For nearly 50 years now I have been a Hammer; for the uninitiated that means a fan of West Ham United FC. I have supported them through triumph (The FA cup in 1980), disaster of two relegations, and back to success in European competition in 2023. So I start by making my identity and position clear even if in football not all players do. For example Michail Antonio was signed as a right-back in 2015 from Nottingham Forest; few could have foreseen that he would go on to become West Ham’s all-time Premier League leading goalscorer.
Increasingly academic authors are adding statements of positionality and identity comparable to the previous paragraph to published writings. It is often helpful to know where people are “coming from”, though this is not without problems. Most of us inhabit multiple or intersecting identity categories, which may change over time. For example, in my own case I am not only a Hammer, but a committed Christian, a white, well educated man with working class roots, and as from last week a first time grandfather. Furthermore, as Massoud (2022) points out the practice comes with a price, and especially for scholars from a minoritized background an unjust burden, while others assumed to be privileged white males, do not consider such qualifying statements on their work necessary, and may present themselves as totally objective in their thinking.
This served me well in research I carried out in the early 1980s with Sylheti speaking Bangladeshis employed in low paid roles in the clothing industry of East London. I was directly challenged by Bangladeshi colleagues, who were struggling to establish their community rights and identity in an oppressive and racist context, about my own privilege as an external, white, English monolingual, Christian academic. Was I anything more than a classic colonial anthropologist condoning and contributing to their oppression?
Recently I have been working on a longer autobiographical paper around the challenge of coming to terms with my own whiteness. My community work in Newham made me very conscious of racial injustice, the street violence faced by black friends, and the racist attitudes and practices of the police, long before anyone had heard of Stephen Lawrence. I researched and wrote about the growth and experiences of black majority churches and was involved for many years with Evangelical Christians for Racial Justice alongside several younger generation Black and Asian heritage activists. We held conferences, networked with other Christian Racial Justice groups and produced a journal, “Racial Justice”. We developed a biblically based Manifesto for Racial justice and the “New Humanity” resource pack to help Christians see the importance of combating personal and institutional racism. We lobbied within the denominations, the British Council of Churches and especially the Evangelical Alliance (EA). In the EA I think we had some success in the recognition of the contribution of Black Majority Churches and the representation of some of their leaders on their Council. Sadly racial justice was largely absent from the agenda of the UK church in the early years of the 21st Century. In 2018 following the xenophobia that came out in the Brexit vote I wrote a Temple Tract “The Revenge of the Racists” in which I attempted to review recent changes and new challenges to multiculturalism and reflected on my own position and context as a privileged white man.
Since the Black Lives Matter movement emerged in the summer of 2020 the debates about racial justice, the colonial legacy, and contextual Black liberation theologies have run with new energy. Writers such as Anthony Reddie, Sanjee Perera, and Chine Mcdonald have made important contributions. The Church of England, while failing at many levels, has made some imaginative appointments to senior positions. But there has also been a pushback from conservative voices who dismiss everything as “woke” and have tried to invent and use a bogey man of “Critical Race Theory”, portrayed as an organised movement which is anti-Christian, Marxist and even demonic.
With these conflicts in mind, the point I want to share in this blog, is that in a fallen world an hermeneutic of suspicion is essential. For me as Christian that means I need to be suspicious of my own hermeneutic as well as that of others. This means openness and reflexivity regarding my own positionality and context. I think William Temple could help us tackle some of these issues. His Mens Creatrix, is aimed at those with training in philosophy, but nonetheless, this stood out “No amount of development of my mind can make irrelevant the circumstances of my birth and early training” (Temple, 1917, p82). And in an article by Philips 2022 he attributes to Temple the thought that “no one thinker is able to access the entire scope of the real or the true”.
It seems that Temple would agree that positionality and playing as a member of a team matters, whether it be in academic writing, sociology, in football, and increasingly so, in our theology. With this in mind I will conclude by asking, what difference might this kind of self awareness make to the tone of our debate and to the quality of our public life?
Senior Research Fellow Greg Smith has published extensively on religion in the inner city, faith involvement in urban regeneration, and urban theology. Until retirement in 2019 Greg worked for Together Lancashire, a joint venture of Church Urban Fund, Diocese of Blackburn and the Lancashire Methodist District supporting faith based social action and urban churches in the western half of the county. He continues to be active in the City of Sanctuary movement in Preston, in his local inner city parish and in projects and networks addressing food poverty and financial inclusion. From 2011 to 2016 he also worked for the Evangelical Alliance managing the 21st Century Evangelicals research programme and continues to analyse and publish academic papers based on the data. See more on Greg’s work and publications. In his spare time he enjoys photography, bird watching, railways and walking with his dog.
2023 marks 40 years since Archbishop Robert Runcie set up the Archbishop’s Commision on Urban Priority Areas. This approach of bringing together a Commission of “the great and the good” to report on a pressing social issue was possibly the last hurrah of the William Temple tradition. It assumed that the established Church had considerable soft power, and could influence national policy. The report made 61 recommendations: 38 of them to the Church of England, and 23 to the government and nation. Almost all the policy recommendations on unemployment, housing, benefits, education, local government, and policing involved increased public spending, and an attempt to empower local urban communities. The underlying assumptions of the report were that a wide consensus around the post-war welfare state, that Temple and his colleagues had promoted, would ensure that progress towards justice, equality and human flourishing would continue.
Faith in the City represented a moment of prophetic truth-telling by the Church of England but Government Ministers labelled it “pure Marxist theology”. The storm surrounding the report exemplified a broader secularist narrative that sought to restrict religion to the private sphere.
Since 1985, Church of England attempts to influence national policy seem much more modest and have had little impact. The Faithful Cities report 20 years later is now largely forgotten. A new report from the Archbishops’ Families and Households Commission ‘Love Matters’ makes a series of recommendations about how families and households can best flourish, but was not even mentioned by the BBC, and a google search reveals only two articles in the secular national press. Where the bishops in the House of Lords have made what might be called “prophetic” comments on issues such as refugees, food poverty or personal integrity of politicians they appear marginal to the prevailing political narrative, or are eclipsed by the interventions of footballers, such as Gary Lineker and Marcus Rashford. The established church can, of course, still do spectacular public rituals like the Queen’s funeral or the Coronation, and in that context deliver a good sermon that points people to Jesus. However, it is more likely than ever to be referenced for scandal or hypocrisy, especially in regard to safeguarding failures. The media wants to concentrate on internal disagreements on sexuality, where large and vocal sections of the church are out of touch with the prevailing culture. The statistics from the Census, and Church attendance data increasingly show an erosion of public support, especially among the young. While some right wing populist politicians advocate a return to “Christian values”, they are weaker than in the USA or parts of Europe, and are fundamentally a statement of white “English” identity, rather than serious Christian commitment. The Church’s soft power is not what it was in 1985, let alone 1945. What would William Temple do today?
Faith in the City on the other hand did have a significant impact on the churches, especially in a wave of urban mission activity over the following two decades. (See our Urban Tract No 1, and recent autobiographies from Laurie Green, and Neville Black). A major achievement was establishment of the Church Urban Fund and its support of local community projects, which continues to this day. The critique of this approach as “salvation by projects” flags up some of the weakness of the report in terms of theology and missiology; all the energy expended in its wake failed in making disciples of inner city people and integrating them into flourishing, self-sustaining urban parishes. The recommendations to the institutional church seemed worthy at the time, but many have come back to haunt us forty years later. The training of leaders, both clergy and lay, to equip them for ministry in urban parishes remains woefully inadequate, despite a few useful initiatives in the immediate aftermath of Faith in the City. The sharing of resources, especially finance, of affluent dioceses and parishes to poorer areas remains a pipe dream. The issue of institutional racism in the church was highlighted, but never adequately addressed. Although recently a new wave of awareness, and activism followed the rise of Black Lives Matter in 2020, the struggles of BAME Anglicans remain a battleground. Additionally, the reality of White Privilege and “whiteness” have been rejected by many who hold power and influence in the Church.
There have been major changes in the urban scene since 1985. Massive regeneration programmes have taken place in major cities such as London, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and Leeds, particularly around derelict dockland and post industrial areas. Land use has changed, land values have soared, but often original urban communities have been displaced, died out or moved out. Inequality has grown and concentrations of poverty and deprivation are now more likely to be found in peripheral estates, smaller post industrial towns, ex coalfield communities and coastal resorts. Globalisation and large scale immigration has produced a superdiversity of populations in metropolitan areas, and increasingly in smaller cities. The results and reaction to these trends seem somewhat contradictory; on the one hand xenophobia and the Brexit vote, on the other economic and cultural vibrancy in local communities. In the churches, the dominant forces now seem to be new congregations that serve particular ethnic heritage communities, or charismatic groups that attract individual consumers of religion. Yet alongside this, we also witness growing numbers of lively multicultural local congregations and parishes as discussed in John Root’s blog. Research undertaken by Goldsmiths during the pandemic lockdowns suggest that locally there are more opportunities for faith communities to partner in welfare work, as long as no one actually talks explicitly about faith or questions assumptions about equalities as defined in law, or unjust economic inequalities.
To be fair the Church of England, encouraged by Bishop Philip North, has invested new time and finance in estates ministry and the National Estates Churches Network. An attempt has been made to develop an estates theology in a recent book, Finding the Treasure edited by Al Barrett. Personally, I found this rather disappointing in its methodology of experts listening to local voices, rather than the local people leading theological reflection as advocated in Laurie Green’s Let’s do theology. It also fails to connect, and will most likely not be read by Christians who are concerned with making disciples, urban church planting and renewal, and who want to ground their theology in scripture, read, interpreted and applied in local urban contexts.
Such readers will find more resonance in the work of “settler” mission teams associated with organisations such as the Eden Network. I attended a day at their recent Proximity Conference and listened to numerous hopeful stories, sometimes related with what seemed youthful enthusiasm, but which in the light of experience has moved beyond naivety. Anna Ruddick, or Chris Lane have written important books drawn from reflections on involvement in this movement, tracing how long term commitment introduced more realistic expectations and measures of success, and transformed theologies from triumphalism towards a discovery of the Missio Dei in marginal places. It is in such movements that I see signs of God at work, and some of his people getting on board.
It is this sense, rather than in the soft power approach of Temple and the established church, with its condescending “effortless superiority”, that I believe we can still find Faith in the City.
This short book comprises a collection of reflections from the Church of England Estates Theology Project with five case studies from parishes on social housing estates in various urban and suburban settings across England. It is intended to be an encouragement to church leaders working in such settings and to break the stereotype that all is grim and the church is dead or dying in the less affluent areas. It arises from the Anglican commitment promoted by Bishop Philip North to strengthen and renew parish life and spread the gospel among people living in such neighbourhoods. In my opinion (and personal lifelong calling) this is exactly where Christians should be directing their prayers, resources, time and effort, not so much because there is spiritual, social and economic need, but it is in such places that we will find remarkable signs of God at work and encounter Jesus in surprising ways, not just on Sundays. Although this is the message the book attempts to convey, I am not fully convinced it achieves its aim.
First of all, the case studies in the book are exclusively Anglican. This fact will inevitably narrow the potential readership to clergy working in parish settings, and those tasked with training them. The Wythenshawe case study concentrates on a community weaving project based at the William Temple Church. It comes over as a good story of an interesting example of a community art project. At certain points, it touches Christian values and faith. But over the years I have heard or read numerous other accounts of church life in Wythenshawe, from different denominations and mission perspectives, which are not represented in the chapter. As a result I am reminded of a comment originally made by Anne Morissey (who wrote a foreword to the book) about the way the Church of England exudes “a sense of effortless superiority” in its approach to community ministry.
The rest of the book continues in the same vein. The majority of the parishes involved are from a liberal catholic or radical tradition. Only the chapter from Eltham, with input from the Church Army, uses any evangelical language in its theological framing of the local story. Yet in doing so it largely rejects the evangelical priorities of sharing the Gospel, and calling people to repent, believe, follow Jesus and be baptised into the community of his church. Long experience of urban mission has shown there are big problems with such a formulaic approach, and that preaching at people is mostly ineffective. However, if the local church on estates is to survive, become self supporting and self propagating, we should work hard on talking about Jesus, making disciples, strengthening socially diverse worshipping communities, who engage with and serve their neighbourhood, and developing local Christian leaders. There doesn’t seem to be much of this sort of good news reflected in the book, though there are many other places where it is happening.
I find the theological method of the book curious. It is based on pairing an academic theologian with a church leader and trying to listen to the voices of local residents. They reflected on what they heard and produced chapters which still feel rather abstract and academic in style. While listening is always to be recommended, and contextual reflection on local stories is foundational for urban theology, it might have been helpful to use a more participatory approach where local people (Christians and others) worked together to generate conclusions and linking with Bible stories and themes. It is only in the final section of the book that the editor makes reference to Laurie Green’s “Let’s do Theology”, which would have been my personal starting point for the whole project.
Reviewed by Greg Smith, Associate Research Fellow William Temple Foundation and Trustee of Urban Theology Union.
Mez McConnell, The Least, the Last, and the Lost: Understanding Poverty in the UK & The Responsibility of the Local Church Published by Evangelical Press 2021 ISBN 978-178397-328-6
Reviewed by Greg Smith, Associate Research Fellow William Temple Foundation
Mez McConnell has, with some contributions from his colleagues, produced a passionate book about urban and estate ministry which should be required reading for anyone involved in the field. It is also aimed at complacent middle class evangelical Christians whom he sees to be in denial about social class in the UK.
McConnell writes as an insider who grew up in a tough unchurched environment, fell into addiction, crime and homelessness, but miraculously experienced a new birth and transformation of his life through an encounter with Jesus Christ. For the last two decades he has served as a pastor and church planter in a working-class housing scheme (council estate) in Edinburgh. He now leads a Scottish network of church planting and revitalisation called 20 Schemes.
As in Paul Keeble’s recent Urban Tract, McConnell underlines the importance of being there, and staying there long term, with a deep appreciation of yet without assimilation to local culture, and a spiritual life rooted in the deep love of Jesus and of people. He stresses above all the importance of the gospel, proclaimed in church, and in the street, in a clear evangelistic message calling for repentance and faith. He expects that some among the least, the last and the lost will respond in professions of faith, conversion and a journey of discipleship, as the church will provide personal mentoring and Biblical teaching. In his opinion, the local church is the only organisation or community that can tackle the deepest problems of such neighbourhoods.
McConnell’s work is not the first to highlight the importance of stories in urban culture and is rich with examples. The stories shared in the book are full of realism, of struggle, of disappointment, of life in a bleak environment, yet interspersed with moments of joy, strength of family and community ties and overcoming difficult circumstances.
McConnell should be commended for recognising the agency of people struggling with poverty, rather than trapping them in dependency and hopelessness. He also recognises the potential among people living on housing schemes for leadership in church and community and suggests models of training that are more appropriate and effective than traditional Bible College courses. Such training does not simply need to “dumb down” on Biblical knowledge or theology, but should rather be on an apprenticeship or in-service basis, applying the learning to real life situations.
At 527 pages, this lengthy volumedoes not say everything McConnell wanted to say (there is more online at 20schemesequip.com). The first half of the book is about poverty, class and culture in the UK and draws somewhat uncritically, on research, including government statistics, reports from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and published and unpublished narratives about life on urban estates.
The assumptions are largely about communities dominated by the “white British working class”, which is both increasingly difficult to define, and demographically questionable in an era of diverse intersecting identities. While McConnell repeatedly expresses his reluctance to stereotype, and his contempt for the genre of “poverty porn” media depictions, it felt difficult to finish the book without these established perceptions being confirmed or strengthened, rather than appreciating estate life in all its nuanced variety.
The second section presents an excellent basic overview of the Biblical material on poverty from the Law and Prophets in the Old Testament to the Gospel narratives and the teaching and practice of the early church. However, his reading of the texts is very much “plain sense” without exploring the contextual settings either of the writers or of today’s readers. One can sometimes detect a tendency to prioritise “the poor in spirit”, though without neglecting compassion for the materially poor.
Perhaps the biggest weakness is the limited treatment of the Kingdom of God as among us now but not yet on earth in fullness. The author is steeped in Reformed theology which stresses God’s sovereign rule over the whole universe, a doctrine which has led many Christians to redemptive involvement in art and culture, science, medicine and social care politics and business. Yet he does not promote this as within the mission of God.
This view could discourage the development of meaningful public theology, and Christian involvement in attempts to influence local decision makers or work for legislative reform to mitigate poverty, a theme very much part of the 19th Century evangelical heritage.
In the third and fourth sections, which concentrate on the life of the church, there are a number of statements that may likely be a cause of discontent. Readers from outside Reformed and Evangelical tribe will perceive a traditional gospel of exclusivity, narrowness and perhaps even arrogance.
The God McConnell offers is holy, just, and merciful, yet the vast majority of us seem destined (deservedly) for the eternal torments of hell. Church life and worship is centred on traditional expository sermons, and a ‘complementarian’ theology means that church leadership and authority is vested in men. Despite this, the book has some useful material on women’s ministries.
On the other hand, Christians within conservative Evangelical tribe may also likely to be provoked. White British Evangelicals abound in affluent suburbs, but are rarely found living and serving in inner city or estates communities. At best their churches provide occasional opportunities for urban Christians to share testimonies and stories of front-line work—and in return promise prayer, or sometimes some financial support (though large sums of money rarely trickle down to urban churches as David Robertson argues in Part 3.4).
Help in terms of long-term missionary personnel is extremely rare, while short term raids often do more harm than good. McConnell is critical without much nuance of “mercy ministries” (such as food banks and homeless shelters) especially when these are delivered by para church organisations. He argues that they tend to trap people in dependency and fail to communicate in words the gospel of salvation, simply by being too nice.
While I am in many ways enthusiastic about this clarion call to urban mission and rejoice in the work of McConnell and 20 Schemes, through which estate residents are coming to faith in Jesus and local churches are beginning to flourish, the book often appears to lack appreciation of the wider urban mission movement, its history and literature. Indeed, McConnell has little time for pluralism within Christianity: while mainline liberal denominations get some credit for being present in urban estates, they have abandoned the gospel, and charismatics and Pentecostals, (especially prosperity preachers) are seen as heretical.
I see some similarities between Mez McConell and the brilliant, if annoying General William Booth whose passion for “the Least, the Last and the Lost” of the book’s title, led to the foundation of the Salvation Army. The later development of that movement as a major charitable service provider suggests that the urban church cannot live by hellfire preaching alone.
In light of the prominence of the Union Jack in the news over recent months, Greg Smith considers the complex relationships between flag, state, and church.
The newly unveiled Downing Street briefing room, replete with its twin union flags on a blue background, has provoked ribaldry not only from the usual satirists, but even from the editorial team at the Daily Mail. Together with the recent announcement that the flag should be flown from all UK government buildings every day, while councils will be urged to do the same from their premises, this marks a significant change in British attitudes and practice. Boris Johnson has clearly struck a raw nerve, as shown by the response of Keir Starmer—despite opposition to his ‘patriotic turn’ from within the Labour Party. The debate there is framed by such questions as: to what extent is it possible to embrace patriotism but reject nationalism and racism, and what is at stake in the pursuit of a ‘progressive’ patriotism, particularly in multi-ethnic and racially unequal societies, such as Britain today?
It is important to analyse what is going on, and why it is happening now. The most immediate issue is the defence of the Union. The United Kingdom is clearly far from united: with the results of elections for the devolved governments expected in the coming hours and days, the Scottish National Party is riding high in the polls and is keen to hold a second referendum on total independence. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland seems alienated and divided following the rushed and ill thought-out deal on borders and trade following withdrawal from the European Union. The pragmatic case for a united island of Ireland has never been stronger, though emotions on the Unionist side are still strongly against it. Even Wales in its management of the COVID-19 emergency has shown the value of devolved powers of government, while within England the regional divides, particular between North and South have become a major political issue.
These debates take place in the context of the shock of Brexit. Britain, looking back to the London Olympics of 2012 had seemed a country at ease with itself as multicultural, successful in economics, culture, and sport in a global and European context. Yet since the referendum, the country has needed to reinvent itself, and seems to be doing so in terms of a populist, predominantly white and English, nationalism. Indeed, writing from an Irish perspective, Finn McRedmond contends that exercises like flag waving are associated with nascent, insecure countries.
Over the last century the desire to wave flags has been somewhat muted in Britain (with the special exception of Northern Ireland). There are a few nationwide celebrations where the flags come out in a mostly harmless way, such as royal visits and weddings, jubilee street parties, the Olympics, and the football World Cup (though there it is usually the flags of the constituent nations of the UK). Meanwhile, the Union Jack is for the most part a branding icon sold to tourists, or an ironic symbol. In most other countries the idea of underpants printed with the pattern of the national flag would be seen as sacrilege.
But other countries have different cultures. In the USA, the stars and stripes has become a sacred symbol guarded by legislation. In public schools and the military there is a daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance:
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
In states which have been though revolutions or national liberation struggles the bonding power of the flag is easier to appreciate, for example in Scotland, Ireland, France, India, and many previously colonised nations.
Finally, there is the question of the church endorsing the national flag, which, though not as widespread as in the USA, is particularly acute in the established Church of England. Many side chapels house the flags of regiments that conquered, and sometimes massacred, Britain’s colonial subjects; civic remembrance ceremonies focus more on national myths than the Prince of Peace; and services for Scouts and Guides feature parades with the Union Jack. But would it not be preferable, as now often happens in urban churches like mine, to see displays of multiple flags, reminding us of the diverse heritage of our multicultural body? The Christian household is composed of citizens of heaven drawn from many lands. To some degree the image of the Union Jack with its overlapping crosses symbolises a nation state with multiple identities. Yet it also features an instrument of imperial torture on which our saviour and some of his early disciples died. The scandal of the cross might yet subvert the messages promoted by today’s political leaders.
Jonathan Chaplin and Andrew Bradstock have done an excellent job in bringing together a wide range of church leaders, politicians, economists and theologians to present a diversity of perspectives on post Brexit Britain and the place of the Church of England within it—in a process which William Temple would recognise. That said, the editors admit that too many of the contributors are white, male, and from an older generation.
There could never be an ideal time for writing or publishing such a book, but the autumn of 2020 may have turned out to be particularly awkward, falling within the middle of a pandemic that has changed national life and a few months before the final rushed exit deal came into force. The latter especially has profound significance for the UK, with the border that is not a border in the Irish Sea, and the upcoming Scottish Parliament elections. For the church, Brexit continues to divide and raise questions. Inevitably the quality of the chapters varies, and on such a divisive topic, most readers will find things to make them angry as well as delighted. I should also disclose that I was a firm supporter of Remain.
The editors note that a number of the contributors take the line that membership of the EU was not primarily a theological issue. While Malcolm Brown argues, as an institutional insider, that neutrality and lack of comment was a studied position of the House of Bishops, it seems clear to me, and to others like John Millbank, that statements by two archbishops and numerous clergy were making a clear case for Remain. Perhaps it was only a weak and pragmatic economic case, rather than a moral one in line with the Catholic Social Teaching that had inspired the founders of the EEC to be Christian peacemakers in the immediate post war era. In any case, the exit polls in 2016 showed clearly that people who identified as Church of England were significantly more likely than average to vote leave; that Christians as a whole were as divided as the whole electorate; and that the more committed to Christ and involved in church life a person was, the more likely they were to vote Remain. Four years on the political disagreement remains, though most of the contributors promote the role of the national church as a ministry of reconciliation. Graham Tomlin’s chapter focusses on this and draws from the history of England’s post Reformation religious settlement, in a controversial reading of history which I critiqued in an earlier blog.
Personally, I would argue that some of the issues over Brexit are theologically and ecclesiologically fundamental where they touch on peace and justice, and in particular on national identity and race. One of the few chapters which seems to delve deeply in scripture and theology comes from Sam Norton. His readings are from a strongly nationalist perspective and, to my mind, don’t make a clear enough distinction between the “ethnos” concept of Scripture and modern nation states, giving little room for the New Testament emphasis on a multinational people of God who are citizens of heaven in exile in various earthly empires. Norton also implies that the Leave vote was the action of a sovereign God, who is pleased with the result and displeased with church leaders who supported Remain. In my view, David Muir’s chapter and Anthony Reddie’s short response (summarising key points of his recent book) are much closer to the uncomfortable truth: that Brexit was driven through by an appeal to post-Imperial nostalgia and English nativism. The chapters offering perspectives from Wales, Scotland and Ireland, plus a couple from Europe, tend to reinforce the Englishness of the decision, and the sense of effortless superiority characteristic of the tribe and, indeed, the Church of England.
Poverty is an important theme that surfaces in the Brexit debate with the suggestion that the Leave vote was a revolt of the left-behind working classes in the North and Midlands. Sam Norton and Philip North are correct that the church needs to listen to the voice of the poor. Yet it would be unwise to interpret Brexit solely in terms of economic inequality; after all, the Leave campaign was financed by the rich and supported by huge numbers of affluent, middle-class, white, older people (especially men) across the country. Meanwhile, the urban poor in multi-ethnic areas of London, Manchester and even in specific “Asian wards” of Blackburn tended to vote Remain. There is little reason to hope that the fortunes of poor people, be they white or from ethnic minorities will be improved post-Brexit, especially with the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic.
Other chapters cover issues of prudential judgement around politics and economics and raise some significant points about the nature of democracy, the British constitution and the distribution of resources in a post Brexit UK. Brian Griffiths, makes the most cogent and graciously phrased case for leaving the EU that I have read, giving a generous mention to Ronald Preston and John Atherton. The final section of the book offers space for reflections on the substantial chapters from professional (ex)politicians of different party backgrounds and varying Christian commitments. There are reflections too from some Christians outside the Church of England. Doug Gay’s three-page review is a masterpiece; if you are only browsing in a bookshop this is the section to read. Having read the book as a Church of Scotland minister, he summarises what has been said, shows why and where disagreement remains, why the country is in a mess, why the tensions over national identity are central to the problem, and why the Church of England needs to reconsider its role.
Greg Smith reviews Chris Wright’s recent book on idolatry. He applauds Wright’s critique of the idols that dominate our contemporary politics, and wonders whether the solution lies in a conception of politics that is much broader than our current election dramas and celebrity leaders.
Our ‘new normal’ may be perplexing and frustrating, but it can also be rightly described as apocalyptic inasmuch as it begins to reveal the main objects of worship in contemporary culture. In Britain, the pandemic has highlighted the tensions between the sacred beliefs of economic success, the saving power of the NHS and the value of individual human lives. Chris Wright’s new book explores such issues, framing them through the lens of idolatry—a practice well understood (and rejected) by the three major faiths of the Abrahamic tradition.
This is a short and easily readable book, aimed at a student or educated lay Christian audience. The author is an established Old Testament scholar and missiologist, working for the Langham Partnership. It offers a clear, conservative exposition of key biblical texts about idolatry, with a radical, practical and political application in today’s world.
The first part of the book explores the concept of idolatry in the Hebrew scriptures. Wright argues that the biblical category of idolatry—when it is even considered at all—is often treated simplistically. Christians may argue about images and statues, sometimes even refer to the personal moral pitfalls of worshipping money, sex, power and status, but they rarely consider politics or the economy as possible idols. The Bible poses the question, ‘Do other gods exist within the same order of existence that Yahweh does?’, and answers that ‘Yahweh alone is the universal Creator, the sovereign Ruler of all histories, the Judge of all nations, and the Saviour of people from all nations who turn to him.’ (p. 13) Wright strongly affirms that God remains sovereign over history.
In part two, he moves on to political idols and empires and the nature of biblical faithfulness within politics. Wright accepts that bringing the Bible to bear on contemporary politics is usually very uncomfortable. Yet the whole idea of gods and idols, is such a prominent theme in the Bible (especially in the arena of public and national life), that the topic cannot be ignored.
He mentions how Jeroboam fashions two golden calves at either end of his kingdom as a political act to consolidate and sanctify his state power; how Pharaoh’s oppression was overcome; how the national gods of the tribes of Canaan were powerless before Yahweh; and how Nebuchadnezzar was brought to his knees. Jonah and Nahum preach the sovereignty, judgement and mercy of God over Nineveh. Meanwhile, the prophet Amos draws a noose around the neck of Judah and Israel by first pointing his finger at surrounding nations for idolatry and injustice and then observing how three fingers point back at his own nation. The key lesson is that all empires come to an end under the sovereign hand of God. God brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
The book then engages with our current context. When God turns up in public speech it is an ordinary, traditional and lightweight god that is referred to. The ‘real’ gods—who pull the levers of political, economic and cultural power—are the false gods and idols that humans have bowed down to for millennia. They include: the idol of prosperity—which Jesus called ‘Mammon’, the idol of national pride—symbolised by patriotic songs and flags in church, and the idol of self-exaltation and celebrity. Here Wright becomes very specific:
‘What does it say about the state of our culture and politics that two men have risen to top political leadership in the United Kingdom and the United States who are both notoriously and demonstrably addicted to fabrication, exaggeration, false claims, self-contradiction, and downright mendacity?’ (p. 92)
He finds something deeply satanic in this vicious attack on truth.
The third and final part of the book is an exhortation to the church to be ‘Bible people’: living by the story of God and committed to the mission of God. Christians must be kingdom people, submitting to the reign of God and recognising the difference between the kingdom of God as taught and modelled by Jesus and the Christendom way of thinking. We are called to follow the Jesus of the cross, not the Jesus of Constantine. What Wright questions is not Christian involvement in politics but the idea that Christians should seek supremacy in the political arena. It will not do to argue that, since political authorities are appointed by God, we must simply approve of all they do.
Indeed, prayer is a political act, for it appeals to an authority higher than the state. The psalmists pray that God would put down the wicked in power and raise up and vindicate the oppressed. So we pray for our rulers, sometimes through gritted teeth, but we also pray against them in relation to policies and actions that are incompatible with biblical standards for society.
Overall, this is a useful and important book, combining biblical exegesis with a radical political message. I wonder if the established Church of England can withstand such a critique, and what William Temple or even today’s bishops—so often criticised for their guarded and woolly political statements—would make of it?
Greg Smith reviews this edited volume by Shamim Miah, Pete Sanderson and Paul Thomas. He applauds the authors’ focus on the particularities of multiculturalism in northern former mill towns but wonders whether religious identity needs to be addressed more explicitly in this study of societal make-up in northern England.
The subtitle of this book could well have been “But not in the North”. What the authors seek to establish is that patterns of diversity and ethnic relations in the North of England since 1960 are distinctive and cannot be used as evidence for the failure of national policies of multiculturalism. This became clear to me personally when, in 2002, our family moved from the diverse community of East London to a town in Lancashire. The research I was doing at the time, including a comparative study of religious identity in the 2001 census, and an ethnographic study of children in multi-ethnic primary schools in the two localities, underlined the point.
The book concentrates on life along the M62 corridor through the Pennines and draws on the authors’ decades of involvement in community work, education and academic policy research. They argue that the smaller former mill towns of Blackburn, Bradford, Burnley, Huddersfield, Halifax, Dewsbury, Oldham and Rochdale are different from the metropolitan centres of Manchester and Leeds—and, I would add, Preston, which is not mentioned at all. Despite the moral panics over northern towns following bussing policies and book burnings in Bradford, street violence in 2001 interpreted through Cantle’s narrative of parallel lives, and media narratives which fuel suspicion of Muslim communities as sites of cumulative extremism, multiculturalism has not failed (p. 200). Rather, it has not really been tried as a consistent and principled policy. It has been messy and localised in its implementation, swinging between emphases on assimilation, integration and valuing cultural diversity. Everyday multiculturalism has been a mixed social phenomenon with examples of inter-community goodwill, live-and-let-live acceptance and occasional communal conflict.
A key emphasis of the book is that, to adapt the slogan from Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential bid, “it’s the economy, stupid”. The authors trace the post-war migration of New Commonwealth workers, mainly from Pakistan and Bangladesh, who, for a few years, were the life support system for an ailing textile industry. When the mills breathed their last, and the Thatcherite policy of de-industrialisation transformed the British economy, the mill towns struggled to find an economic purpose. Investment was not forthcoming and working people, both white and ethnic minority, faced unemployment and poverty with limited ways of making a livelihood through small scale enterprise and low-paid work in service industries. Drawing on Chicago School urban sociology, the authors explore how this impacted housing policy, producing high levels of residential segregation. While poor white families had privileged access to some of the peripheral “council” estates, Asian Muslim families located in “inner area” terraced streets—not so much because of any cultural preference but because they had little other affordable housing choice. Meanwhile, the more affluent tended to move out to more desirable suburban and rural properties across the region, though, as the book points out, the description of this as “white flight” remains contested (p. 41).
It is not necessary here to outline the structure of the book in any great depth as a table of contents with abstracts of each chapter is available online. Suffice to say, the text moves from a general discussion of multiculturalism and ethnic minority settlement in the North of England towards more focussed chapters on policy issues, black and Muslim community and cultural responses, as well as an especially valuable section on white working class community reactions. I was somewhat disappointed that the education chapter, which focusses on school segregations and bussing policies, misses out a lot of the debates on bilingualism and mother tongue teaching which was high on the agenda, and central to my own research life in the 1980s.
The coverage of the faith and interfaith dimensions of the multicultural life of the north is also insubstantial. Religious identity is recognised as important, but religious life, belief, rituals and institutions are largely ignored. The debate about faith schools is confined to mention of the emergence of Muslim faith schools—apart from a passing reference to an employment tribunal case where a teaching assistant in a Dewsbury Church school failed to establish a right to wear a veil at work (pp. 161-2). Otherwise, churches only feature as redundant buildings, some of which have been transformed into mosques, and the Church only appears because of historic privilege under blasphemy laws, challenged in the context of the Satanic Verses controversy. There is no acknowledgement of the role or contribution of Christians and church congregations, for good or ill in the racial dynamics of the region, and hardly more about mosques or gurdwaras as centres for building social and religious capital and delivering social welfare projects.
Recent research by Goldsmiths involving Chris Baker, myself and other members of the William Temple Foundation, on the role of faith roups in the response of local authorities to COVID-19 makes it clear that the vital, growing and increasingly appreciated role of churches and mosques in areas such as food provision should not be overlooked.
In our latest review, Greg Smith finds much to recommend in Matthew Kaemingk’s book on the relationships between Muslims, Christians and secularists in the Netherlands and the USA.
What are the connections between the iconic cities of Amsterdam, Mecca and New York? How can Christians, Muslims and liberal secularists live in peace together and engage in conversation in the public square? In this well-researched volume Kaemingk argues compellingly that the best way forward is through theology—specifically through the Reformed Protestant theology of the Dutch Prime Minister, Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) and his colleagues in the Anti-Revolutionary Party.
In Part 1, Kaemingk provides an account of how the Netherlands, once perhaps the most liberal and tolerant of all Western nations, saw a rise in anti-Islamic populism in the 21st century. In Part 2 he presents the work of Kuyper and his success in establishing a pluralist democratic society with “pillarised” faith-based institutions in civil society. Part 3 develops the theology of pluralism and hospitality, building on and applying the Kuyperian tradition, and examines the calling of the church as gathered for worship and scattered in the world. In the final section he looks at how this might be applied in the USA today, in ways which would avoid the blind ally of the culture wars and resonate with some of the foundation values of American democracy.
The Netherlands is one of many Western countries where a post 9/11 narrative of the clash of civilisations, between Mecca and Amsterdam, has led to a consensus which explicitly rejects multiculturalism as a failed policy. Secular liberalism has developed a somewhat illiberal critique of religion—and Islam in particular—and, in alliance with populist and nativist ideas, has started to demand minorities become integrated or even assimilated into mainstream society if they are to enjoy the benefits, rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Kaemingk does not accept the totality of this consensus but recognises that there is some truth in the idea of an incompatibility between Islamic worldviews and a progressive polity where the claims for equality of women and LGBTIQ+ people are taken seriously. In the Dutch case this has been a bumpy journey including the assassination of Pim Fortuyn, the gay, anti-Islamic, populist politician. His account of the recent history of the Netherlands is illuminating and his critique of Geert Wilders recognises the history of the Dutch global empire, which was built on slavery in the West Indies and mercantile exploitation of the predominantly Muslim East Indies, and the consequent migrations of the post-colonial era.
I would have enjoyed even more detail here. I also wonder if the attack on multiculturalism as a failed policy needs to be challenged, as it was often half-hearted, failed to understand the nuances of cultural change, hybrity and intersectionality, and foundered on the resistance of overt personal and institutionalised racism.
The middle portion of the book begins with a section that seeks to offer a Christian defence of Islam. Drawing on Nancy Fraser’s idea that a healthy democracy needs conflict, not consensus, and noting that most of the assertive countercultures she advocates share the liberal opposition to Islam, he argues that Christianity is best placed to be that counterculture. This leads into a detailed examination of the thought and political career of Abraham Kuyper, a Reformed Church minister and theologian who then entered politics, built a successful political movement, and served as Prime Minister of the Netherlands in the period leading up to the Great War. Kuyper was anti-modernist in theology with a conservative, Reformed view of the Bible and salvation, and he called his Party Anti-Revolutionary as he was appalled by the brutality and secular excesses of France and other European countries. He held a view of ‘sphere sovereignty’ where sectors such as family, business, arts, health, education, church and politics had an independent life and should have separate modes of governance. He held a strong version of the Reformed view of vocation and encouraged Christians to work to bring a godly influence to bear in the occupation or sector to which God had called them.
Kuyper had strong religious and moral convictions and did not hesitate to speak and write about them. Yet his politics was fundamentally pluralist, hospitable and gracious, rather than a zero-sum game where the “democratic” winner would take all. In his era the major faith communities were Catholic, Protestant and secular liberal and the Dutch political settlement allowed each to develop their own parallel set of educational, medical and cultural institutions. The best enduring example is the Free University of Amsterdam. Yet, at the same time, each faith was able to offer explicit, robust and faithful theological arguments in the public square. This seems to offer an interesting alternative to the (William) Temple tradition of Anglican social theology with its reliance on middle axioms and the powerful, sometimes controlling, influence of the established church in national life.
In the final section Kaemingk turns his attention to current politics in the USA where the polarisation between progressive liberals and aggressive populists is endangering democracy. With most white evangelicals supporting Trump’s crusade to make America great again by dominating the lives of Muslims and other minorities, can one hope for a better way? Kaemingk certainly does, and issues an appeal for American Christians to see Islam as an ally rather than an enemy in a more hospitable, pluralist politics. In the context of the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, Brexit and the instant rage of social media, could this also be a way forward for multi-faith Britain?
In a cameo epilogue Kaemingk provides a brief guide through the table politics of Holy Week. Such a politics—where faith convictions need not be suppressed, but offer prophetic confrontation, communion, laying down of life, forgiveness, grace and ultimately resurrection—sounds very attractive.
Anna Ruddick’s new book is a well written, popular version of the ethnographic research which led to her doctorate, including reflections in practical theology and evangelical missiology. As such, it will be valuable for active and prospective church leaders, church planting and community development teams, and mission strategists in urban settings across the world. It resonates deeply with the experiences and learning of myself and my peers from the generation of Christians who, in the late 1970s, became urban missionaries and stay-incomers in East London and other inner-city communities across the UK.
Ruddick’s research was based on in-depth biographical interviews with a small sample of local residents, and Eden Network team members who had “moved in to live deep”, in multiply deprived urban neighbourhoods in the north of England. She writes from the position of a semi-insider, having lived and worshipped in a similar place whilst working for The Message Trust, the charismatic evangelical youth mission agency where the Eden Network was born. The starting point for her explorations was the question: “what is meant by the concept of an individual, or a community, being transformed, though an encounter with Jesus Christ?”.
The normative paradigm for evangelicals—at least for white, middle-class evangelicals in the 20th century—has been that an individual sinner responds to a gospel message, makes a decision that amounts to a conversion, and in doing so receives forgiveness and salvation that has eternal validity. In consequence, the new believer will turn away from destructive and purposeless lifestyles, seek deeper fellowship with God through prayer and Bible reading, associate with other Christians, and become active in testifying to unbelievers about the radical change that Jesus or the Holy Spirit has worked in their life. This is the expectation that most Eden missionaries held when they moved into the inner city. But, after a year or two in the field, when revival had not yet happened, when the local churches had not been filled by tribes of zealous young people who had recently become Christians, yet meaningful relationships had been established with many of the neighbours in the local streets, schools, youth clubs and playgrounds. It was time for reflection and re-evaluation.
Christians living in such urban neighbourhoods, whether by calling or by choice, will readily understand the demand to engage with the nitty-gritty of human life. The best laid plans for organising church events and evangelistic outreach need to become flexible and responsive to the community. Ruddick develops the concept of “missional pastoral care”, which describes a model of engagement that often emerges as relationships deepen and the boundaries between us and them slowly dissolve over several years. Theologically there is a movement from “bringing the good news of Jesus to the community” to discerning how God is already at work in local lives, and understanding that Christians, alongside the Holy Spirit, are partners in the missio dei. Mission becomes, in Paul Keeble’s terms, “mission with”. The outcomes may include bringing new people into the life of church congregations, but they are better measured in terms of the growth of mutuality, individual and community flourishing, and well-being; the evidence of shalom which is at the heart of the growth of the kingdom rule of heaven breaking into the present age on earth. Here, the Bible is used less literally as a source book for ideas about beliefs and behaviours, but more as a wider narrative to illuminate life stories from the local context.
The final two chapters seek to draw out the implications for the wider church, though the focus is firmly on evangelicalism and its rooting in the deeply personal experience of being converted or “born again”. However, the model of missional pastoral care leads beyond the formulaic fundamentalism that is often expressed by preachers in mega-churches, in altar calls for “decisions” to follow Jesus, and in conservative moral stances which often seem harshly judgemental to outsiders. Instead of gathering religious consumers, the evangelicalism that Ruddick advocates respects human agency, embraces diverse and imperfect people in community, accepts failure with forgiveness, recognises the scourge of social injustice, and adds nuance to codified systems of belief. The contrasts between these two paradigms of evangelical religion is so great that one is bound to question whether a single evangelical identity can survive much longer.
Inevitably, there are some limitations with a short volume such as this, and it was written well before COVID-19 and the radical disruption to church and community life that the pandemic has wrought. The author concedes that the research is written from the perspective of a white woman, and therefore largely excludes the perspectives of black and other minority Christians. Nor is the account especially shaped by gender analysis. There is almost no mention of religious diversity or consideration of mission in the context of minority faith presence which is commonplace in urban areas across the world. The model of mission also remains largely apolitical, lacking an analysis of economic and power structures, or significant engagement with politics even at the local level. As such, it could be complemented by some of the ideas and action models from liberation theologies and Citizen’s organising to generate a more complete view of the mission of God.
Nevertheless, Ruddick’s book is one of the most reflective and well-researched accounts of urban ministry and mission that I have read in recent times.
Associate Research Fellow Greg Smith reviews Martin Robinson’s recent book ‘The Place of the Parish’. He applauds Robinson’s attention to the importance of locality but wonders whether this must still be held in tension with an outward-looking desire for justice.
In this book, Martin Robinson, an experienced urban minister and Principal of ForMission College, has produced a very useful and thoughtful introduction to missional thinking for local churches in the UK and beyond. It will be of value to clergy, lay leaders, and those in training. It is written in an easy-to-read, popular style though drawing on sound scholarship in urban geography, social science, and missiology, as well as years of experience in church and community work and familiarity with the many relevant reports published by the major denominations.
The book begins by asking why ‘place’ is important in the contemporary world. For Robinson, place is more than space because it involves the people who live in or use a locality, their mental maps, their network connections with others, and the shared narratives that give meaning to life in that space. The second chapter looks at the present crisis of the parish as conventionally understood. And the third at the way clergy, active church members, and the local community can connect to build a parish which is spiritually and socially healthy, makes a positive contribution to human flourishing in the local context, and can remould the identities and narratives of particular places.
Three further chapters discuss the specific issues of inner-city churches, fresh expressions ministries, and spatially extended rural parishes. Each includes case studies which offer some encouraging stories as well as some hard-learned lessons.
The final three chapters begin with Lesslie Newbigin’s profound question: “Can the West be converted?”. This is, above all, a critique of the impact of the enlightenment, and its privileging of individual human autonomy and rational thought which assumes that human beings are in control, religion is about belief rather than faith-based action, and rights and risks are attached to individual persons. Today, consumer choice and enhanced mobility allow people to attend church congregations, or even “performances”, which match cultural preferences, rather than following a call to locally earthed discipleship and a socially mixed fellowship that matches parish demography. Robinson moves on to advocate for models of church that are currently being developed by the “new parish movement” that is emerging in a variety of settings around the world. This movement includes examples that are Catholic, evangelical, mainstream denominational, and “black majority”, but they all seek to attract, and to some extent be or become, what David Goodhart has called “somewhere people”.
Such a project has many attractions and the ideas in this book are certainly worth pondering and exploring as a possible strategy for the renewal of local churches. It will not always be easy, and one significant issue will be the increasing residential segregation of communities along ethno-religious, social class, and generational lines. How, for example, does a new parish model take root in the predominantly Muslim areas of northern mill towns, the coastal retirement neighbourhoods around Blackpool, or the gated communities in affluent areas of London and the South East? There is also a question as to whether such groups might become too comfortable with a local status quo, rather than develop the political cutting edge and concern for Bible-inspired social justice that was reported in the base communities inspired by liberation theologies across the globe.
Of course, the book was written in the time before the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. Inevitably, there are now further important issues to be discussed. As much of the world is now under lockdown, many churches have suddenly ceased to meet for public worship and a high-speed (r)evolution towards virtual church has swept the internet. Patterns range from YouTube streaming of superstar preachers and celebrity Christian musicians, to informal and clunky Zoom gatherings for prayer, bible study, and mutual social support. There has also been much theological angst about the Eucharist; is communion valid in the breaking of bread in the absence of the real presence of the people of God in one place—even before one thinks about the issues of priestly consecration and the real presence of Christ? At the same time, local Christians and local churches have been playing a significant role in emergency community development at street level and in the support services for food delivery, volunteering in health support roles and telephone counselling. Even when the doors of the churches are once again opened, the world will emerge to a significantly different form of social reality, with much lamentation and ongoing economic pain. Beyond that, it is impossible to predict how the world will be, and whether or not the church as we know it, with or without its old parish structures will endure.