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Author Archives: Matthew Barber

Lockdown, liminality and local leadership

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In this week’s blog, William Temple Scholar Matthew Barber reflects on both the disorientation and the opportunities presented by life in lockdown and urges us to see local leadership as a vital resource moving forward.

Lockdown has changed the way we live. I have moved in with my fiancée in Liverpool (a new city for me). We have begun to come to terms with the cancellation of our wedding and the reality of married life in all but name, without the chance to commit to it before our friends, family and God. I have celebrated my birthday over Zoom. As a freelancer I have had multiple pieces of paid work cancelled in recent months, leading to tough personal circumstances. And last week, I submitted my PhD.

I have been hit by conflicting emotions of fortune—I have sufficient space and support to live safely and securely for now—and frustration—I want to do more to support people and communities around me. It has been a difficult and disorientating time. However, in coming to terms with new circumstances, we can also open ourselves up to new possibilities produced by the passage through liminal spaces of hope.

Last year on the Foundation blog, I discussed liminality as the new normal. I considered conflicting questions arising from living in uncertain times, empowering people and communities and doing so through embracing our differences such that we could build bridges and relationships, and renew a sense of shared values. I borrowed from Archbishop William Temple and his inspiration for the welfare state in post-war Britain:

“[O]ut of one of the darkest periods of our history also emerged health, hope and connection across our communities, inspired by Temple and his contemporaries. There are ideas and movements emerging [now], but the challenge is to connect them.”

 How much more is this the case now compared to nine months ago.

In moving to Liverpool, I have been both humbled by the personal welcome and encouraged by the networks of care and collaboration that are flowing through communities. St Andrew’s Parish Church, in the community where I now live, is influencing faith-based expressions of welcome and care locally through St Andrew’s Community Network, an initiative that has grown out of the church and serves the north of the city through alliances with faith-based and secular partners alike. Their leadership has been exemplified through, in light of lockdown, receipt of crowd-funded donations of over £100,000 through their partnership with Fans Supporting Foodbanks to continue to ensure emergency food supply gets to the most vulnerable. After lockdown began the City Council put out a call for support for food security. The network picked this up along with multiple other local partners. As of 21st May, hundreds of people (152 new volunteers) had picked, packed and provided over 25 tonnes of food to 2000 people. And the support carries on.

There is authentic and relational work already being done, but in speaking to Reverend James Green, the vicar of St Andrew’s, the emergence of underlying stories of change become more apparent. Lockdown life has unearthed a ‘rebirth of local community’ characterised by multiple expressions of care and solidarity. ‘Clap for carers’ and WhatsApp groups, as well as church online are obvious examples, but James describes an emerging ‘trellis and framework’ that suggests a deeper connection. People are talking to their neighbours again and church members are responding in ways that were, frankly, unexpected. Whilst, food insecurity is going to be a big problem to come, it is being ‘hotwired’ now, through the launch of a Food Pantry and integration with ‘The Network’.  Lockdown has revealed disorienting and liminal conditions that need a response. St Andrew’s and ‘The Network’, amongst many others, exemplify this.

As Temple before us, we are seeking local leadership for a liminal age that connects locally, regionally and nationally. In October 2019 a Spaces of Hope gathering in Stockport in south Manchester discussed the challenges for leadership in a liminal age. Building on data from the 2018 Hubs Network, community fieldwork with Winning Hearts and Minds in North Manchester and the 2019 Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in England, practitioners and activists highlighted different characteristics for leadership in a liminal age. These included listening to local contexts, being values-led, acting with integrity and empowering others. In Stockport, as in Liverpool, there was an appetite to go beyond crisis support and open up new spaces of hopeful possibilities between people in communities.

A challenge raised by lockdown is whether local leadership will be acknowledged by new policy and practice developing at regional and national level. There is advocacy from policy leaders such as Professor Donna Hall from New Local Government Network who last week used Twitter to promote local shared values within local governance systems. An article in The Lancet highlighted the strengths of this approach too. Additionally, in last week’s House of Lords debate, the new Bishop of Derby (former Bishop of Stockport) Libby Lane used her maiden speech to highlight that it is the most vulnerable—children in poverty—who are facing increased insecurity as a result of this crisis. The Bishop noted that the next generation are picking up the legacy of how we respond to the issues of today, saying that ‘solutions need to be long-term and sustainable’.

Lockdown has been disorienting. But there are lessons to be learned. For the sake of each of us, we must develop leadership for the new liminal age to come, that listens, starts at a local level, and looks long term, unearthing shared values that shape new spaces of hopeful possibilities.

More blogs on religion and public life…

Cummings and the Church: An opportunity to grasp? by Chris Baker

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

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Spaces of Hope in an Age of Division

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Our new William Temple Scholar, Matthew Barber, offers his thoughts on our present politics and introduces the work of Spaces of Hope.

Prorogation of Parliament and the ensuing High Court challenges are the latest act in a Brexit farce that has been running for over three years. The government drive to ‘deliver the will of the people’ clashes with cries of #StoptheCoup, as thousands march, seeking action that curtails the undemocratic heist across, what is for now at least, our United Kingdom.

Our national identity crisis, brought into sharp focus by Brexit, is unprecedented since World War Two. Archbishop Justin Welby reminded us of this in his 2019 William Temple Foundation Annual Lecture, when he compared our present uncertainty to that faced by Temple, Tawney, Beveridge and others as they sought a new political settlement in the 1940s. Building on the legacy of his predecessor, Archbishop Temple, Welby proposed that a similar sense of imagination and holistic commitment could guide us now and galvanise us against the uncertainty we face. Temple was peerless in his combination of social, political and theological disciplines, typified by Christianity and Social Order (1941), offering principles of freedom, fellowship and service to one another, to guide deployment of our different gifts and competencies as a means of mobilising the welfare state. It goes without saying that our world looks very different nearly 80 years on, but synergies abound as we are challenged once again to work for the future of our nation.

But how do we occupy uncertain spaces whilst staying within the law? How do we equitably broker power rather than mirroring the behaviour of our oppressor? How do we embrace the differences that exist at the heart of each of our lives?  How can we build bridges and broker peace, to renew the relationships at the heart of civil society, and our nation?

Baker’s, Crisp’s and Dinham’s 2018 work offers a place to begin with these questions, presenting landmark interdisciplinary perspectives on how holistic commitments can shape the public space through policy and practice. A key finding is that ‘liminality’—a term developed by Arnold van Gennep and later by Victor Turner—is emerging as the new norm. Liminality means ‘disorienting and non-binary conditions, where old certainties and hierarchies are suspended until such a time as new resolution and clarity of identity is reached’ (p.30). In the context of Parliament being prorogued and comparisons with World War Two, language of liminality as the new norm conjures a spectre of fear, as darker periods of our history are foregrounded once again. However, out of one of the darkest periods of our history also emerged health, hope and connection across our communities, inspired by Temple and his contemporaries. There are ideas and movements emerging, but the challenge is to connect them.

My own work, Spaces of Hope, combines the personal struggle of growing into our world, with the work of Temple, Baker, Dinham and others, within a new organisational paradigm framed by liminality, curating differences at the heart of shared spaces. By reflecting on the laws that govern spaces, power dynamics and social relations Spaces of Hope understands how different beliefs and values, at different scales, expressed through different practices, into different spheres of society, shape spaces, places, people, policy and practice. In the last three years, a quiet revolution has been building in the northwest of England, sharing stories, weaving networks, and curating over 30 gatherings. According to the Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in England, Spaces of Hope has enabled and emboldened the development of deeply authentic networks and relationships, the drawing out of meaning and values shaping the spaces people are engaged with, before identifying and acting on what this means for community practice.

The Spaces of Hope Hubs Network in the Borough of Stockport in Greater Manchester might be our most significant contribution. The network curated liminal spaces, using dialogue tools to address questions in local communities. Afterwards, we found that 73% thought differently about their own work, with 67% saying that they shared their differences in an open and productive way. 33% said Spaces of Hope had either directly or indirectly enabled them to establish new work. We shared stories about wellbeing and hospitality; weekly intergenerational drop-ins; connection through the pioneering Alvanley Social Prescription programme; and humble refuge, with reciprocal support offered between the homeless, asylum seekers and refugees at a local church. We also asked, what does Spaces of Hope mean to you?—contrasting answers with perceived barriers. Nearly 300 responses revealed that 65% think it is about personal vulnerability, connection and freedom. Conversely, 39.6% saw perceptions of or scepticism towards different cultures, beliefs, values and worldviews as the biggest barrier. 24.8% said they lacked confidence that anything would change. These insights resonate with the divides we are seeing nationally, whilst also revealing the contradictions at the heart of our communities. 90% of attendees found the gatherings helpful and were confident that the Spaces of Hope approach would make a difference over time.

These are just seeds, but they will need a generation of nurture if they are to fully inform a hopeful future for our nation. These seeds include contributions from public institutions, such as the Diocese of Chester, the William Temple Foundation, the Royal Society of Arts, and Stockport Council, alongside people from communities across Cheshire and South Manchester now numbering over 500. What we have found is that Spaces of Hope means different things to different people, but by harnessing differences in liminal spaces we are hearing voices unite and guiding practices that are seeking hope for the future of our communities.

Spaces of Hope dialogues continue during October 2019. Key events coming up include:


More blogs on religion and public life…

What sort of society do we wish to become? – Borges’ forking pathways by Tina Hearn

Review of ‘Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe’ by Roger McNamee by Maria Power

Review of ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ by Shoshana Zuboff by John Reader

Do not despise the day of small things by Gill Reeve

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Can Religious Groups and the Public Sector Work Together?

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Guest blogger Matthew Barber is a PhD student, Researcher for the Centre for Faith and Public Policy at Chester University and Director of Faith Sector. His interests include faith in the post-secular public sphere, the evolution of faith based organisations, and spiritual capital.

Reimagining Religion & Belief for Public Policy & Practice is an AHRC funded initiative that is seeking to understand more about religion in the public sphere. Prof Luke Bretherton is one of the global thought leaders in this and related areas of enquiry and was asked how he would characterise the current debate? Prof Bretherton said,

“The metaphor I use is the shift from being in a shower to being in a jacuzzi … everything was moving in the same direction and the bath would gradually fill up with secularity and thereby become a less religious space … I think in reality the context is more like a jacuzzi in that everything is bubbling up from everywhere.”

 Bretherton’s metaphor is nuanced yet accessible. It conjures ideas of being washed clean and locating a sense of wellbeing and relaxation, as well as turbulence and contestation. There are myriad contested issues and spaces that define our public engagement and in turn there are differing views on how and where to engage. These contributions are the jacuzzi jets, the spectrum of which I will try to outline.

The political zeitgeist has generated debate around centrist, One Nation ideology. During party conference season, George Osborne articulated the need for us to live within our means. A message that dovetailed with Jeremy Hunt’s call for the removal of tax credits as an incentive for a new culture of hard work. David Cameron captured the Conservatives’ agenda to address poverty that builds upon the cuts, reforms and culture change saying, “if you want a lecture about poverty, ask Labour, if you want something done about it, come to us, the Conservative party”.  Labour wants to install “a kinder politics, a more caring society”. Jeremy Corbyn argued that we should not be “[reduced] to believing in anything less … [he said] don’t accept injustice and stand up against prejudice … let us put our values, the people’s values, back into politics”. This rhetoric captures the difference between austerity and progressive politics, but between these poles, people are searching for something that they can believe in. The election of Jeremy Corbyn is a recent example of this in the political sphere, not because people knew Corbyn, because they didn’t, but because what he represents resonates with a movement for change.

People are looking beyond, the established framing and are locating a sense of what is missing. Last week Justin Welby spoke at St Aldates Church in Oxford and located Jesus in the margins, with the lost, with those in need.  He said “Jesus Christ was not one who got on well with the people of power. He was not an easy person to have to supper if you were in a position of influence.” The Archbishop was saying that Christ shared truth and loved his neighbour even when institutionally speaking, it was uncomfortable. Christ called people in faith to mirror this in the world. In a context of institutional reform and austerity, faith should be seen in the margins and exhibited through intentional acts of care and love wherever there is need. Christ’s call spoke into, but exists independently from the constructions that make up the world in which we live today. This engagement dovetails with the centrist ideology of our political parties and introduces an organic aspect that requires a suitable metaphor to help locate it, along with 3 short case studies I will offer to finish.

Instead of a shower, we have a meandering river, slowly shaping the topography, flowing in a clearly defined channel. Rather than a jacuzzi, we have springs welling up into cracks and gaps formed as the ground shifts. Religious groups represent abundant aquifers, full of physical, social and spiritual resources that can lie latent for prolonged periods, but when the terrain shifts, are open and accessible and flowing. Religious groups are embedded in our communities and their networks permeate below and between the political structures that we are having to revise.

Geological mapping has helped us understand the terrain and the role of religious groups in Local Authority areas. Link Up operates alongside Cheshire West and Chester Local Authority, auditing and sharing best practice and facilitating forums for local leaders. I want to share two examples of work Link Up has supported, which illustrates how religious groups are working at the margins and within the gaps that have been created by public service reform.

Elsie Ever After is a bereavement support group that has been set up in memory of Elspeth Georgie Lyons, who passed away at a very young age.  Elspeth’s parents found themselves in need of support, but due to geography and the cause of Elspeth’s death, found that there was no bereavement provision available to them.  With the help of their local church, Elsie Ever After was born and EEA is now on a mission to ‘link all existing services and plug the gap where services are lacking’.

Project Andrew is facilitated by The Church Army and based at Ellesmere Port boat museum. They are working with young men and Youth Offender Teams, to help restore a narrow boat. The projects aims are to engage with young people as they restore the narrow boat to help them restore a sense of purpose in their lives and to give them self-worth.

Religious groups are uniquely located to support and feed those who have suffered loss, are seeking self-worth, and those who are in need of hospitality and a safe space, as per the case studies I have shared.  The springs that produce and nourish in the cracks and gaps are flowing with potential and are able to facilitate flourishing through organic and sustained growth. Geological exploration and mapping is unearthing rich resources all the time and through partnership and coproduction, Religious groups such as Link Up are able to enrich and facilitate vast and varied groundswells of growth in our society and are an asset as we engage with the current reform agenda.

In November, Chester University, Link Up Faith Forum and Cheshire West and Chester are hosting a strategic summit with public and faith sector professionals from across the north of England to broker understanding of the possibilities for religion in the public sphere and specifically Local Authorities and faith based organisations in the context of public service reform. Follow the hashtag #ProgressiveLocalism for more.

The views of guest bloggers do not necessary reflect those of the William Temple Foundation.

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Is Spiritual Anonymity Depriving Us of Addiction Recovery Role Models?
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Sound & Fury: Signs of a New Politics
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