Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Is There Still Faith in the City?

3 Jun 2023

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. 

However, according to a recent paper by Shannahan and Denning

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.

(For  further detailed reflection on urban ministry by experienced practitioners follow and download our series of urban tracts or browse our Urban Portal Website.)


(Appendix) A Mini Review

Finding the Treasure: Good News From The Estates, Edited by Al Barrett Published by SPCK

https://spckpublishing.co.uk/finding-the-treasure-good-news-from-the-estates-664

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.

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