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The Old Oak – An Important Story For Our Times!

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Ken Loach’s latest film set in the North East opened in cinemas in late September and Dr Val Barron was privileged to have a small part in its creation. You can see her wearing a dog-collar in the publicity poster above!

In this interview, she talks about her involvement in the project and some of the key messages of the film about the role of local churches and communities, hopefulness and the courage to take action.

How did your association with The Old Oak start?

Almost 5 years ago, my husband John (a real vicar) and I were introduced to Paul Laverty, Ken Loach’s script writer of almost 30 years. They had previously collaborated on two films in the North East ‘I Daniel Blake’ and ‘Sorry We Missed You’, and Paul was exploring a third film based on Syrian refugees moving into communities in the area. The government had committed to resettling 20,000 Syrian refugees and a number of local authorities in our region signed up including Gateshead, where we were at the time. The socio-economic geography of the region resulted in many families being rehomed in isolated communities with high levels of poverty. People were struggling to cope, and the awful ‘Breaking Point’ posters that were being used in Brexit campaigns didn’t help to make the transition to the North East an easy one.

What was your and John’s role in the early stages of the film’s development?

Paul is a gatherer of stories! He does this by spending time with people, building relationships and sharing stories with one another – as well as drinking copious cups of tea. Our role, as well as sharing our own stories, was to introduce Paul and later Ken, to all the amazing people in our community. 

Working with the local Methodist’s, our church folks ran language classes and meetings where we shared food and fellowship as well as weekly community football sessions in the estate where the refugees had moved. These gatherings brought people together and helped build relationships across the community as well as with our new friends who had come to us as refugees. Paul came and joined in and got to know the stories of local residents and their new neighbours. 

What is your role in the film and how did you feel?

It’s fair to say I haven’t missed my vocation in life and I didn’t feel comfortable in front of the camera, unlike our community organiser colleague Claire Rodgerson who plays Laura so wonderfully in the film.  On the first day of filming Ken made a point of saying that my role was in the film to represent all the work that churches are doing in their communities to support refugees. That felt important. John reminds me that I do say some of the first words in the film (although it’s off-camera). Maybe, if I had been more comfortable, I would have been less on the cutting room floor – but that’s OK! The first scene was very daunting for us all but right from day one there was a sense of everyone looking out for each other. The most enjoyable was the people involved. It was also a very emotional process. I live in these communities and care deeply about them and the film highlights many of the challenges. On the first day filming I was with some of the Syrian actors and she asked whether people lived in these street as, in her words, ‘it looks like a war zone’.  

Watching a film being made must have been fascinating – what did you learn about it?

I had to pinch myself at times. I was on set for Ken Loach’s last film (probably!). Watching Ken and the team at work was phenomenal. They cared so much about the story and more importantly the people taking part.  Ken knew everyone’s name, including their name in the film and that really made you feel valued. It was really tough at time and so there was a huge amount of trust in him and the team, especially as the majority of the cast were not trained actors. But the overriding thing I took away was the collaborative working. We were all in our own little way helping to shape a story that was important to us for different reasons and I met and made friends with some wonderful people.

What do you see as the message and how do you think it will be received in the North East?

I am sure the film will receive mixed reviews, as Ken’s films always do. The language is tough and uncomfortable at times, however I doubt anyone will watch it and come away unchallenged. The North East has the highest rates of child poverty and a recent study by Shelter found that the region had the highest proportion (31%) of homeless households, including those living in temporary accommodation.  Per capita the North East has the highest percentage of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom. Given these tough facts you might not expect the key message of the film to be hope, but it is. Hope that despite all the challenges in our communities we can come together and build beautiful relationships across difference.

Throughout the whole process Ken and Paul were always asking where the stories of hope were. The second message issolidarity not charity‘. This is an important issue for us to discuss in our churches. The natural response of providing charity may not be the most appropriate. Providing spaces to build relationships and learn each other’s stories, whether through sharing food or playing football, could be the most prophetic ministry.

How does the church come across in the film?

The story of the film was inspired by church projects – the film tells a different story but it remains faithful to the truths that were told in the stories of the projects. Rather than being set in a church, a local pub (‘The Old Oak’) is at the centre of the film which will perhaps enable more people in our communities to readily relate the story to their stories. While there isn’t a local church building featuring in the film, the church’s social action very much shaped this venture. There is a beautiful scene in Durham Cathedral in which the character Yara says:

“It takes strength to build something new, it takes strength to build something beautiful.”

I see churches in the North East, and across the country, somehow finding strength to build things new and beautiful, inspired by their Christian faith to make the world a better place to live. 

The Bishop of Durham, Paul Butler who speaks for the Church of England on refugees, tweeted after the premier:

“The Old Oak made me cry, feel angry, ashamed, disturbed, cry again, but also hope and have a sense of pride in what has and can be done to welcome refugees well. Ken Loach and team have once again produced a superb, timely, film.”

We arranged community showings of ‘I Daniel Blake’ and produce resources to be used alongside these. We will be doing the same again with this film.

Paul Laverty, when talking about the film has quoted St Augustine of Hippo:

“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” 

My prayer for this film is that people feel anger at the injustice that face many in our communities, not just refugees, and courage to take action.

Dr Val Barron is a William Temple Scholar. Val has worked as a community practitioner in Durham Diocese and she is the lead development worker at Communities Together in Durham. Val is passionate about community organising, social enterprise and working with local churches in challenging social injustice and helping communities to become fairer and more inclusive.

Rev’d John Barron is the Rector at St Michael and All Angels in Houghton le Spring

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Is There Still Faith in the City?

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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

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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Feel the Fear

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In my last blog I reflected on whether the findings in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report would send sufficiently strong signals to induce meaningful, global responses to the climate crisis. This week, the Earth Commission has published a report in Nature journal, which presents more evidence of signals from Earth systems to which we should devote considerable attention. These signals indicate that humans are taking colossal risks with the future of civilization, along with everything that lives on Earth. The FT headline about the report states simply that Earth is past its safe limits for humans. It haunts me that Steve Cutts’ chilling predictions about Man might come true.

Seven of Eight System Boundaries Have Been Breached

The Earth Commission’s report, “Safe and just Earth system boundaries,” assesses several biophysical processes and systems that regulate the state of the Earth system, including climate, biosphere, land use, water, nutrient cycles and aerosol pollutants. The researchers involved have identified the limits within which those systems operate effectively, and the harm that could ensue should those limits be breached. Of the eight boundaries reviewed by researchers, seven have been pushed beyond their safe and just limit into risk zones that increasingly threaten planetary and human health. As the report says, all the systems are interconnected, such that overshooting the safe limit for one could have consequential effects for others.

Natural and Social Limits

Although focussed on science and physical processes, the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report and the Earth Commission’s report both emphasise the effect that changes in earth systems will have on society. Environmental degradation and social justice are two sides of the same coin. The Earth Commission’s report exhibits a sincere concern for justice, focusing especially on intergenerational justice for people into the scientific analysis used to assess safe limits for the planet.

Global, Systemic Transformations Are Needed

The Earth Commission’s work is the first of its kind, building on the notion of Planetary Boundaries that were proposed over a decade ago. The result of work by more than 50 scientists from around the world has been to provide compelling evidence designed to advise key actors to achieve a safe and just future. The report calls for “nothing less than a just global transformation across all earth system boundaries to ensure human well-being.” Such transformations “must be systemic across energy, food, urban and other sectors, addressing the economic, technological, political and other drivers of Earth system change, and ensure access for the poor through reductions and reallocations of resource use.”

Leaping into the Path of Transformation

The report ends by saying that the path to transformation “will not be a linear journey; it requires a leap in our understanding of how justice, economics, technology and global cooperation can be furthered in the service of a safe and just future.” Two other recent news stories might give some insight into what that leap is like.

Leaping beyond growth?

First, the EU’s Beyond Growth conference at the European Parliament was attended by 2,500 people. It was described from day one as the Woodstock of Beyond Growth for two reasons: firstly, because it felt more like a festival than a conference; and secondly, because it attracted the rock stars of the beyond growth movement, and the halls of the European Parliament rang with rowdy ovations. The conference briefing paper provides many insights into possible futures beyond growth, and the fictional newspaper from May 2033 anticipates the news in a world of transformed policy making focussed entirely on the well-being of people and planet. Of course, as some commentators suggest, the conference outcomes do not yet offer a complete vision of an alternative future. Nevertheless, they give insight into what type of leap we need to take.

Artificially Intelligent Leaps

Secondly, debates about the role of Artificial Intelligence in managing our future continue to pepper the news. Will it save us or destroy us? If we humans cannot change course, will AI step in to curb our unsustainable behaviours and what are the associated ethics. These are the key questions that are considered by the William Temple Foundation’s Ethical Futures Network.


The signals that we must stop unsustainable behaviours and practices are overwhelmingly clear, whether from natural systems, or society or from specialists in technology. The William Temple Foundation is planning to convene interested parties from diverse disciplines to consider the contribution that faith-based organisations can play in crafting viable alternatives to current unsustainable practices and details will be forthcoming. Maybe we will get 10,000 participants, in a way that is reminiscent of how Archbishop William Temple attracted a large assembly of people in 1942 when he tackled the social issues of the day. It won’t be easy, but the signals clearly mean that our only choice now is to dig in and feel the fear of the leap into the unknown… It is best that we do it together.

Lois Tarbet is is also a Trustee of the William Temple Foundation.

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Doing God and Levelling Up: Religion as Sticking Plaster or Real Source of Social Renewal

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‘Doing God is often messy and controversial, but the social benefits far outweigh the negatives’ would seem to be the gist of this much-anticipated review by Colin Bloom into how Government engages with faith which was published this week. The delay (three years in the writing) is partly explained by COVID but also in fairness, to the sheer amount of data the report received. Over 22,000 submissions and a million pieces of data later suggests that the issues surrounding religion and belief and its practice is still incredibly live and important. As the review correctly observes:

Faith in England and Wales is alive and well, and the abundance of detailed and passionate responses to this review across many faith and belief communities highlights the importance of the topic to many in contemporary British society. Faith is a diverse and evolving force which government cannot afford to ignore. (p. 30)

It is also the first review of its kind ever undertaken and is linked to the government’s Levelling Up agenda. The connection between religion and levelling up is not developed in report (perhaps because there is little consensus on what is meant by Levelling Up in the first place). But it perhaps betrays a sublimated wish on the part of Government for religion to act as both a moral legitimator for a rudderless policy term, and the hope that the activities and motivation of faith groups in upholding and developing their local communities (often the poorest and the most deprived) will give much needed meaningful content to the idea.

The report frames its understanding with a typology of true-believers, no-believers and make-believers. Increasing numbers of people in this society may baulk at such a simplistic binary narrative as true believer or no believer on the grounds that their religious and spiritual beliefs are deeply felt but complex and nuanced in their public expression. Make-believers refers to those who distort religious ideas into fundamentalist national and identity politics. The report is at pains to stress that these are a minority but that their activity needs to be more tightly regulated by government for the sake of safeguarding and freedom of speech.

This typology is necessary for understanding the rest of the report; i.e. that government needs to support and understand religion and belief in the round, and strategically support good religion and belief as a vital resource for promoting social wellbeing, equality and participation. To this end the report advocates firm policies on religious literacy for all public sector bodies, increased resourcing for RE in education and for those key areas where religion intersects with public provision in prison and health care, and the appointment of a national independent Faiths Champion.

But the report is equally clear that it is the role of the state to crack down on bad (or make-believe) religions linked to forms of nationalist and religious extremism. All the main religious faith traditions in the UK (including Christianity and its co-option by some far-right groups) have clear links with banned international and domestic terrorist organisations. Bad religion also rightly includes the practices of forced marriage and spiritual abuse in its list of things that Government needs to actively prescribe. However, the uneven and disproportionate way these sections are treated – issues outlining Sikh extremism occupies twice the length of discussion than all the other faith groups out together – is likely to raise accusations of potential tarring whole communities in ways that the Prevent programme has done for the Muslim community. The repeated observation that freedom to practice Christianity in the UK is now perceived to be under threat (perhaps the point could have been made just once or twice) is likely to fuel the toxic culture wars rhetoric of right-wing media and far-right groups.

Ultimately, the Bloom Review, is something of a missed opportunity to move the debate on religion and belief in England in a ground-breaking way. The research I undertook for the APPG on Faith and Society analysed the pandemic as a ‘permission space’ that allowed us to talk about religion and belief in a new way that also led to innovative and effective partnerships with secular agencies. The anxieties that secular groups usually feel about working with faith groups (for example, proselytization safeguarding, a lack of accountability etc) were suspended for the sake of effective working together. Stereotypes were largely disproved in the relationships forged in the crucible of the pandemic. Instead of difference this crucible highlighted shared values and therefore the possibility of achieving shared outcomes through co-creation of policies rather than co-production.

I hope the Bloom Review will be a landmark document that brings about lasting and positive change to faith and secular relations. What is missing is a step-change in re-imagining the role of religion and belief in British society that is commensurate with the unprecedented nature of the challenges facing this country. Most of the report’s recommendations see religion more as a problem to be managed, rather than highlighting, for example, the potential of religious ideas to profoundly shape the overall policy framework that delivers the sort of society we want to create. There is a reference to round tables. Where, however, are the structural opportunities to devise and shape policy, as well as deliver policy?  William Temple did that 80 years ago from a Judeo-Christian perspective in his book report – Christianity and Social Order, which was published in1942 and paved the way for the post-war Welfare State. Levelling Up is a policy in desperate need of that sort of envisioning now, and it would be a multifaith and postsecular endeavour, not purely a Christian one.

As we negotiate the legacy of the pandemic, the ongoing cost of living crisis and the horror of climate disaster, religion and belief could – indeed should – be a real force for social renewal through this re-envisioning of levelling up, rather than applying sticking plasters and bandages to systems and policy plans that are already deeply broken.

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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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Reflections of 1942 in 2022

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In 2022, the William Temple Foundation has marked the 80th anniversaries of William Temple’s Christianity & Social Order and of the famous Report by his friend, William Beveridge, which is often credited with responsibility for the foundation of the Welfare State. We held conferences in partnerships at Canterbury Cathedral, Balliol College, Oxford, and Blackburn Cathedral, all places which had a link to William Temple’s life.

We heard from some of the most distinguished theologians and historians, convening gatherings of diverse voices, including those critical of Temple or Beveridge or of the Welfare State. We have more to do in 2023 and beyond to ensure that our panels are more evenly balanced, for instance by gender, but we have made progress for instance in listening to a range of perspectives from younger participants in contemporary debates.

For the most part, there was a recognition that the ideas of Temple and Beveridge, together with those of another college friend of theirs, R H Tawney, were influential and progressive. They were prophetic in and during two world wars, which makes their examples relevant to society amidst various crises today.

More detailed lessons from different speakers either have been published already or will be in 2023 but I would like to round off the year with a few points from my remarks at the end of the Blackburn Cathedral symposium on 15th December.

First, that setting was chosen partly because William Temple as Bishop of Manchester had the wisdom and humility almost one hundred years ago to give up part of that big diocese to create a new diocese. Its surrounding communities have become increasingly Muslim which also made it an appropriate setting to consider how we might adapt Temple’s pioneering work in Jewish-Christian partnerships to encompass the widest possible range of faiths and beliefs. Personally, I love the nominative determinism of Temple’s surname and believe that our Foundation can reach out to, and learn from, all those who have their own temples, or places of worship, whatever their particular faiths or beliefs. 

Second, there was a disagreement about whether the welfare state is working as Temple and Beveridge envisaged. It is worth pointing out that Beveridge disliked the term and called his proposals instead a ‘security plan’ but the expression used by Temple proved more popular, often without an appreciation of the context in which he coined ‘welfare-state’ in the 1920s, which was as a contrast to ‘power-state’. It is timely at the end of 2022, the year in which President Putin launched his war against Ukraine, to bear in mind that security is important both for nations and for all their citizens, and that our preference is for a state which focuses on the well-being or welfare of its citizens, the ‘common good’. Within such a state, there will be plenty of scope for intermediate groups, called voluntary associations in another report by Beveridge, to play their part in the flourishing of all individuals and communities, but there is a role for the state itself in safeguarding everyone.

Third, our Foundation is a small example of these intermediate institutions, such as cathedrals, other places of worship, colleges and other places of study, academic research centres, grassroots community organisations, and diverse charities. We value working in partnerships with other such institutions, which has been a feature of our year. All these ‘little platoons’, as Edmund Burke dubbed them, have a role to play in creating and curating what one of our research fellows, Dr Matthew Barber-Rowell, calls Spaces of Hope. This is why I am so interested in what the ethos was of Balliol College, Oxford, as the nineteenth century ended and the twentieth began, when Temple, Beveridge and their friend R H Tawney were all students there. Of course, different institutions will have different values, the same institution might change values over time, and individuals might take different lessons, if any, from the same community at the same time. But there is something remarkable about the exchanges of ideas between those characters and the way they drew on the spirit of earlier generations of Balliol students and their tutors. Again, it was not about all thinking alike. Rather, as a Balliol student of the 1880s Anthony Hope Hawkins said of his tutor, R L Nettleship, it was that he ‘taught me to seek truth – and never to be sure I had found it’.

Fourth, as this 80th anniversary year proceeded, I was struck by how many reports I read or re-read not only by Beveridge but also by committees which included Temple or Tawney. This was brought out beautifully through one of the many insights of our final panel of the year when Lord (Rowan) Williams pointed out the methodology of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, of which he is co-chair, which was established by the Welsh Government. The Commission has made a point of going out and about to listen to people in their own communities. This reminded me of co-founding thirty years ago in Northern Ireland, with a journalist friend Robin Wilson, Initiative 92, a citizens’ movement which created the independent Opsahl Commission. This invited representations from all-comers, whether or not they were subject to broadcasting restrictions, to offer views on ways forward for people and communities in Northern Ireland. Charitable funding, principally from Quaker foundations, allowed outreach workers to help new and old community groups develop their submissions and prepare for their appearances at the 17 public hearings and two inter-school assemblies held across Northern Ireland. The Commission received over 500 submissions from more than 3.000 people. The report was published in June 1993 and is perhaps best remembered for its practical proposals to promote parity of esteem between different communities. In my opinion, however, the beauty of it was in the process. As Index on Censorship observed, ‘The Opsahl Report gave a platform to voices excluded elsewhere – from the Catholic and Protestant working women of Belfast to academics and lawyers – all tired of the old polemic. It gave hope that in Northern Ireland, too, an end is stirring.’ The first IRA ceasefire came just over a year later at the end of August 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement was reached in 1998. This emphasis on encouraging inclusive processes, from Northern Ireland to Wales and beyond, connects to points our Foundation has made throughout 2022, especially in Professor Chris Baker’s public lecture in Leeds and in his wider writing on what he calls kenotic leadership.

Fifth, what Temple and Beveridge in their different ways brought to war-torn people in 1942 was ultimately a prophetic voice of hope. Today, still, what the socially excluded are ultimately excluded from is a sense of hope. Cardinal Suenens explained that, ‘To hope is not to dream but to turn dreams into reality’. When we celebrate an anniversary, we are not simply looking backwards. We are seeking inspiration to pass forwards. In war-time, people yearn for peace. The priority for those being ‘left behind’ is naturally food and shelter. Both Temple and Beveridge wanted better education as well as good health and living conditions for all. All this comes together in the gift of hope. On publication of their 1942 works, Temple and Beveridge immediately set about taking their messages around the country and beyond. The talks by Temple are collected in a volume entitled The Church Looks Forward. They include his BBC broadcast for Christmas 1942. Temple returned to the theme of states using power and force being resisted by nations that wished to promote the welfare of all through love and hope. He ended with wise words which apply just as much in 2022 as in 1942: ‘the hope of the world will not be fulfilled when’ we have overcome aggressor states, ‘that hope will be fulfilled when the lesson of Christmas is fully learnt’, by which he meant absorbing the mystery of the ‘Child of Bethlehem’, who ‘lies helpless in the stable’. Then he spoke again on the last Sunday of 1942, in a BBC broadcast entitled ‘From The Old Year To The New’, in which he asked for an examination of our individual and collective consciences:

‘So at this moment of passage from a year of so great vicissitudes, which yet closes with great hope and promise, to a year which must call for all we have of constancy in endurance, and perhaps also for the vision and wisdom to make a right use of success, let us take stock of ourselves and ask how far we, to whom a noble cause has been entrusted, are worthy to be its champions.’  

Simon Lee is the Chair of the Trustees of the William Temple Foundation, Professor of Law, Aston University, and Emeritus Professor of Jurisprudence, Queen’s University Belfast

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Advent Reflections – Mary and Maternal Mortality

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Alice Watson, The Queen’s College, Oxford

Free public domain CC0 photo.

At this time of year, as we enter into the season of Advent, a season of expectation and preparation as we ponder on the coming of Christ, both in tiny fragile human form, and as the one who will return as judge, we also find ourselves swept up in the rush of festivities and more mundane preparations.  The familiar images of Christmas are presented to us as a backdrop to our December lives; of jolly Santas, glittering decorations, and of course, traditional nativity scenes; in cards, as wooden cut-outs in our public spaces, in school plays, and sung in carols in churches, street corners, and shopping centres.

Interpretations of the precise set-up of Mary’s birth narrative are many, but I imagine it to be less perfect, less sterile, than how it has often been portrayed and presented to us. We know the scene – a peaceful Jesus (no crying he makes) a doting mother (meek and mild), gentle animals, and a comfortable manger. It can feel a long way from the mess and magic of childbirth. A long way from the fear and anxieties of a young couple giving birth away from home, knowing perhaps, that their next journey was not towards home, but flight into a strange land.

Although traditionally, childbirth has not inspired much theological reflection, we can perhaps use this time of year to dwell with Mary in her final days of pregnancy and her childbirth, and to enter into solidarity with those today, facing birth in uncertain or dangerous situations. For birth remains a risky business.

Despite maternal mortality rates falling worldwide, the number remains too high, with 152 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2021.[1]  The vast majority of these are in the global south.  In addition, a UN report published in 2021 states that in the previous three years, a million children were born as refugees[2], their early lives echoing the infant Christ, born in a temporary home, and dependent upon powers and forces beyond their control, yet each birth bearing the potential to bring hope, with life continuing despite its most gruelling circumstances.

And yet, here in the UK, we fool ourselves if we can compartmentalise this as a ‘far away’ problem, and return to our cosy Christmases, unmoved or unaffected. Birth shows us that the ‘dangerous’ margins are not only geographical – a cause for which we might donate a charity Christmas card. The margins where Mary can be found standing in solidarity are those of race, ability, and class here in the UK. Examining them, should draw us into a desire to seek to improve birthing conditions worldwide, as we reflect upon our common humanity.

A recent report published by the University of Oxford as part of the MBRACE Project (Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries across the UK)[3] revealed that, excluding deaths from COVID, maternal mortality had increased by almost 20% in the UK in the period 2028-2020. The leading direct cause of death amongst pregnant people, or those within 6 weeks of birth, was suicide. Those facing ‘multiple adversities’ including a history of trauma or abuse were more likely to die, and that ‘women living in the most deprived areas were more than twice as likely to die as those in the most affluent part of the UK’.[4]

As we are seeing across all sectors, the cracks are widening between those who can live lives of relative safety, and those who cannot.  Black women are already 3.7 times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, and are more likely to feel unheard and less able to advocate for themselves and for their child. In a 2021 article in The Independent, Chine McDonald writes of having to leverage her ‘husband’s whiteness to ensure the protection of my baby and myself’.[5]

These disparities we see in birth draw attention to the same disparities which exist across society, that the world we live in is a world tilted to the voices, lives, and experiences of the able, the white, the wealthy, and the male. The agony faced by women seeking treatment for common gynaecological conditions such as endometriosis shows just how unimportant female health so often is viewed as. As the lead researcher of the MBRACE study, Professor Marian Knight describes, these appalling conditions are simply ‘bleak’. 

Reflecting on the state of maternity care this advent, it feels as though the humble and meek, the forgotten and excluded, are only being further cast down, stepped over or ignored by those with power. This picture feels at odds to the sentiment of Mary’s own song, the Magnificat. During her own pregnancy her voice is raised to sing of the world which God will bring about – where the proud are scattered, the hungry fed, the rich sent away empty, and the lowly lifted up.  We fail to see the image of God in these women, and fail to see the presence of Mary, in birthing solidary besides them.

Images and icons of Mary have long been used as devotional aids by women, as ways to petition for Mary’s prayers, to share in her life, and the life of her son. In recent times, new icons, such as Mark Dukes’ icon ’Our Lady Mother of Ferguson and all those killed by gun violence’ have highlighted God’s presence with those who suffer violence and oppression, and call for our Christian solidary. This solidarity must firstly be expressed in the transformation of our own hearts, to stand alongside those who face unsafe births, to amplify their voices, and to raise our own voices to attempt to transform their experiences.

At Christmas the reality of our Christian faith comes into focus with the incarnation, that God is a God who chooses to become human. A God for whom flesh and blood matters, and who knows what it is to be born, a God who is present amongst the suffering of the world. When we gaze upon images of the nativity this Advent and Christmas we should be reminded of the risk of birth, of the God who is familiar with the mess of the manger, and of Mary, Mother of God, who, in giving birth to Jesus, is ever giving birth on the margins of society. 

May we use this as a chance to reflect on those giving birth this Christmas, in fearful situations, in refugee camps, and in inadequately staffed hospitals, including those facing trauma, and those whose voices will not be heard, and commit ourselves to doing what we can to ensure that childbirth is safe and supported.

When Christ returns, how will he judge us for what we have done for the least amongst us?

Alice is the Chaplain of The Queen’s College Oxford and her academic work focuses on liturgy and childbirth. Her contact details are, Twitter: @alicelydiajoy

[1] Gates foundation –

[2] UN –

[3] University of Oxford, Oxford Population Health. Report accessed here –

[4] The Guardian –

[5] The Independent –

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Challenging Injustice? Sorry We Are Too Busy Responding to Human Need

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Over the last few months, I have become aware, while working as a community development practitioner in the Durham Diocese, that the wonderful staff and volunteers are increasingly expressing that they are exhausted and angry.

Loughborough University has found that North East now has the highest child poverty rates in the country, with over 50% children growing up in poverty in some communities. Child Poverty rates in the region have risen by almost half, from 26% to 38%, in the space of six years compared to a drop by two percentage points across the country [1]

I was reflecting on this when I came across an old report from the Church Urban Fund that looked the problems facing community organisation in the most deprived areas. It described:

‘Significant issues confronting people living in deprived communities – The most common problems cited by respondents included high levels of unemployment, especially amongst young people; reductions in benefits coupled with rising rent, food costs and bills; increasing levels of homelessness, and rising levels of debt’.[2]

What, however, most shocked me about the report was not the content – but the fact that it was written ten years ago!  The austerity years, the COVID-19 years, and now the current economic crisis. Each wave of crisis has seen congregations and faith-based organisations pick themselves up and do what they can. Food provisions, debt advice, drop-in support, and warm spaces.

The congregations and projects I support are increasingly growing exhausted, not knowing what to do next or where to turn. This exhaustion has been highlighted by a recent article in The Guardian:

“Many of our teams are struggling to cope as demand for our support outstrips our food and financial donations and we are forced to make difficult decisions about how we operate. We are overstretched and exhausted. Many of our organisations are at breaking point.” [3]

However, there is another emotion that I am witnessing: the anger resulting from the recognition that years of responding to human need through loving service has not changed things. Rather, it seems things are now worse than ever before, as highlighted in the child poverty statistics.  

Last month an email from an area dene explained that at the deanery synod found ‘there is a desire to do more than give, [as] this cannot be accepted as the norm and collectively we would like to campaign but are unsure how to take this forward’.   Our charitable practice doesn’t help us to seek to transform unjust structures of society. As Thia Cooper reminds us:

Charity is only needed when a situation of injustice exists. On its own, charity is not enough; it leaves the person ‘giving’ with the power. It does not ask how to achieve a just system, where no one holds greater economic, political, radical, or other types of power over another human being. (Cooper, 2007: 175) [4]

Last week was Living Wage Week. As the chair of Tyne and Wear Citizens Living Wage Action team, we will be celebrating the first Living Wage City in the region, Sunderland, and our second council, Newcastle.

This year, I have noticed a shift in the narrative around the Living Wage campaign from one of advocacy to deep solidarity.  There is a deeper connection for many of us which has moved us beyond standing alongside as we are all, to varying degrees, look with concern to work out how to make ends meet. I am not playing the ‘we’re all in this together’ card, because that just isn’t true but there is a deeper solidarity.

Joerg Rieger (2017) develop the notion of solidarity into ‘deep solidarity’ when describing a situation where 99% of us who must work for a living, including people who are excluded from the job market, realise that they have this in common. Deep solidarity recognises that the system works for the few rather than for the many, and that nothing will change unless more of the many come together. It also recognises that our different religious traditions can help us imagine and reimagine deep solidarity.

At the heart of worship in Israel is the Exodus from the conditions of slavery in Egypt; this tradition ties together the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Interreligious dialogue is a live option not only because of shared traditions but also because deep solidarity helps us deal with our differences. In fact, differences become an asset when the resources of our different traditions are allowed to make their specific contributions to the struggle. (Rieger, 2017: 361) [5]

So tonight, I am off to run listening training for the deanery synod who wanted to move beyond simply giving but weren’t sure how to go about it. We will be practicing how to have conversations with people who are different from ourselves with such an understanding of deep solidarity.


[2] Church Urban Fund (2012) Survival strategies: a survey of the impact of the current economic climate on community organisations in the most deprived areas of England. London: Church Urban Fund. Available at: (Accessed: 11 May 2020).


[4] Cooper, T. (2020) A Theology of International Development. London: Routledge.

[5] Rieger, J. (2017) ‘Empire, deep solidarity, and the future of liberation theology’, Political theology: the journal of Christian socialism, 18(4), pp. 354-364. doi:10.1080/1462317X.2017.1311060.

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Review of ‘Young, Woke and Christian: Words From a Missing Generation’ edited by Victoria Turner

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Comprised of a breadth of voices, Victoria Turner’s Young, Woke and Christian offers prophetic words that promise to lead readers from experience and theological reflection to decisive action. Each contributor offers a fresh response to a current crisis that weighs heavily on the shoulders of young people, even if it is often overlooked by the Church. This book successfully brings together voices that passionately cry out for a truly integrated Church – one seeking truth and justice; one that cares for the world that it inhabits; and one that cares for all people with whom that world is shared.

In an essential prologue, Anthony Reddie highlights the importance of this book. He acknowledges how this work initiates a new trajectory for liberation theology with its focus on the experiences of the young. Although intended for a popular audience, Reddie’s introduction lends this book an air of gravitas, not only as a contribution for the Church, but also, and more broadly, for a more specialised academic audience. Helpfully, Reddie carefully untangles the term ‘woke’, offering some guidance for the contributions that follow. Victoria Turner’s editorial introduction further unpacks the meaning of this theme, highlighting the intention to ‘[react] to the mainstream antagonistic use of the word’ (p. 6). Although ‘wokeness’ may have become somewhat marred in contemporary political discourse, it is used here with a progressive intention.

In the opening contribution, Liz Marsh recommends how we should respond theologically to the climate crisis. She draws upon themes of hopelessness, exposing our own arrogance, and our accounts of hope needing to be reimagined in our relationships with one another, and with the planet in which we live. She offers a beneficial summary for how the Church should respond to many of the issues we face.

In the following chapter, Nosayaba Idehen’s ‘Guidelines to being a More Racially Inclusive Church’ uses autoethnography to pull together several ‘do’s and don’ts’ for churches to appreciate, attract, and celebrate people of black and ethnic minorities. She rejects the rhetoric of oversimplifying racial inclusion, and recognises a combination of strategies of cultural changes that will be needed to begin challenging the systems of injustice that permeate not only our society, but also the institutional Church.

Josh Mock’s chapter on queerness pulls no punches. He explores the inadequacy of dialogue with oppressive institutions. His chapter feels more relevant than ever in the wake of the LLF process and the recent Lambeth Conference of the Church of England. He rejects idle, lazy attempts at queer justice for the sake of acceptability and decency. With Mock’s passionate argument almost leaping off the page, one hopes the readers will find themselves leaping away with a similar sense of radical activism.

Next, Molly Boot’s chapter tenderly and powerfully reconsiders our own relationship with our bodies. They move away from the objectification of the body as ‘it’. Rather, they remind us that our bodies are interwoven with our mind and spirit. Hence, our bodies are worth attending to with our Christian faith, our practices, and with a special concern for purity culture.

Kirsty Borthwick’s chapter tracks the journey in recent decades of women and their ministries in the Church of England. Although this recount may on the surface appear familiar, Borthwick’s attention to feminism’s ‘tendency to leave people behind’ (p. 63) opens up a new focus on intersectional progress that will be required for true gender justice within the Church.

In ‘A Guide to a Trans Christian Experience’, Jack Woodruff offers a broad and yet succinct chapter that explores trans scriptural hermeneutics, the inclusivity of trans people in Christian institutions, and resources for future activism. He endeavours to answer the question ‘can I be trans and Christian?’, though it seems to be more of an answer directed to those who might ask ‘can you be trans and Christian?’.

Chrissie Thwaite’s chapter ‘Waking Up to Ableism in Christian Communities’ announces a shift in tone. It leads not from personal experience but rather with theory and statistics. Nevertheless, she offers helpful practices for churches to implement a more inclusive understanding of disability. She encourages churches to recognise the difference between individual impairment and the disablement brought about by society. Thwaites recommends further how churches can adopt a more ‘enabling’ stance towards the disabled. With this acknowledgement, a more personal narrative could have been fitting. 

With the cost-of-living crisis deepening, Anna Twomlow’s chapter on food poverty is increasingly relevant. She offers a theological justification for eradicating food poverty. She calls us to understand how justice for the poor should ‘fire our souls’ (p. 113). Though very inspiring, an acknowledgment of the important role wider Christian faith communities have played in helping tackle food poverty during the Covid-19 pandemic would have been appropriate. 

Annika Matthews reminds readers of the relevance of mental health for young people. She argues that the Church cannot ‘effectively evangelize to them without ministering to their well-being’, whether that be physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual (pp. 116-7). Deeply based in scripture as well as experience, she responsibly walks a fine line between knowing how faith in Jesus can help to lift one’s mental health, and acknowledging that professional help may often be needed as well.

Shermara Fletcher’s chapter shifts the narrative of homeless communities from those whom the churches can help, to the ‘unlikely leaders’ who can be fully integrated into their lives, structures, and leadership. The central question is ‘Are we willing to change our structures and cultures of learning so that everyone can participate in the mission?’ (p. 139), which poses a real and thoughtful challenge to how we can have an effective and integrated ministry with, and not to, homeless communities. 

At the heart of this book is the sentiment that social justice is a fundamental part of Christianity. Sophie Mitchell’s chapter argues that this must entail interfaith engagement, in which similarities and differences can be discovered, bridges can be built, and a better understanding can be promoted. Breaking from a Christian bubble, Mitchell argues that living out a Christian faith requires working alongside others of all faiths and none, and boldly widens the scope for what counts as social action.

Annie Sharples concludes the book by focussing on personal, social, and political peace. This chapter aptly connects all of the chapters that precede it. For these young voices have all promoted peace in some way. Fear of the other is, she comments, what most of all threatens peace (p. 165). Young, Woke and Christian thus attempts to tell the stories of the ‘other’, so as to awaken and educate the wider Christian community. 

With this diversity of intersectional voices, this book has brought together a new, young liberation theology. Nevertheless, the distinctiveness of each voice is clear. None of the chapters try to compare themselves to another. Rather, each crisis is judged on its own. And, in each, valuable personal experience is called upon as a source of insight and inspiration. In a world in which so many social justice driven issues are too easily dismissed as‘woke’, this book effectively breaks down those labels to hear the unique contributions of each voice. With this highly commendable volume, we can begin to hear from this missing generation, and contribute to steering the body of Christ’s where God calls us.

Will Moore is training for ordained ministry in the Church of England at Westcott House, Cambridge and is studying for a PhD in Theology with the Cambridge Theological Federation and Anglia Ruskin University. He holds a BA (First Class Honours) and an MTh (Distinction) in theology and biblical studies from Cardiff University, and recently completed a PGCert in Theology, Ministry, and Mission with the Cambridge Theological Federation, accredited by Durham University. His work focuses broadly in the areas of gender, masculinity, sexuality, trauma, and violence, and their intersections with theology, Christianity, and the Bible. His work has been published in peer-reviewed journals and edited volumes. His first book Boys Will Be Boys, and Other Myths: Unravelling Biblical Masculinities, written to introduce masculinities and biblical studies to a popular Christian audience, has been published with SCM Press in 2022.


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Review of ‘Archbishop William Temple: A Study in Servant Leadership’ by Stephen Spencer

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Stephen Spencer, Archbishop William Temple: A Study in Servant Leadership 
Published by SCM Press 2022
ISBN 9780334061670

Reviewed by Chris Baker, Director of Research, William Temple Foundation 

This latest text from Stephen Spencer is another biography of Archbishop William Temple, who died in 1944, and joins a small but enduring list of biographies published to date. This year is an auspicious year to bring out such a volume, focussing attention as it does on the 80th anniversary of the publication of the work that Temple is perhaps still best known for, namely Christianity and Social Order. This biography, focusing on what Temple’s life says about a model of public leadership and service within a framing of servant leadership is also incredibly timely, coming at a time when political leadership in this country has been proved to be eye-wateringly corrupt and tainted by self-service, sleaze, and purposefully orchestrated division. Will public confidence in political leadership ever recover at this time of multiple crises—which range from the cost of living, poverty, and collapse in public services to environmental disaster and a new European war in Ukraine? Also, as I write this review, controversy and disunity have surfaced at the 2022 Lambeth conference over the issues of same-sex marriage and LGTBQ+ rights. I wonder how Temple’s approach to leadership and reconciliation would have played out amidst the current political and ecclesial splits shaping our public discourse? Inevitably, these thoughts were playing in my mind as I read this latest addition to the Temple oeuvre.

Spencer’s biography starts with a brief overview of the theme of servant leadership. There is a clear root to Jesus’ radically kenotic view of leadership along the lines ‘whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all’ (Mark 10:43-44). But Spencer augments this allusion with two influential contemporary exponents of the concept (Robert Greenleaf and Kenneth Blanchard). These additional facets include providing vision and direction in ways that shape the present but define the future by having clear goals and acknowledging what others have done and offering clear and concise support when changes are needed—both of which are underpinned by a wider sense of hope and trust in what God is bringing to the world.

Spencer then cleverly moves to a description of Temple, arguably at the height of his leadership powers, caught on a news film report addressing a packed Albert Hall in September 1942 as the newly enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury on the theme of ‘The Church Looks Forward’. In the audience are leading politicians of the day, including those who will serve as ministers in the post-war Labour Government, as he lays out the principles for post-war reconstruction. Like a movie that starts at the end for dramatic effect, the rest of the book offers us the backstory as to how this pivotal point is reached.

Spencer moves with well-signposted chapters through the early stages of Temple’s life and career, suggesting a nagging desire to question and confound the easy and accepted trajectory for his life at the heart of the elite establishment, including a stellar academic career in philosophy at Oxford and becoming headmaster at an early age of a prestigious public school. Two events challenge that orthodoxy. First, is Temple’s experience of being initially rejected for the priesthood on the grounds of theological unorthodoxy, and second, his placement at Toynbee Hall and the Bermondsey Mission, sent there by Edward Caird, the master of Balliol College, Oxford. The book then becomes more gripping and intriguing. We move through to Temple’s middle and late phases of life, where a meteoric rise to being Bishop of Manchester at the time of the post-war General Strike, and his theological and political reflections on the nature of sin, evil, compassion, and social justice begin to meld into his formidable expression of public leadership.

Here, Stephen Spencer’s acuity as a theologian, as well as an historical biographer, comes to the fore as he expertly unpacks the trajectory of Temple’s thought from its Idealist roots to his Christian Realism, profoundly shaped by the influence of contemporaries such as Reinhold Niebuhr and by his calling to shape society in accordance with Christian principles. This approach required a deep pragmatism allied to a deep vision and the ability to hold together multiple perspectives in tension. Chapter 6, on the theme of ‘Changing Views of Human History’, is an expertly charted essay in philosophical thought, whilst Chapter 10, ‘From Logic to Imagination’ does the same from a theological perspective.

Spencer’s archival diligence skilfully brings Temple alive as a person, a thinker, and a leader. The structure of the book holds the interplay between life experience, its impacts on theological and political thinking, and pattens of leadership in firm view. Finding intimate, touching, and vulnerable anecdotes alongside sustained passages of deep thought as well as incisive and honest appraisals of Temple by his contemporaries is one of this book’s strengths. Spencer is not averse to presenting Temple as a work a progress, rather than the finished article. However, this merely serves to reinforce the phenomenal achievements of a person who, in the end, drove himself to an untimely death through the stress induced by the range of his work and mission. Spencer also highlights the cultural, and in some cases colonial, assumptions of Temple’s thought and idiom which may struggle to find purchase in the contemporary world

In summary, Temple’s leadership comes across as visionary and humble, confident but collaborative, and increasingly fearless in calling out God’s truth to institutional power, both within the church and the wider world. Above all, Temple allowed his personal experience of prayer and spirituality to be the touchstone for his decision making, a spiritual journey that he was also able to articulate and share as part of his leadership, and which continues to inspire others to this day. Yet at the end of this fine and engrossing book I was left with a nagging feeling. It is presented as a study in church leadership for a principally church audience, but should there not be a more ultimate purpose? I think this book has huge and important things to say to secular politicians and business leaders, because, as Spencer so skilfully draws out, Temple’s thinking and approach spilled out into the wider world and touched and shaped many from outside the church. When so much of our public leadership seems paralysed by compromise and corruption on the one hand, and timidity on the other, then here is a voice that needs to be listened to again. I hope churchy imagery and endorsements, fine as they are, do not prevent this book from reaching a properly wide audience.

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