Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Author Archives: Matthew Barber-Rowell

Rev Canon Prof James Walters Public Lecture on 21st June 2024

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The William Temple Foundation is delighted to announce a Keynote Public Lecture by Professor James Walters where he will consider the role of faith in British society within the context of global trends towards religious nationalism and escalating conflict. This lecture represents the centre piece of the Virtual Festival of Public Theology which the Foundation is running over the weekend of 21st and 22nd of June 2024.

Prof Walters will address the dramatic expansion of religious diversity and plurality in the UK and the issues they raise in policy and cultural debates, not least as British communities navigate the effects of the conflict in the Middle East. Professor Walters will highlight some of the challenges but also opportunities that lie ahead for the future of relations between Faith and State and wider society as we rebuild the social and economic fabric of our nation. The political and theological implications of this vision will be discussed by a panel of William Temple Foundation Research Fellows and Trustees including Prof Simon LeeProf Chris BakerDr Saiyyidah Zaidi and Revd Dr Ericsson Mapfumo.

Prof Chris Baker, Director off the William Temple Foundation has said of the lecture,

‘We are delighted to welcome Jim’s lecture as the centrepiece for our Festival of Public Theology. Jim is one of the foremost voices reflecting on the role of faith and belief in the public square in the UK and beyond, and how its relationship with wider society may evolve in the context of unfolding uncertainty and challenge.’

This public lecture is part of the William Temple Festival of Public Theology which will take place on 21-22 June 2024. The Festival offers an innovative online programme of short courses about theology, plurality and activism in public life. Building on the earlier traditions of William Temple College, it draws on current research and expertise of scholars affiliated with the William Temple Foundation. To learn more about the Festival of Public Theology and to register free for the lecture by Prof Walters, go to eventbrite, here.

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Radical Hope: Reflections on a Roundtable at Liverpool Hope University

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On Friday 26th April 2024, the William Temple Foundation hosted a roundtable in partnership with Liverpool Hope University, exploring an emerging interdisciplinary agenda framed in terms of “Radical Hope”.

This gathering welcomed leaders from across civil society. Bishop John Arnold, Catholic Bishop of Salford, joined us. Bishop John leads the response to the climate crisis by the Catholic Church in England and Wales. Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) Ian Markham was present. We were deeply fortunate to have partners from the region including Diocese of Manchester and Manchester Cathedral represented by Rev Grace Thomas, Poverty Research and Advocacy Network represented by Dr Natalija Atas and Liverpool Hope University represented by Rev Julia Pratt, Prof Peter McGrail, Prof Stephen Shakespeare. The gathering was framed using two papers: one by William Temple Foundation Chair, Prof Simon Lee, and one by Foundation Research Fellow Dr Matthew Barber-Rowell, which combined to offer a basis from which to respond to the devastation being caused in the public square.

Prof Lee set out three framings of hope,

Running Streams of Hope: inspired by the quote by Cardinal Suenens ’To hope is not to dream but to turn dreams into reality’, which encouraged a more grounded and determined sense of hope within political, national and institutional life. 

Ripples of Hope: inspired by the words of Robert F Kennedy, “Each time you stand up for an ideal, or act to improve the lot of others, or strike out against injustice, you send forth a tiny ripple of hope and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance”

Deep-Freezing Hope: which took inspiration from Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow People in America, who set down his headdress and coup stick as a symbol of the end of an era in the life of his people, whilst holding on to the Dream they represent for future generations to take up. This account is given in Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation

Following this, Dr Barber-Rowell offered three approaches to unearthing and building hope:

Curating Spaces of Hope: This is a pioneering new paradigm of faith based organisation which has emerged in north west England since 2016 and was the subject of Dr Barber-Rowell’s PhD thesis. Spaces of Hope utilises new materialism inspired by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to mapping our lived experiences, making sense of how to find hope and build resilience when things break down, and to integrate these into new dialogues, movements, networks and partnerships of hope across difference. This approach offers a 21st Century update to William Temple’s consultative methodology set out in Christianity and Social Order

A turn to Radical Hope: This turn is characterised in three ways. 1) Curating Spaces of Hope interdisciplinary approach and use of new materialism offers synergies with the Radical Theology* developed by Jeffrey Robbins and Clayton Crockett. 2) A new social movements methodology which locates it within the radical democratic tradition. This is characterised by Bert Klandermans as: a) different constituencies, b) a search for values, and c) different forms of action which are non-hierarchical and open to brokering relationship between communities and ‘institutions’. 3) developing understandings of leadership through dialogue with the work of Antonio Gramsci and his writings on traditional and organic intellectuals in his Prison Notebooks

Emerging Hope: Four applications of Curating Spaces of Hope were offered from across the north west of England from 2022 – present. 1) Ecologies of Hope: development of technical mapping and lay leadership resources in the Diocese of Manchester which respond to the climate crisis and the challenge of reaching Net Zero by 2030. 2) From poverty to Hope in the city: cocreation of a vision and strategy for eradicating poverty in the city of Liverpool with Liverpool Chanty and Voluntary Services and its members. 3) Politics of Hope: responding to the challenges faced by refugees and asylum seekers associated with the Dialogue Society by offering space with others from their community to share their story and to acknowledge their own ‘woundedness’ (Weller, 2022). 4) Hope in Higher Education: working from the margins of Liverpool Hope University using dialogue to map and respond to working culture, working practices and the role of faith in higher education and to issue calls for change to the Mission and Values Committee of the University. 

The panels that followed developed on these framings and approaches through interdisciplinary papers responding to crises shaping the public square in the 21st Century namely ecological crises, poverty, politics crises and institutional crisis with focus on Higher Education.  On hearing reports from the gathering, William Temple Foundation Director Prof Chris Baker later characterised the gathering as a ‘micro-Malvern’, which is a reference to the 1941 gathering chaired by Archbishop William Temple which sought to find solutions to the crises of the day, drawing on shared faith and speaking into public life in response to an unjust economic context. This is a welcome comparison, but with some necessary updates.  The panel of delegates at Hope in April 2024 represents a much more demographically diverse gathering. Further, the agendas discussed were not centred around the economic struggles of the day. Panels on ecology, education, politics and poverty provided a rich and interdisciplinary seedbed from which roots and shoots of hope could form.  Further, drawing on the ideas of Gramsci and the evidence from the Spaces of Hope movement, the emerging agenda is being formed by both organic and traditional leaders and positionalities. Our agenda was less about the nation and more about our local context defined by communities and institutions in the north west of England across the M62 corridor, although this was put in theoretical, national and international contexts by diverse participants.

This gathering sits alongside and develops upon others from 2022 which reflected on Christianity and Social Order, its place in history, and ways in which we might envision a similar agenda in the Temple Tradition for 21st Century Britain which puts pressure on government from below to produce morally robust engagement with the common good. This was developed most recently at Blackburn Cathedral in 2022 and covered in the 2023 Special Issue of Journal of Church and State edited by Dr Yazid Said.

With this in mind we thank Bishop John Arnold from the Catholic Diocese of Salford for his presence and contributions throughout. We were globally networked through the generous contributions from Ian Markham who flew in to join us from Virgina Theological Seminary, Dr Hirpo Kumbi representing pioneering faith based education and partnerships in Ethiopia, as well as Prof Edward Abbott-Halpin, a William Temple Foundation Trustee, who commuted for 11-hours from Orkney to be with us. We also thank Dr Yazid Said and Dr Barber-Rowell for organising the gathering and to Prof Guy Cuthbertson and Prof Peter McGrail for hosting us.

We will publish the papers from this gathering in a number of forms. These include, as a Podcast, and as a Temple Book. We will then also look ahead to how we might continue to grow a movement of Radical Hope.

*This blog was edited on the 7th May

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6 New Trustees Appointed to the William Temple Foundation Board

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We are delighted to share that the William Temple Foundation has appointed six new trustees. A call was issued in December 2023 for expressions of interest and following a process of discernment led by our existing board, 6 new trustees were invited to their first board meeting on 22nd March. Our new trustees are: Rev Dr Paul Monk, Rev Dr Deirdre Brower Latz, Ian Mayer DL, Rev Dr Ericsson Mapfumo, Tariq Mahmood, and Prof Edward Abbott-Halpin. As a public theology think tank, we have been encouraged by the breadth and depth of interdisciplinary experience that has been made available to us through our diverse Board. In the months to come there will be opportunity for you to get to know new trustees via our website and through public offerings as part of our developing programme of work. Responding to the appointments,

Chair of the Board Prof Simon Lee said, ‘More than one hundred years after he first became a bishop, William Temple is still a symbol of faith in the public square seeking justice and hope for all. This Foundation, taking forward the spirit of his life’s work, is blessed to welcome a new cohort of trustees as we widen and deepen our work in partnerships.’

Director of Research Prof Chris Baker said, “It’s truly humbling but also inspiring to welcome such a dynamic set of new Trustees to the board, who bring a wide variety of skills and experience in public and community life, and leadership. Building on expertise already available in the Trustee board, this represents a really optimistic moment in the next evolution of the Foundation’s mission.

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Advanced Campaigning and Advocacy for Interfaith Leaders

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The William Temple Foundation is very pleased to partner with Faith and Belief Forum in a pioneering six month training program aimed at nurturing and developing future leaders from a variety of different faith and belief backgrounds. The course ambition is to up-skill young leaders in the art of campaigning for social change and to develop policies to reflect those ambitions. At the end of the program there will be a presentation in Parliament on a campaign of the participants choice in June 2024.

The Foundation via Professor Chris Baker and Dr Saiyyidah Zaidi is providing input into the history of faith based campaigning around issues such as formation of the welfare state and how identity impacts self-leadership and advocacy. This allows us to draw upon historical resources such as William Temple’s thinking and leadership as well as contemporary sources and experiences such as narrative development, leadership skills, and communication. Future sessions being delivered by the Foundation are: ‘faith, justice, and welfare;’ ‘creating momentum for change and measuring human capabilities;’ and ‘belief, belonging and motivation.’

This project represents for the Foundation a new and exciting opportunity to facilitate dialogue among and between young people, youth-focussed organisations, faith-based organisations and decision-makers across the political landscape to explore how to address cross-community tensions.

For more information please contact: Professor Chris Baker and Dr Saiyyidah Zaidi

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New Research Fellowships Announced.

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The William Temple Foundation is delighted to announce the appointment of two new Fellows for 2024. Our Fellowship is designed to reflect and enhance the innovative and interdisciplinary scholarship and practice that we offer through our work across the UK. With this in mind it is our pleasure to welcome Dr Saiyyidah Zaidi and Natalie Law.

Dr Saiyyidah Zaidi joins us as a Senior Research Fellow. She enhances the Foundation through her pioneering approach to Practical Theology as the first Muslim in Britain to complete a PhD in the subject. The title of Saiyyidah’s thesis was “This is the sound of my soul: seeking belonging and inclusion in practical theology“. Her other professional interests draw on her background as an architect and her current practice coaching leadership with senior professionals. You can read more about Saiyyidah here.

Natalie Law joins us as a Research Fellow. Natalie is based at the University of London where she lecturers in Social Studies at Goldsmiths College and is completing her PhD at Southbank. Natialie’s work ensures the voices of marginalized and excluded community groups are heard. This work covers themes from, the faith based coping mechanisms of the Windrush generation, to Black female students exploring and negotiating intersectional and marginalised spiritual, religious and cultural identities within higher education and Community and Youth Work. You can read more about Natalie here.

William Temple Foundation Director, Prof. Chris Baker said, “I am delighted and privileged to be able to welcome Saiyyidah and Natalie to the Foundation. Both will enrich our output and presence through their innovative writing, extensive networking and progressive research agendas. It’s an excellent way to start 2024.

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William Temple Foundation curate a special issue of the Journal of Church and State

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We are delighted to announce the release of Issue 65 of the Journal of Church and State on William Temple and the Rebuilding of the Public Square in Post-Pandemic Britain. This special issue, explores the contributions of William Temple to the formation of a post-war Britain as exemplified by his seminal text Christianity and Social Order, and sets out a progressive and hopeful agenda for 2024 and beyond. The journal, co-edited by Rev Dr Yazid Said of Liverpool Hope University and a Trustee of William Temple Foundation, offers articles from Christian, Jewish and Muslim perspectives, critiquing the historical influence of Archbishop William Temple, and issuing a call to action to engage politically with the local and national concerns shaping our public squares in Britain today. 

The journal comprises a diversity of contributions from different worldviews and interdisciplinary perspectives including many scholars associated with the William Temple Foundation namely, Prof Chris Baker, Dr Ekaterina Braginskaia, Dr Matthew Barber-Rowell, Dr David Shaw and Dr Yazid Said. The journal also includes contributions from Nathan Eddy and Steve Williams  from the Council of Christians and Jews, as well as esteemed Islamic scholar and practitioner Prof Mohamed M Keshavjee. We are also deeply grateful to Rowan Williams and Tim Winter for offering engaged and expert responses to the diverse range of contributions, which authenticate and champion the agenda we are setting out. 

Regarding this publication, Prof Chris Baker Director of the William Temple Foundation said, We are deeply grateful to Dr Yazid Said for his vision and determination in bringing this conference and publication about, which recognises in fresh and contemporary ways the historical relevance of Temple’s thought to both the NorthWest of England and those from the Abrahamic traditions 

The Journal is available online: Volume 65 Issue 4 | Journal of Church and State | Oxford Academic ( In early 2024, we are planning to use ideas generated by this special edition to explore the theme of  Radical Hope ahead of an expected General Election. To join this conversation, sign up for our mailing list or follow us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn

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A Book Review of “The Serendipity of Hope” 

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The Serendipity of Hope ed. Simon Lee and Ian Markham. Pickwick Publications. USA. English. 292 pages. ISBN 1666737062

“Serendipity of Hope offers a compelling vision of what our colleges and universities might look like if they rediscover, and honour in action, the founding values and legacies” (Gareth Jones, Theological Education Advisor to the Archbishop of Hong Kong). 

This quote from Jones from the back cover of the book, speaks to the value that can be found in this volume. With this review, I will seek to honour the spirit of story and peripheral experience at the heart of the book, to open up the opportunity that it presents for institutions today.

I first came across this edited volume in its very early stages of development in 2020. I had just moved to Liverpool, and I had just heard of Liverpool Hope University. The William Temple Foundation had just taken on a new research fellow, Dr Sanjee Perera, and it was via a tweet from Dr Perera that I became aware of this new project on “hope”. Hope is a theme in my work, and so I went digging and I managed to wangle an invite to a learning day, hosted by Professor Lee the former Rector at Hope, which was the basis for this book. I was allowed to listen in from the periphery, to a series of papers reflecting on “hope” at Hope over the previous 25 years. I was encouraged by the experience, and having recently submitted my PhD, I was left with the question, what about the next 25 years? Since attending this gathering, I’ve become an Honorary Fellow at Hope, where I have engaged in postdoctoral research both within the University and in the city of Liverpool. I have explored the question of whether we are Hope by name and “hope” by nature? There is a definite synergy between this volume; The Serendipity of Hope, and my work. I will publish on this synergy elsewhere. However with this in mind, I was lucky to attend the launch of the book at Lambeth Palace on 3rd November 2023. This gathering brought together authors from the book, and people with a fresh association with Liverpool Hope including myself, a recently minted PhD exploring faith-based universities in Ethiopia where Higher Education is otherwise secular in nature, and the new Vice Chancellor at Hope Professor Claire Ozanne. It was fitting that the volume was formulated and then launched in gatherings such as these, as it speaks to the sense of nurture, and journey which are at the centre of the book. 

In chapter 1, Professor Lee characterises this using the language of “alma mater” where mater translates as mother, but taken together, the translation has a broader sense of nurture. Lee argues that this sense is not just for the period of being on campus, or being within the institution, but something which can set people up for the future. There are clear examples throughout. In chapter 11, this theme was picked up in a chapter on motherhood. Dr Vicky Baker explores twin threads of present experience as a ‘home engineer’ (p169) where she cares for her son, and her experience of teaching at Hope. Baker recollects that she was attracted to Hope by the staff team (her PhD was supervised by Professor Ian Markham) and the ecumenical foundation the University has. However she was contending with being homesick. The chapter sets out the nurturing role that Markham and Lee offered Baker, which exemplified the nurture Lee speaks of, and enabled Baker to continue her professional life, whilst also overcoming her homesickness. Baker concludes with reference to her own role with her son today, to bring the account full circle and to symbolise the affect of nurture as part of motherhood. 

Articulating “hope” through lived experience is a key thread throughout. In chapter 6 Dr Perera highlights this in the contexts of crisis. A key example is from the Toxteth riots in the 1980s and the responses of Bishop David Shepherd and Archbishop Derek Worlock, who bought their friendship and vocation together to seek the common good in the city of Liverpool. Perera points to many other examples of what she terms as ‘pro-social responses’ from the social sciences, but highlights that the pursuit of hope, the inherent risk therein and the potential it offers, are often missing from these. We are directed instead to what she characterised as ‘pedagogies of hope’ which transcend secular constructions of social life within institutions and offer something more. This sense of something more flows through the volume and is found once again in chapter 9, via emphasis on journey, characterised as the Camino of Hope by Sean Gallagher. This chapter is the first publication for the now retired Director of Finance from Hope from Lee’s era in the early 2000s. An anecdote, which was shared at the launch, regarded Gallagher’s volunteering at the Liverpool Hope Internet café at the Albert Dock on the waterfront in Liverpool. As the Director of Finance, Sean spent his Sunday afternoon helping people at the cafe, which came to the attention of what turned out to be Dr Perera’s father. Sean’s volunteering and commitment at the periphery of the University stood out and was the basis for Sanjee being sent to study at Hope, her PhD at Hope, and nurturing relationships set out in the text that span over 25 years, and many more instances besides. There are many other chapters of great interest, which speak to the diversity, and pioneering nature of an institution, which is premised on bringing together and overcoming differences from the past to shape the present and offer hope for the future.

Chapter 19, the final chapter, is offered by the co-editor of the volume Ian Markham and Joe Thompson. As a former Head of Theology at Liverpool Hope, and current Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS), Markham is well placed to honour the distinctiveness of how a University’s past relates to the way things are done in the present, and what they might bring to the future. He concludes the opening section with a quote from the writer of the book of James in the Bible, “be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only”, and characterises it as the ethos of Hope (p.268). In this way, this final chapter on reparations, highlights the way in which Hope inspired Markham and hints at how this flows through into the work he leads at VTS today. Whilst VTS is characterised in the chapter as “the strongest seminary or theological college, in the Anglican Communion” (p.268), it has also been complicit in the slave trade. The story of VTS can help understand reparations as not just a case of moving some statues and putting up some signs containing context of who and what continues to be honoured on campus, but rather as something much more embodied, pointing to how institutions should and could work. Markham offers a powerful and welcome challenge for faith based institutions and others contributing to public life, and one which gives my question regards the next 25 years, fresh emphasis and traction! 

How do we pick up the question of “hope” and sense of nurture, which prepare us for the crises that we experience along life’s journey? How do we do this in a way, which is realistic about what has gone before whilst putting things right which have gone wrong, and offering space for a new generation to pick up the baton? With these questions in mind, in the context of deep set institutional changes in the United Kingdom today and around the world, this volume has much to offer. 

Dr Matthew Barber-Rowell is an Honorary Postdoctoral Fellow at Liverpool Hope University, Research Fellow at the William Temple Foundation and Founder of Spaces of Hope.

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A New Face for Media and Communications at the Foundation: Dr Matthew Barber-Rowell

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It is with great pleasure that the Foundation can announce the appointment of Dr Matthew Barber-Rowell as its new Communications Officer. Matthew has a long association and knowledge of the work of the Foundation having been the first of our William Temple Scholars to achieve their doctorate back in 2021, and now currently one of our Research Fellows. Matthew is currently based in Liverpool with his wife Phoebe and his son Benjamin. Matthew has a varied portfolio of work which is focussed on developing local leadership that responds to global crises and explores approaches to building resilience. This portfolio includes Ecological Transformation with Diocese of Manchester including the launch of Eco Stepping Stones, postdoctoral research at Liverpool Hope University considering the role of faith in higher education, and consultancy work for example a recent piece with Liverpool Charity and Voluntary Services, co-creating a vision and strategy for eradicating poverty in the city.

Dr Barber-Rowell says, ‘I am delighted to be taking on this new role with the William Temple Foundation. I recognise the distinctive role the Foundation plays in shaping interdisciplinary engagement, dialogue, leadership and policy regards faith in public life in the UK. I relish the prospect of contributing to this by amplifying the great work of the Foundation, its fellows and partners, in my time here’.

Professor Chris Baker, Director of Research for the Foundation responds, ‘It is great to welcome Matthew into this role. Matthew will bring not only the technical aspects of this role, but also a deep understanding of public theology and policy based on his pioneering research and consultancy as the founder of Spaces of Hope. We are very privileged to have someone of his skills and experience undertaking this role’. 

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Curating Spaces of Hope: From a Community Iftar to Community Partnership in Uncertain Times

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In early 2022, I was the inaugural recipient of the William Temple Foundation Postdoctoral Award. Twelve months on, I am writing to share some of what has happened following the award. There are a number of strands to what is now an established postdoctoral agenda. Here I will share one strand, which covers work that is emerging with the Dialogue Society in Liverpool, beginning with a community Iftar in April.

The Fellows’ Award has been developed using a legacy from Len Collinson, former Deputy Lieutenant of Merseyside, Honorary Professor of the University of Central Lancashire, and business leader in northwest England. Collinson recognised that enterprise and interdisciplinary partnerships were central tenets of a flourishing society. Prof. Simon Lee, Chair of the William Temple Foundation, said of the award:

“A core part of the Foundation’s work has been supporting William Temple Scholars as they pursue their doctoral studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. Trustees have now committed to encouraging Scholars, once they have been awarded their PhD, to apply their research in society.”

In this spirit, I have begun to utilise the award to explore how dialogue can inform leadership and shared values in Liverpool, in uncertain times. The full project is set out in three blogs, the first of which can be found here. Following a call for participation, a connection with the Dialogue Society was established, which then connected me with volunteers who had recently moved to Liverpool.

For those who have not heard of it, the Dialogue Society is an international network that supports local Branches to establish associations in cities and to gather interested parties together to share. This is often done over food using an Iftar as a basis for a gathering. The Dialogue Society has drawn on the inspiration of the Hizmet Movement, a Turkish Muslim inspired approach to dialogue. Where a Branch is present it will convene meetings outside of the Iftar. In Liverpool there is not a Branch at present, but there is interest in establishing one.

In May 2022, I convened a dialogue in Liverpool. We met using Zoom, attracting attendance from Turkish muslim asylum seekers who had moved to Liverpool during the pandemic.  The dialogue lasted for two hours and we explored questions of hope, barriers to hope and what might be done to overcome these barriers in the city. In response, themes included the safety and education of their children, loss of loved ones, the limitations created by a language barrier, and the stress and insecurity of being in an unknown city in an unknown country. 

One respondent noted that this was the first time they had been offered space to reflect on their journeys and the difficulties they faced. One attendee noted that they would want to say a great deal more than their English could allow them too. They asked for the opportunity to write down their feelings and their experiences and to share these with those gathered with the hope that it could develop an opportunity for further reflection. Those gathered expressed a deep resilience to overcome barriers and to connect with people in the new communities they were part of. The small actions of others, a phone call from a friend in turkey, a cup of tea from a fellow community member in the city they have moved to were significant. 

What had become clear is that through the transition into the UK the group gathered had found a new appreciation for the role social connection plays in their lives. They noted that they had lost work (in business and science and education) but gained a sense of togetherness and common humanity.  This offered the basis for gatherings to continue, exploring a common humanity with others in the city to which they have just moved, not limited by their own preconceptions and worldviews per se, but finding common and shared ground with those communities that had welcomed them in to contribute to the place in which they now live. 

This dialogue has become the basis for further gatherings that are taking place in 2023. The first of these is on the 12th April, when Dialogue Society and Spaces of Hope will convene a community Iftar at the Pal Multicultural Centre in Liverpool. We will continue to develop the dialogue we began in 2022, exploring the theme of hope and whether it would be a fruitful thing to do to establish a Branch of the Dialogue Society in Liverpool. Our focus on hope is a response to the many uncertainties we live with today. These include the cost of living crisis, the energy crisis, the pandemic, climate change, and many more. The goal is to facilitate resilience in the city, with people from across different communities, with different beliefs, values, and worldviews in curating a more hopeful place to live. 

If you are in Liverpool and wish to attend the gathering, you are welcome to RSVP to Matthew at by 31st March 2023. 

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Review of ‘The Christian Left’ by Anthony A. J. Williams

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Anthony A.J. Williams, The Christian Left: An Introduction to Radical and Socialist Christian Thought (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2022), 211 pages ; 23 cm; ISBN: 9781509542819.

Dr Matthew Barber-Rowell, Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation

As a Temple scholar and research fellow, my position is informed by and shaped by the Temple Tradition, that is, the deployment of Temple’s ‘consultative methodology’ as a means of brokering across difference (Spencer, 2017). So my view is not limited only to the historical references made by Williams. This is a blessing in terms of drawing on the wisdom and prophetic impact of a giant of the 20th-Century, but also a hindrance, in that Temple offers us only one way to examine the relationship between Christianity and politics. With this consideration in mind, I am grateful to Anthony A. J. Williams for his survey of 150 years of the Christian Left, which takes us on a journey from the Guild of Saint Matthew in Bethnal Green (1877), through the emergence of Christian socialism in the early 20th-Century, through an exploration of the different political and theological facets to the contemporary Christian Left and the challenge going forward.

The opening pages challenge us to consider how contemporary politics is related to Christianity. An image is used of Donald Trump holding a Bible whilst appealing to his political base in the United States. Although a few years old now, this image speaks to the zeitgeist in terms of polarisation, extremism and division, often inspired by, some claim to Christian faith. Is this coercive and controlling behaviour characteristic of Christianity? Williams does not think so. And if not, is there a coherent alternative on offer? This is the challenge Williams sets out, and which he seeks to find answers in The Christian Left.

There is, Williams’ suggests, no one single tradition that can be categorised as the Christian Left. Rather, there are multiple different influences on a movement characterised by concepts of brotherhood, justice, liberty, equality and cooperation.  Of these, I found the concept of brotherhood to be most prominent. The foundational influence of the brotherhood of F. D. Maurice, Charles Kingsley and John Ludlow (1848 onwards) on Christian Socialism, was set out at the beginning of Chapter One. With the final words being given to brothers from Balliol College, R, H. Tawney, and William Temple (culminating in 1944). The influence of Stewart Headlam, the founder of the Guild of St Matthew, is used to good affect.

Although, I did not know of his impact, Headlam is given credit for carrying the message of Maurice et. al., and influencing those who shaped the vision for the post-war Labour Government. Through Headlam’s activism, the concept of brotherhood becomes rooted in both a high Anglo-Catholic Christian, and a Socialist worldview. William’s analysis is helpful in understanding that whilst Headlam and his contemporaries are a driving force, they are also deemed to be somewhat esoteric in their approach. It appears that the Christian Social Union (CSU) was set up by Scott Holland and Charles Gore in part at least to avoid Headlam.  These details are interesting historically, and become pertinent later in the book, as part of the overarching challenge facing the Christian Left. How are differences dealt with and what does this mean for the Christian Left as a whole? I am left with the understanding that the concept of brotherhood underpins, but this does not mean that it is easy to adhere to.

Williams’ develops his account by exploring the oscillation between questioning of what the Christian Left is and the context of ideological milieu. Following the impact of the post-war Labour Government, building on the vision of Temple and Tawney, groups within the Labour Party and the Christian Left took divergent paths. Different groups later emerged: Christian Socialist Movement (now Christian on the Left), William Temple Foundation, Ekklesia, Jubilee, and latterly Blue Labour and others. Williams account suggests that the boundaries between these groups had been blurred. On the one hand this allowed for the movement of prominent leaders between the groups, which galvanised support, but on the other hand led to confusion around what it meant to be on the Christian Left and indeed a Christian on the left.

The chapters that follow share informed accounts of the different camps that we can understand as being part of the Christian Left, from the Social Gospel, to Catholic Social Teaching, to Lutheran, Reformed or Methodist traditions, to a plethora of liberation theologies, including Black, Womanist, LGBT+, Feminist, and others. There is not space here to engage with these in a way that does them justice, so do pick up a copy for Williams chapters on these topics. However, I will flag the helpful theological question mark that Williams offers in the final chapter. In terms of the positions that different parts of the Christian Left take up, and in terms of the views that underpin those positions. Does the worldview inform the theology or the theology inform the worldview? This question is present in the early movement, highlighted by the focus on Headlam and returns as a constituent theme throughout the movement.

Foundational to the Christian Left and therefore to this volume is the concept of brotherhood. Williams makes clear that brotherhood is contested at least in terms of its foundations, its grammar, and therefore its universalism. Williams’ use of the term allows for exploration of the Christian Left historically and ideologically and also allows for recognition of the imperfections of the movement. However, Williams’ conclusion leaves me with mixed feelings. This is not due to Williams’ writing, but rather his realistic critique of the Christian Left as things stand: the Christian Left is in danger of experiencing alienation from others within the Christian faith and, it appears, also from other none Christian actors on the left.  I hope this does not transpire, but Williams volume leaves me with an understanding of how and why it could.

The Trumpian imagery used to open the volume shows that there is a challenge that the Christian Left can meet. The political trajectory in the UK in 2023 indicates the rise of the Labour Party – the removal of the Labour Party from special measures by the EHRC is the latest sign of this. The danger presented by Williams is that the Christian Left might maintain the milieu and it’s alienation from itself in a way that hastens the hopeless descent heralded by Trump. We may hope instead is that the Christian Left can manoeuvre itself into an altogether more hopeful movement characterised by lucid clarity seen previously on the Christian Left. Time will tell. With this in mind Williams’ work has helped to set out the precedence that exists for this oscillation toward opportunity.

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