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Building a Politics of Hope: A fascinating & inspiring event

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Our Director of Research Chris Baker, reflects on the conference ‘Building a Politics of Hope’ held in central London on Tuesday 24 February, in partnership with Church Urban Fund and the Joint Public Issues Team.

The run-up to many of the recent UK elections has usually focused on who is competent enough to manage the economy. Since the late 1970s, the neo-liberal consensus has been that market economies provide not only the aspiration but the means by which we run a successful economy and therefore a successful society.

But with the financial crash of 2008, and the increasing poverty and inequality which has followed the introduction of systemic austerity programmes, there has been a huge crash in trust, in both the market and mainstream politics. This lack of trust has been reinforced by a perceived increase in political corruption which has seen the rise of so-called ‘antipolitics’. This means voting for single issue parties who promise apparently simple solutions to complex and intractable problems; for example, the idea that a nation state can take control of its borders and dictate the terms of engagement with and in the wider world. This sort of politics is usually based on appeals to unity and purity which involve the demonization of others – immigrants, welfare “scroungers”, other nations within the UK. A progressive politics (i.e. expansive and willing to engage with diversity and building trust) appears to be in short supply in an increasingly insecure and fearful environment, which even the present promise of economic growth no longer seems to quell.

This political landscape was the background for our recent conference entitled Building a Politics of Hope: Exploring the role and impact of faith-based leadership in local communities. Several key themes emerged from the discussions and reflection generated by the three case studies we explored.

The first case study [listen to the audio recording] was dubbed ‘an innovative experiment in community empowerment’ in the Hodge Hill area of Birmingham; an area of high deprivation and diversity which recently lost its church building when it was demolished. The vicar, Al Barrett pointed out that his parish was full of those ‘others’ so roundly condemned by certain sections of the media and establishment politicians: immigrants, Muslims, single parents and unemployed youth. It was a community used to being ‘done to’ – labelled as dysfunctional and in need of ‘expert’ intervention and surveillance.

The church community perceived the need to change the narrative of those living in the community as a first step to creating a new sense of hope and transformation. This it did conducting one to one conversations and ‘hearing into speech’ the issues and aspirations of the local community. This led to the production of a theatre and culture space and the opening of a new community hub called Open Door which operates according to the principle of the five Ps: place; people; presence; provision and participation.

This highly relational approach has not only shifted the cultural narrative, but also the political one. The initiative has reconfigured the relationship between the community and Local Authority as well as the institutional church who now understands the three key questions emerging from these new processes of co-production and the order in which they should be addressed.

Up to now, external authorities would have addressed these questions in precisely the opposite order.

The second case study [listen to the audio recording], presented by Mohammed Mamdani, was a relatively new Muslim-run community foodbank and Kitchen in West London, called Sufra, a word which has strong connotations of hospitality and dining in many different languages. 90% of the people who access their services are non-Muslim The provision of food support is not viewed as an end in  itself – indeed Mohammed was critical of the proliferation and politicisation of foodbanks as new expressions of institutionalised poverty. Rather Sufra see their project as an entry point to accessing other life opportunities, including a food academy offering accredited training for 16-25 year olds who are not in employment, education or training.

Sufra will also be a venue for pre-election hustings, reinforcing the idea that faith-based spaces of welfare are also becoming spaces of political debate and conscientisation. Mohammed thinks that Sufra represents a new space for third generation British Muslims whereby they volunteer more and become engaged politically and practically to meet the needs of the local community of which they are part, rather than the more traditional route of giving charity to global Muslim projects.

The third case study focussed on the launch by an Anglican priest, Chris Sunderland, of the Bristol Pound – a local currency initiative designed, in Chris’s words,  ‘to give  people a taste of a different form of money, that was embedded in the local economy and could produce a  new values-led community of exchange’. The initiative, which had grown from several years of developing community allotments and environmental campaigns in Bristol, aimed at addressing climate change issues. The Bristol Pound was launched in 2012 and is currently used by several hundred business and individuals. It has been formally recognised as an official currency by the Bank of England.

The next challenge is to get the Bristol Pound used more widely in poorer areas of the city as a spur to setting up new co-operatives, social enterprises and pop-up markets. Overall the aim of Chris and his fellow trustees (who come from all faith traditions and none) is to ‘… bring people in touch with local producers, and encourage the uptake of fresh food through using buying groups that will order food through a bespoke web tool’.

So what lessons can we draw from these creative and diverse examples of faith-based welfare and economic engagement and what do they tell us a new politics of hope?

First, these ‘spaces’ of engagement, often based on affinities and networks and beyond the reach and approval of institutions (such as political parties and religious institutions) are ‘cross-over spaces’ of engagement between all faiths and none. Old binary ways of looking at the world based on rigid demarcations of religion, ideology and ethnicity (such as in the multicultural politics of the 80s and 90s) seem remarkably outmoded and irrelevant to many citizens who simply long to reconnect economics and politics to things that really matter. Two urban critical geographers, Paul Cloke and Justin Beaumont, define the growing significance of these new spaces of engagement as ‘… a coming together of citizens who might previously have been divided by differences in theological, political or moral principles – a willingness to work together to address crucial social issues in the city, and in doing so put aside other frameworks of difference involving faith and secularism’.

Second, is the common narrative or political philosophy that lies at the heart of all these projects; namely a radical and relational hospitality by which these new affinities and networks of action and outrage can be nurtured into a new spaces and practices of hope. Key to this radical hospitality and openness is the idea of ‘hearing into voice’ those of our fellow citizens who have been marginalised but in ways that totally negates the ‘Why me?’ victim mentality on which much of the current anti-politics is based. Here, in these new spaces of political conscientisation and progressive citizenship the emphasis is on relational belonging and solidarity, not stigmatisation and technological fixing outside of a moral framework.

Third is the growing evidence of  the ways on which these new practices of hope and ethical citizenship are feeding back up into the political and institutional chains of command, thus forcing institutions like local authorities and churches for example, to rethink their priorities and make them more responsive and effective for those on the ground.

One suspects that Westminster politics and the core of the banking systems will want to cling most stubbornly to outmode and disconnected ways of exercising power. But, as one respondent in our conference pointed out, faith-based welfare and social justice programmes not only articulate an alternative vison of society; they practically show what it can look like, and invite others to join them. There is ample evidence to suggest that this is in fact what more and more of our citizens are doing: looking for new local solutions to enduring problems in way that express a deep moral pragmatism.

Faith-based spaces and initiatives are becoming the location of choice where these hopes and aspirations can be expressed. This is what a politics of hope begins to look like. All of us have a role to play in ensuring that it flourishes in the hard challenges that lie ahead of us the other side of May 7th, whichever political party or parties are in power.

A selection of audio recordings from the event can be listened to online. Download the Event Report (pdf).

A selection of photos from the event can be viewed on our Facebook page.

 

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Never Mind the Election, a Just Economy Starts With You

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From the Archbishops down, it seems as though everyone is channelling William Temple these days. And why not? It is a strong brand association for a Church ramping up its political engagement, because Temple is famous for having actually driven genuine societal change. So I welcome the recent speech by Archbishop Justin in which he sets out his blueprint for a good economy, built on the four pillars of creativity, gratuity, solidarity and subsidiarity. Subsidiarity (through the Big Society), and solidarity (through the nurture of a community of communities), also feature prominently in the House of Bishop’s excellent pre-election Pastoral Letter.

In the Archbishop’s speech, he begins by explaining that, ‘creativity is a basic human function, and a good economy is one that enables creativity to happen’. Next, he argues that ‘gratuity’ is about an economy that includes a spirit of generosity. It does not seek the maximisation of return, or that every transaction is carried out on a basis of exchange and equivalence. Instead, it recognises that there will be winners and losers, requiring a mix of philanthropy and restraint in profit-making for the good of the whole. Third, solidarity is about, ‘reimaging our economic landscape so that no one is left out or left behind’. Finally, subsidiarity is about asking the question: ‘who is best placed to deliver this?’

In the run-up to the election, Justin Welby is not the only one calling for deep structural change in the way we run our economy. Will Hutton’s latest book, How Good We Could Be offers another blueprint, which focuses on a new Companies Act and revived Trade Unions, in order to embed a genuine stakeholder capitalism and to protect the workforce from any downsides.

Now, I am a huge fan of William Temple. But I am also a fan of his mother, who being an Archbishop’s wife herself, was no slouch. Apparently once, when her son was being particularly bumptious, she said, ‘You may know more than I do, but I know better than you do.’ So, channelling Mrs Temple, might I suggest that neither Welby nor Hutton – nor the Bishops’ Pastoral Letter – go quite far enough?

Like many readers, I have been worrying about the economy for quite some time. First of all, I thought that developments in corporate social responsibility and corporate ethics might do the trick. But over the years these failed to deliver the kind of change I thought was needed. So I decided to spend some time excavating the foundations of modern capitalism, to see if I could identify where things first started to go wrong. Accompanied by my trusty theology degree, I was particularly interested in seeing whether I could prove Einstein wrong in his view that you can’t find solutions from within the paradigm that created the problem in the first place.

What I uncovered was a set of rules well past their sell-by date. I’ve identified seven of these ‘toxic assumptions’, which are now slowly poisoning the system as a whole: assumptions about competition, the ‘invisible hand’, utility, agency theory, pricing, shareholder value, and limited liability. As an example, I am extremely hot on what Welby might see as a creativity/ gratuity/ solidarity/ subsidiarity nexus, in my trashing of the widespread assumption of an ‘Invisible Hand’, as the governing explanation of why everything in the market is destined to come good. Adam Smith coined his famous phrase in an early essay on the history of Astronomy, when he talked about the ‘invisible hand of Jupiter’ in a discussion about the use of God or Gods to explain irregular events in nature. He says that these types of explanation are sociologically important because they ‘soothe the imagination’ when people are perplexed by the mysterious. He then recycles the term to explain the magic of the market in both Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations.

For Christians, this may be a comfortable formulation, because it reserves fate to God. But modern states are not using the term theologically (probably neither was the rather agnostic Smith). Instead, ‘Invisible Hand’ rhetoric is used by the grown-ups to send us all back off to bed. Maybe one day I will be a grown-up, but I don’t have time to wait for them to fix this at the rate they’re going. Markets are just exchanges for messages about supply and demand. So if you have the most muscle, the market morphs to meet your needs. Which is why we have a market where inequality is spiralling out of control. And to use Welby’s formulation, as a matter of solidarity – and justice – we need to be creative about using our own privileged market position to right some serious global wrongs. In our own community of communities, subsidiarity is all about stepping up, not just waiting for government solutions, and gratuity is about us being prepared for this activity sometimes to feel fruitless or expensive.

For instance, do you shop cheaply or ethically? Fairtrade is a brilliant example of a Temple-style church-led game-changer. Famously started in the UK in the 1970s by students from Durham, by 1998, the fair trade market in the UK was worth around £17 million annually. Now – largely due to sustained support from the churches – it is worth over £1 billion a year. Did you know that a third of the bananas we buy are now Fairtrade, which means that in the UK we eat 3,000 Fairtrade bananas every minute? Creativity – this is a new market. Gratuity – we overpay to provide the Fairtrade premium. Solidarity – buying Fairtrade helps providers in the developing world to get a toe-hold in the market. Subsidiarity – we vote with our cash for a fairer economy every time we shop for groceries.

So let’s embrace Welby’s principles for a good economy, and let’s do everything that Hutton suggests too. And that Pastoral Letter is well worth reading in its entirety. But instead of awaiting the results of the election, or expecting permission, let’s also get busy. You could make a small start by imagining that your bank statements are St Peter’s new appraisal form. What more could you get on there to demonstrate that you are building a just economy for all?

Eve Poole is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.

Eve book ‘Capitalism’s Toxic Assumptions’ is published by Bloomsbury on 26 March. Hear Eve talking about the theology behind the book here.


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William Temple And The 2015 Election

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The launch today of On Rock or Sand a series of essays edited by Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, ‘on the moral principles that undergird the way Britain is governed’ has generated much debate since it was trailed last Thursday, including a direct rebuttal of its basic assertions by David Cameron himself. Amidst the welter of comment, both in favour but also in fierce condemnation, it is hard to ascertain the lasting impact of this ‘pre-election’ volume. Despite the clear marketing strategy to revive stirring memories of the Faith in the City report in the mid-80s, and its repudiation at the hands of Mrs Thatcher’s government, only time will tell whether this volume is one to which we will return in 30 years, or whether, like so many other well-intentioned efforts, it will gather both real and virtual dust.

But what is of little doubt is that the thinking and vision of William Temple, former Archbishop of both York and Canterbury, who died 70 years ago, lies at the heart of this latest attempt to re-position the Church of England in the political life of this country. The volume (on the basis of pre-released extracts) appears to rely explicitly on three ideas central to Temple’s thought, as expounded in his book Christianity and Social Order published in 1942.

The first is the right of the church to intervene when it perceives that the current social order is deficient. Temple is unequivocal in this assertion. ‘The Church must announce Christian principles and point out where the existing order at any time is in conflict with them.’

Second, is the core theological belief in the innate dignity of every person, derived from their being created imago dei – i.e. made in the image of God. For Temple, this becomes the basis of ethics and politics; to bestow ‘respect for every person simply as a person’ and so, ‘to give the fullest possible scope to the exercise of powers and qualities that are distinctly personal …and the widest extension of personal responsibility’.

Finally, there’s the importance of generating solidarity. Temple believed in the importance of the family as well as what he called intermediate groupings (voluntary groups, neighbourhood associations) that help develop a sense of belonging and reciprocity: ‘We feel as though we count for something and that others depend on us’. The state should, in Temple’s view, safeguard ‘the liberty that fosters such groupings’.

A danger for a book like this, which relies on Temple for its core ideas, is that it will be seen as nostalgic for an age that has past. Does it suggest a church that has stopped generating new ideas? Some of this might explain the very ambivalent attitude towards Temple and his legacy that exists in certain Anglican circles and which we, as the Foundation which bears his name, sometimes find ourselves embroiled in.

On the one hand a recent book entitled Anglican Social Theology unambiguously states that the Church has moved beyond the Temple tradition. It has been overwhelmed, say the authors, by the pluralism of current society (i.e. claims to consensus are untenable) and been superseded by the fashionable turn to post-liberal theologies which are sceptical of worldly ideologies, empirical research and necessity of a public state to regulate against the worst excesses of human pride and violence.

And yet the irony of that book is that in spending so much time talking about Temple and how we have moved on, it raises the lack of a viable alternative. One alternative is the current focus on the business/management approach to church mission and engagement (see for example the Green report). Whilst having much to offer, this approach will never have the depth of analysis or indeed vision which will help resource the many hard-pressed clergy and lay people working at the front-line of an increasingly needy and confused society.

Perhaps this is why, when the chips appear to be down, and the Church needs to remind itself and others that it has a public and political relevance, the Temple tradition proves its worth yet again.

Of course one must guard against complacency and a one-dimensional response in the way that Temple’s ideas are applied to the diversity, complexity and fluidity of the current age. The Foundation is acutely aware of this fact. Which is why our publications, research and public events are about how we incarnate a progressive, inclusive, rigorously-researched view of the Christian faith in particular, and religion in general, in the public sphere.

For example John Atherton’s latest book reminds the Church (perhaps unfashionably) of the immense benefits, empirically proven, to humankind brought about in the last 200 years of human history by economics and technological advances. The paradox of this growth against the backdrop of also growing inequality cannot be resolved by simplistic moralistic sloganeering but the progressive, careful and empirical engagement of religious insights and traditions to ensure that religion and economics are once again re-connected for the good of all.

Out latest research project Reimaging Religion and Belief for Public Policy and Practice (with Goldsmiths, University of London) maps current theories and empirical research into the global re-emergence of religion across several disciplines such a sociology, anthropology, critical human geography, theology, public and social policy. It will share this mapping with central and local government as a contribution to a more enlightened and nuanced understanding of how religion is lived in the public sphere and how governments can better engage with faith communities.

These are just two examples of the many ways in which the Foundation attempts to break open the still powerful, resonant vision of a just and humane social order outlined by William Temple, within the complexity and uncertainty of our modern age.

Professor Craig Calhoun, Director of the London School of Economics, who gave a keynote lecture at our recent conference reminded us that reality is only partly expressed in material things. So much of what constitutes truth, he said, is what we give ourselves permission to think and believe; in other words our social imaginary.

Calhoun suggests that part of Temple’s enduring impact is that he reminded us we cannot derive what we need from interpersonal relationships alone (like our family). Rather, we also need large and complex institutions to help us have good relationships with one another, and we cannot simply act on our short-term and narrow impulses, and choose who we love and care for. In other words we need an enabling and capacious state; we need to make it work for us but ultimately it is there to remind us and embody for us the basic command to love God and our neighbour, and thus to fulfil the political and economic destiny for which we were born.

Chris Baker is Director of Research at William Temple Foundation

Archbishop John Sentamu will deliver the 2015 William Temple Foundation Annual Lecture, on Wednesday 18th March. Tickets are free – book now!


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