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Lenten Tension; Action Vs Contemplation

21 Feb 2024

This Lent I am feeling the tension between action and contemplation more acutely than ever.

‘Our Lent should awaken a sense of social justice’

As always the words that Oscar Romero wrote in 1980, weeks before his assassination are key to my Lenten practice. This year, a year of elections, working for social justice is more crucial and urgent.

No Time To Wait was published last week by North East Child Poverty Commission, and as the title suggests, there is no time to wait. Over one thirds of babies, children and young people in the region are growing up in poverty and one tenth are living below the deep poverty line. The report’s authors warn that,

 ‘is not only limiting the life chances and outcomes of tens of thousands of children and families across the North East – and their ability to benefit from everything this part of the world has to offer – it is holding the whole of our region back.’

Many of the levers to reduce child poverty sit with the UK government and consequently general elections are key moments where civil society organising for change. Here in the North East devolution provides another opportunity to tackling the injustice that is child poverty. Faith groups are often on the front line of responding to poverty and therefore have great insights into the causes and yet, in my experience, we struggle to focus our energy upstream. 

During a recent session with new church leaders in the region, they admitted that they felt unable challenge injustice. They, and their congregations, were amazing at providing pastoral and social activities, responding to need through loving service and activities that evangelise. However, there wasn’t a single of example that would be described as challenging unjust systems. The main reasons given for this was lack of capacity, not knowing what to do, concern about being too political and not feeling that anything would make a difference.

During this election year we must collectively embrace practical, achievable actions that church communities can get involved that will make a difference and are not party political. Here are three that we are working on in the North East.

  1. Finding Radical Hope in a Year of Election? On 18th March we are hosting two events with William Temple Foundation. One in Durham and the other in Newcastle. The events will bring together contemplation and action. 
  2. Mayoral Assembly. The creation of the North East Mayoral Combined Authority has been highlighted as a key opportunity to reduce child poverty in the region. Over the last year members of Tyne and Wear Citizens, which includes many faith-based organisations, have been sharing stories of poverty and the Cost-of-Living Crisis. Ask that have emerged from this process will be put to the candidates at a Mayoral Assembly on 22 April 2024.
  3. Voter registration UK Democracy Fund estimate that  8 million people across the UK may still not be correctly registered to vote, many are living in low-income communities. Faith and community groups are being encouraged to become Voter Registration Champions. The church community project in my parish of Houghton-le-Spring took part in training last week. Staff and volunteers practiced how to have conversations about the importance of voting and how to register. Next month they are holding a week of voter registration in the town.

Here lies the tension this Lent, like many I am overwhelmed and exhausted.

‘The frenzy of the activist neutralises one’s work for peace. It destroys one’s inner capacity of peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of one’s work because it kills the roots of inner wisdom which make work fruitful.”  Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 1968

This Lent all of this action must be balanced with slowing down and contemplation to ensure we can continue to challenge injustice.

Yesterday I stood in front of the North East Suicide Memorial Quilt  on display in Newcastle Anglican Cathedral. The intricate and personal stories sewn into the quilt both desperately sad and yet hopeful. One read ‘There is a light that will never go out’.  How therapeutic the process was for those who had to slow down and contemplate to make the small squares? Did it provide strength to carry on, many who will be fighting for a very personal and painful justice?  

The Church of England’s Lent book by Dr Selina Stone, Tarry a While is a beautiful gift in a search for a completive resource that will enable spiritual self-care. Tarrying, Selina explains, is a particular spiritual practice within many Black churches, especially Pentecostal congregations. It is a collective time of waiting for God. 

‘It is a time of surrender to God, in the hope of personal and communal transformation. It is also a moment of intersession, for bringing our personal needs to God as well as our loving concerns for our neighbour and the world’.

May we all find time to tarry a while this Lent while also awakening our sense of social justice. 

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