutional racism in the Church of England

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Professor Chris Baker applauds the recent From Lament to Action report, and challenges the church to create a community where all of its members can breathe.

Last week saw the publication of the latest Church of England report, published by its Anti-Racism taskforce, looking at institutional racism in its structures and hierarchies. I say the latest. The From Lament to Action reportis, by its own admission, the most recent in a long line of 20 reports during the past 35 years which have produced no less than 161 recommendations for action to tackle racial injustice in the Church. Hardly any have been met.

To the report’s credit, each recommendation is meticulously referenced in an appendix which, as you can imagine, runs for several pages. Each unfinished recommendation is not only an admonishment against any type of complacency but also a self-inflicted admission of guilt. It is akin to handing out free ammunition to those who would wish the church harm by giving them the wherewithal to blow this report out of the water before the new Commission on Racial Justice even begins its work.

For the secular and sociological left, this list is further proof of an outdated institution, hopelessly in thrall to a colonialist and constitutionally elitist past and struggling to connect with the present era. For critics from the right (and its many media cohorts) this report will likely be interpreted as a misplaced and dangerous form of ‘wokeness’ that positions the Church away from its role as the cultural and moral guardian of an English narrative of cultural superiority and Empire that is reassuringly dusted down from the 1950s whenever there is a threat to that hegemony. And then there are siren and insidious voices of discontent within the church itself, fearful of being accused of being seen to ‘take sides’ or appear ‘too political’. We had enough of this misplaced appeasement during the struggle to ordain women to the priesthood in the late 80s and early 90s. This report, to its credit, creates no such grounds for appeasement of tender consciences in this regard, with its clear commitment to tackling racial injustice as a whole and united body.

However, the report needs to be read in tandem with Clive Myrie’s Panorama programme which trailed its publication. Whilst the report focuses mainly on important policy changes—for example, changes around legislating for increased participation, racial awareness training, and representation—the Panorama broadcast rightly focused on human narratives and experiences of clergy from minority ethnic backgrounds who found themselves on the frontline of both covert and overt racism in the Church.

Their common experience, heartbreakingly and courageously relayed, was of having to ‘tone down’ their colour—their essential identities and personalities—and the insidious need to accommodate to the rules of some arcane game which they could not understand and which were never explained. They described how having to fit into this cultural system felt akin to having one’s creativity, individuality, and giftedness slowly squeezed out of them—of being suffocated by the system.

‘I can’t breathe’—the last desperate utterance of George Floyd whose life was slowly squeezed out of his body by a sadistic law-enforcement officer whose approach to citizen protection was sanctioned by a racist judicial system—are words that now haunt the world.  Since George Floyd’s death, I have become acutely aware (as a white person) that the extinguishing of breath, whilst at its most extreme in the sanctioned violence against black and brown bodies by the state, is also an experience that works in more invisible and insidious ways. It is a form of psychological attack, undermining a sense of belonging and contribution from within so that one feels like an empty shell, a wraith or shadow, in the domain of the living dead.

So, for all the commendable actions and creative ideas promulgated in this report, only one criterion should be used by those assessing the success of the forthcoming work of the Racial Justice Commission. Did we manage to create a Church of England where all its members can find room to breathe and revel in their God-given charisms, experiences, and identities—but especially and specifically those from minority ethnic backgrounds? Or did we fail?

I hope that in five years’ time, the Commission will have not only inspired the Church to change, but it will have successfully shared with the whole nation a better and alternative vision of what a truly diverse British society in the 21st century looks like. Publishing 161 reasons for your enemies to attack you for failed and broken promises is ultimately an astute move. At a time when our political masters appear to be engulfed in a tide of alleged corruption and off the record transactions, the commitment to transparency and a publicly accountable assessment of past failings immediately and effortlessly captures the moral and political high ground. It looks like proper leadership.

However, if we do not succeed in this task, then that part of the body of Christ that used to be referenced under the name of the Church of England will die for lack of breath, slowly suffocating under the inertia of failing to grasp the deep and inclusive change this moment in history demands—and perhaps rightly so.

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Embracing the new normal

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Chris Baker reflects on two recent reports addressing faith and policy in a post-pandemic age.

At the start of last week, some good and tangible news emerged of an imminent rolling out of an effective vaccine against COVID-19. After a long and terrible year, the reckoning of which will take several more years to understand and reconcile, people are once again beginning to re-imagine life coming back to some sort of normality. Indeed, a new phrase has entered the English lexicon because of the pandemic—the ‘new normal’. Despite the many vicissitudes faced by local communities, there is an emerging consensus that certain changes that have been forced on us are perhaps positive; more home working and less commuting; valuing the simpler things in life like family, friends and the beauty of the environment; prioritising the importance of resilient health and social care systems; some awareness that the deep social inequalities magnified by the pandemic must be finally and strategically addressed.

Last week also saw the publication of two key reports which speak directly into this debate about the new normal. Both addressed the shifting role of religion and belief in the time immediately before, but also the time since, the pandemic. Growing Good: Growth, Social Action and Discipleship in the Church of England, published by Theos and Church Urban Fund, highlights the huge growth in social action by the Church of England as a response to the growing social inequality and need that has emerged over a decade of austerity.

It makes the connection between public expressions of ethics, compassion and justice and a growing sense of participation and connection that people outside the church now identify with, and which allows both church and local communities to grow social and spiritual resilience, as well as a renewed sense of belonging. The mission of the church (and religion in general) is now once again being recognised as a public good for the flourishing of all, rather than a privatised one—a view which, until recently, had been the default expectation of a policy world still working to the rather rigid norms of a 20th century secularism.

Meanwhile, a report called Keeping the Faith: Partnerships between faith groups and local authorities during and beyond the pandemic, commissioned by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Faith and Society, and produced by the Faiths and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, looked at the experience of the pandemic response from a local government perspective. Nearly 50% of the 408 local authorities in the UK engaged in the research and the results are highly revealing.

As expected, there has been a heavy reliance on faith-based resources to meet the immediate food distribution and mental health needs of communities impacted by the lockdown. 67% of local authorities reported an increase in working with faith groups since the pandemic, and 60% involved faith-run foodbanks as part of their pandemic response.

This increased activity has led to a hugely positive response from local authorities, with 91% describing their experience of partnerships with faith groups as ‘Very Positive’ or ‘Positive’. There is evidence that this positive experience arising from co-working in the pandemic is also feeding into a commitment from local authorities to strengthen deeper and more authentic ways of working in the future: 76% of them expect these new partnerships to continue after the pandemic and 47% of them want this on a changed basis. The agenda for this changed basis is exciting. 93% of local authorities considered the wider sharing of best practice in co-production with faith communities as ‘Very important’ or ‘Important’. 83% applied these categories to support the idea of ‘safe spaces for honest discussion about differences and difficulties in relation to religion and belief’. In short, partnerships previously envisaged on the basis of what a faith-based respondent to the research referred to as being seen as a ‘junior partner’ are now imagined as more creative, authentic and egalitarian.

These shifts in experience, attitudes and response ask a series of probing questions around what a new normal might look like. Can religious and secular worldviews coexist in a more pragmatic and mutually accepting way beyond mere tolerance? Can faith now be faith without proxy or subterfuge? What has emerged for many in this research is the insight that ‘faith’ is no longer something alien or different, but rather something already present and deeply rooted in our society and which motivates the way we all act in the public space. It also shapes and animates our institutions and structures of governance. Does a new engagement with beliefs, values and worldviews (both religious and non-religious) convey a new respect and authenticity, placing ‘what matters’ alongside ‘what works’?

The policy and theological task to be addressed going forward is this: what new forms of praxis, imagination and leadership from both local authorities and faith groups will be required to sustain the new normal for the sake of a just and flourishing post COVID society, and what new policy frameworks can emerge to support these necessary shifts?

More blogs on religion and public life…

On White Privilege by Sanjee Perera and Simon Lee

Review of ‘Race, Space and Multiculturalism in Northern England’ by Shamim Miah, Pete Sanderson and Paul Thomas by Greg Smith

Is the climate really beyond politics? by Matthew Stemp

TikTok, Pastoral Care and Lockdown Britain by Kenneth Wilkinson-Roberts

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Cummings and the Church: An opportunity to grasp?

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Professor Chris Baker reflects on the Bishops’ contribution to the debate about Dominic Cummings and wonders whether it heralds a more sustained vision for our national future.

I struggled with the title for this blog, as I digested the headline from yesterday’s Guardian: ‘Bishops turn on Boris Johnson for defending Dominic Cummings’. My gut instinct wanted to go with ‘Too little too late?’.

I wanted to signal my relief at the belated arrival of a Church of England perspective to cut through the current Dominic Cummings framed narrative of national crisis affecting the whole of the UK, but particularly England—the worst we have faced in 100 years. But yet, if I am to be honest, I was rather underwhelmed by the Bishops’ tweeted statements.

For one thing, this intervention has come rather late in the day. There have been over 60,000 excess deaths resulting from coronavirus since the first death was recorded three short months ago. Yet religion has apparently contributed very little to the contours of the debate about the future of our society.

Second, there was a lack of penetrating perspective. Rather than a statement of considered critique that set the news agenda, it was a series of what felt like hastily coordinated individual tweets that rode on the back of the moral outrage generated by the likes of Piers Morgan and normally loyal Conservative voters.

Third, a tweet doesn’t always convey the appropriate tone. An intervention such as ‘Johnson has now gone the full Trump’ by the Bishop of Willesden comes across as a clever political slogan rather than a powerfully calibrated statement conveying a political yet also theologically grounded critique that most of a nation can rally round. Let us never forget, for example, the disproportionate devastation this disease has had on our BAME communities and those already living within the grim orbit of austerity-induced poverty.

That being said, there were some punchy tropes that were picked up yesterday by the national media. These highlighted the perceived lack of moral integrity and compassion in the political life of our country at the time of its greatest need (one rule for you, one rule for me), and the inability of those in power to publicly apologise and accept the consequences of their actions. These factors, as the Bishop of Sheffield reminded us, undermine the trust and accountability that is required for public health campaigns to save countless lives. ‘The PM & his cabinet are undermining the trust of the electorate and the risks to life are real.’

But a salvo of tweets into the public realm is no substitute for a sustained, purposeful and national series of conversations that have religious, philosophical and secular ideals at their core. What should a new settlement between the government and its people look like? What are the social (as opposed to economic) priorities that the English nation should address that would allow for the flourishing of all? What is the role of the church, and religion in general, in helping to shape the brave new post-coronavirus era in the West in particular? What sort of leadership can the church offer in setting policy as well as spiritual agendas?

Luckily, these sorts of conversations can be curated quickly and cheaply by a series of regional or local webinars and co-produced workshops that can all be facilitated digitally and on a range of social media platforms. The rate of coverage and engagement will be much wider than traditional conferences. The Church of England can also commission its own data, and its own polling, as a key contribution to the debate. Faith groups undertake a huge amount of skilled social and community care and development. Much of it is also deeply prophetic. But does society understand this—or even care? At present, the dots are not joined up, and a coherent story that the public can understand about the nature of English society and the place of the established church and religion within it has yet to emerge.

Thus, alongside shaping the national agenda for adaptation to a post-coronavirus world, the Church of England needs to listen honestly to what people think of it, across regions, localities and sectors. What are positive attributes citizens associate with a national church? What are the negative ones? What would they like to see a national church do and stand for in the future? This information needs to not only set a policy agenda, but also a theological and missional one. Too often we in the church reflect from an internalised bubble and this leads to a distorted view—either an exaggerated sense of our own importance or an exaggerated sense of our own decline. The reality is, and will be, far more subtle and complex. Like all sectors of society, we need to radically re-imagine both the nature of our society, and what a church looks like that contributes meaningfully and insistently at its core.

So, I return to my unease at the implications of ‘Cummingsgate’ for the Church of England. Twitter fame emerges in 24 hours and dissipates just as quickly again. The Church must reflect urgently on how, and with what narrative, it intervenes in the public sphere. If not, then my alternative title will have been tragically accurate. It will have been too little too late.

Image (edited) from Flickr by Marco Verch (CC BY 2.0).

More blogs on religion and public life…

Review of ‘The Place of the Parish: Imagining Mission in our Neighbourhood’ by Martin Robinson

Pandemic & Pestilence: When We Almost Notice That Black Lives Matter Less by Sanjee Perera

On the Unfairness of Life, Death, and COVID-19 by Edward Hadas

COVID-19, Christianity and human dignity by John Loughlin

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Aftermath and resistance – how the next decade will be won or lost (Part II)

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In this second of two blogs for the new decade, Director of Research Chris Baker identifies the role that religions can play in Ulrich Beck’s ‘metamorphosis’ of society.

In last week’s blog, I took Ulrich Beck’s idea of metamorphosis as a central idea for trying to understand where we are at the start of the new decade. His thesis is that something completely new and different is emerging (or metamorphosing) out of the rapid disintegration and extinction of our civilisations and ecosystems brought about by climate catastrophe—a new consciousness and politics based on what he calls a ‘cosmopolitan outlook’. He defines this outlook as a global-centric perspective, an ethical and political willingness to open up new spaces and cultures of cross-border co-operation and civic responsibility.

In an earlier book, entitled ‘A God of One’s Own’ (2011), Beck reflects, like several secular social scientists and philosophers, on the strange re-emergence of religion as a global, political and cultural force towards the end of the 20th century. Beck detects in religion—particularly in Protestantism—a collusion with neoliberal capitalism in its appeal to increasingly individualised understandings of salvation and the ability to create a market place in commoditised religious goods, tailor-made to one’s own worldviews and desires.

He also recognises, however, the collective power of religions to radically change systems for the better given the billions of people who affiliate with a religious identity (currently 84% and rising) and the material and financial assets religion controls. Yet a positive outcome will require the willingness and ability of religion to preach a cosmopolitan message, and not a universalist one. Universalism, says Beck, is essentially a form of fundamentalism and doctrinal purity that insists, usually through the use of coercive violence, on a single narrative and identity to which everyone else must conform to varying degrees. But, he argues, religion can also present a cosmopolitanism, which ‘is based on the actually existing historical impurity of world religions: the recognition that they are intertwined, that they are both one and the same’. This viewpoint, Beck suggests, enables faith traditions ‘to enrich their own religiosity, mutually reinforce one another, and in this way … practice and develop anew the public role of religion in the postsecular modern era.’

So, how might we begin to understand this new ‘public role’ as we journey into this vital decade for the future viability of the earth’s civilisations? I would like to propose two dimensions to this new public role.

The first is spaces of dissent. This week, the UK government disingenuously identified the promulgation of climate extinction as a radicalising political doctrine (on a par with religious and far-right terrorist ideologies), though they stopped short of actually labelling climate extinction activists as terrorists. This move, however, is of a piece with the tactics of increasingly authoritarian regimes across the West, from the US, the UK, China and other European States, whereby lawful, democratic and peaceful public protest is being supressed. Religious leaders must increasingly be prepared to call out these legislative tactics, and lead by example in joining peaceful public protests in defence of human and animal rights and the freedom of public and journalistic expression. Part of the growing suspicion or indifference towards institutional religion in our society is that people are looking for alternative narratives and movements to join that highlight inclusion and connectedness, not exclusion and othering.  Much of this political search for cosmopolitan alternatives has an overtly spiritual dimension. The apparent inability or unwillingness of the church to appear to be able to speak out beyond its own housekeeping issues (usually involving issues of sexual behaviour or identity) leaves the secular world bemused, but also disappointed.

The spiritual dimension of much political activism leads to the second public role of religion: that of firekeeper. This image emerged from a recent, and packed, event I attended exploring the Deep Adaptation framework, which aims to prepare humankind for the deep psychological, spiritual and cultural realities of climate catastrophe. Irrespective of whether you endorse the premises of the Deep Adaptation movement or are sceptical of them, there is a huge resurgence in interest and demand to reconnect with older and more traditional sources of wisdom, ritual and community. These include Sufi, Buddhist and indigenous traditions, but also feature the Abrahamic faiths.

People are understanding afresh that a sense or resilience and grounded hope can be nurtured and deepened by a connection with spiritual and religious perspectives. Institutional religion has a vital role in curating public and accessible spaces where these issues can be explored—and also has much to learn by listening to and participating in these debates. Religious and spiritual traditions reflect the glowing embers that will contain vital elements of Beck’s metamorphosis, and which will need to be breathed upon and nurtured in the dark and troubled days that lie ahead.

These two roles, when combined, allude to the vision of religion that my friend and colleague at the Foundation, Revd Dr John Reader, is developed in a forthcoming Temple Tract on the work of the French political philosopher Bernard Stiegler and, in particular, his thinking on the role that digital technology is already having on human identity and consciousness. Stiegler suggests that our ubiquitous tethering, indeed addiction, to the digital so overloads us that we lose the ability to really desire, to dream and imagine beyond those frameworks devised for us by the Big Six technology companies. John asks: how do we construct a new public in this context, so that we no longer sacrifice our freedom, our democracy and even our planet? Rather than inanely copying digital tropes in a desperate attempt to be ‘current’, the role of religion and the church, John says, could be vital to the construction of this new public by ‘assembling, linking, connecting, gathering, and creating those alternative times and spaces for engagement’.

Here, I suggest, is a five-fold framework for exploring the role a cosmopolitan religion can play in shaping and bringing to birth the metamorphosis so compellingly identified by Beck: assembling, linking, connecting, gathering and creating. It is a contribution to the spiritual and political act of resistance to the aftermath that is already upon us.


More blogs on religion and public life…

Aftermath and resistance – how the next decade will be won or lost (Part I) by Chris Baker

Artificial Intelligece in the Image of God? by Ryan Haecker

Review of ‘The Church of Us vs. Them’ by David E. Fitch by Greg Smith

Ordinary people: telling a story of worth and hope by Val Barron

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