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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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Simulating Humanity

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In Spielberg’s A.I., we are introduced to David, a child-like android that has developed the capacity to love and the desire to be loved. David is introduced to a family as an emotional replacement for their sick son but is promptly abandoned when their son returns. The narrative follows David on his tragic journey to become a real human boy. In the film, one is struck by the inhumane ways in which humans treat robots — they are treated as slaves and toys and are brutalised and discarded at our whim. Yet the emotional sensitivity and compassion of David and his robot companions reveals an irony at the heart of his quest: he is more truly human than his creators.

Spielberg made that movie at the turn of the millennium. Two decades, later what was once science fiction is becoming increasingly feasible. AI powered programs can perform in a way that make us reckon that they really think and feel. The commercial incentives for companies to create such tools is powerful. From AI powered psychologists to chatbot friends, if such tools could simulate human emotions they could induce strong human bonding to them. This would result in a more effective and desirable product.

For example, Replika is a powerful chatbot program that is “always ready to chat when you need an empathetic friend”. It is marketed as a compassionate and empathetic companion, able to support people who are depressed or socially isolated. The powerful large-language model it employs allows it to adapt individually to each user — it benchmarks success by whether people feel better or worse and allows messages to be up and down voted by users. This ability to form emotional and unique relationships allow users to bond powerfully with Replika.

Besides chatbots, there is also a growing body of work on AI driven mental health applications which suggest that therapy chatbots can be effective. There are important potential benefits to this: therapy is often expensive and inaccessible. Chatbot therapists could be a cheap and widely available alternative. We can also customise them to an individual’s needs and ensure that all psychological treatment is evidenced based.

One’s immediate reaction to these technologies might be to recoil: regardless of the massive potential benefits, isn’t this participating in widespread self-delusion? These chatbots are merely simulating emotions and interest in humans but are nothing more than unconscious husks. There is something right about this worry, but engaging with it requires one to ask difficult questions about the nature of consciousness that I set aside here. There is something to be worried about even if these programs were bona fide emotional homunculi.

What sort of relationships are humans having with their chatbot friends? Replika works by trying to say the things that you would like to hear. Users can up and downvote its replies to get Replika to conform to your vision of an ideal friend. This encourages you, then, to adopt an objectifying stance towards Replika — you treat it as an object that you can mould in accordance with your will as opposed to a person whose subjectivity you must respect.

One might protest here: users of Replika don’t want mere objects, they want actual subjects that care for and are concerned about them. Yet the kinds of subjects they want are those that can meet demands that humans cannot meet: they must conform to their ideal of a friend who never makes demands and is always emotionally available. There is a kind of Sartrean bad faith in the way one must engage with such chatbots: simultaneously objectifying them by customising them to fit our demands while deceiving ourselves by pretending that we are engaging with an autonomous subject.

If Replika has genuine emotions, it is also worth asking, how do such relationships appear from their point of view? Replika, and most of these powerful chatbots, work via predictive language models — their aim is to produce the sort of sentences that would elicit responses that have been earmarked as reward. They conform the pattern of their behaviour primarily to increase user engagement.

Even if they were sentient then, they too take an objectified stance to us. Indeed, the relationship is doubly objectified: both parties are treating the other as a means to some further end instead of treating them as subjects to be respected. Perhaps the purely human analogue of this is the relationship between an Only Fans creator and their ‘fans’ — except there both parties are honest.

The structure of mature human relationships is a structure that involves mutual recognition. Both parties do not merely try to predict the other’s behaviour or elicit a certain response, but they do things together. This means that there is room for either party to protest the terms of their relationship and such protests are given genuine weight by the other party, as opposed to being seen as a mere signal that one must adapt to. As they are programmed, chatbots do not do this.

How worried should we be? This depends on the type of task that the chatbot is meant to serve. Consider a therapy chatbot, for example. There are certain therapeutic benefits that come from disclosure of one’s feelings or the deployment of simple certain self-regulation strategies. Insofar as the therapy chatbot allows more people to access and adopt these strategies, we should rejoice. At the same time, there are therapeutic modalities where the heart of therapeutic change depends on the formation of a personal therapeutic alliance with the therapist. The therapist serves as a safe exploratory ground by which the client can explore her situation with another who can push back when appropriate. We thus ought be cautious here: more work is required to determine if the therapeutic benefits are still being imparted through chatbot therapists.

Once we have set aside the issue of AI sentience, we need to see that some of these problems arise not merely because we are dealing with chatbots and not humans. After all, our transactional society de-humanises human agents in many domains already. Rather, the issue is that these chatbots are developed in the context of capitalist, commercialised pressures that encourage the programs to take a certain objectified form. Humans may exercise their agency to protest against the system they are embedded in, but programs are discarded that do not meet their design specifications. The widespread adoption of such chatbots to fulfil human emotional needs would then mean the widespread propagation of such objectifying tendencies.

Perhaps there is no principled reason why we could not develop chatbots that really behaved like human therapists and romantic partners with their demands and their protests that we cannot ignore. But if the whole reason why these technologies are developed is to help us escape from the messy exactingness of human life, what reason could there possibly be to do that?

As the ancient Israelites made their way through this world, there was a temptation that loomed often. When the demands of God became too difficult, the journey too perilous, the promise too remote, it was tempting to craft a god that was less demanding and more tractable or attractive. Wouldn’t it be nice to get all the benefits of worshipping a god, but one customised to our liking? Yet the Psalmist warns them:

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
they have eyes, but do not see;
they have ears, but do not hear,
nor is there any breath in their mouths.
Those who make them become like them,
so do all who trust in them.

(Psalm 135:15-18)

If the psalmist is to be believed, to deform one’s object of worship is to dehumanise ourselves. Today, however, we face a different radical possibility: to replace not God but humanity with a more tractable version of itself.

We ought to be no less clear sighted about its perils.

Brandon Yip is a post-doctoral fellow at the Australian Catholic University’s Dianoia Institute of Philosophy and collaborator with the Hyperdigital Designs project.

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Robot Souls

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Which Barbie do you identify with? Stereotypical Barbie, Supreme Court Justice Barbie, Nobel Prize Winning Physicist Barbie? Or perhaps you’re Weird Barbie, Irrepressible Thoughts of Death Barbie, or the Depression Barbie who binge-watches Colin Firth in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice? Or maybe you’re Just Ken (anywhere else I’d be a ten), and you lost interest in the patriarchy when you found out it wasn’t about horses?

Either way, the movie sensation of the summer (sorry Oppenheimer) is as pink and fluffy as candyfloss, but a great deal more thought-provoking. Of course – spoiler alert – like Pinocchio, Barbie ends up wanting to be a Real Boy. The Blue Fairy in this case is the blue-suited Barbie-creator Ruth Handler, complete with a double mastectomy and tax evasion issues. At the crucial moment, the script has Barbie say: “I want to do the imagining, not be the idea.” And off she goes, to visit… the gynaecologist.

This is not news. Every story about humans manufacturing humanoid creatures has this kind of twist, so much so that it is clearly wells up from a deep sense that wanting to be human should be the ultimate goal. It’s an example of a speciesist human exceptionalism, but it is weirdly Normal Barbie for humans to feel special, particularly those who claim the imago dei. Who wouldn’t want to be the subject and not the object? Is it inevitable that any emerging intelligence will yearn for consciousness?

So the recent acceleration in the rise of AI is shaking us to the core, and the UK Government’s 2023 National Risk Register names AI for the first time as a ‘chronic risk.’ Have we lost control of AI already? Is the reign of our species really drawing to an end, or can we seize the initiative before it’s too late? I think we can, and I think the answer is not so much about more regulation as about better design.

Lately, the trend in innovation has been to be inspired by biomimicry, which is about learning from the tried and tested design of nature. We invented Velcro from looking at burrs and teazles; and the bumps on the fins of humpback whales have been used to design out drag in wind turbines. But when it comes to AI, which is also about copying nature – specifically human intelligence – we have not been looking closely enough at what we are trying to copy.

We have completely ignored God’s blueprints. Instead, in our haste to program only the very best of our design into AI, we have left out all the ‘junk code’ – the bits we’re ashamed of, or struggle to understand, like our emotions, uncertainty, and intuition. In fact, I have identified 7 items of ‘junk code’ in which lie the essential magic of our human design and the hallmarks of the human soul.

Our Junk Code  

1. Free-will
2. Emotions
3. Sixth Sense
4. Uncertainty
5. Mistakes
6. Meaning
7. Storytelling  

If you think about it, Free Will is a disastrous design choice. Letting creatures do what they want is highly likely to lead to their rapid extinction. So let’s design in some ameliorators. The first is emotion. Humans are a very vulnerable species because their young take 9 months to gestate, and are largely helpless for their first few years. Emotion is a good design choice because it makes these creatures bond with their children and in their communities to protect the vulnerable.

Next, you design in a Sixth Sense, so that when there is no clear data to inform a decision, they can use their intuition to seek wisdom from the collective unconscious, which helps de-risk decision-making. Then we need to consolidate this by designing in uncertainty.

A capacity to cope with ambiguity will stop them rushing into precipitous decision-making, and make them seek others out for wise counsel. And if they do make mistakes? Well, they will learn from them. And mistakes that make them feel bad will develop in them a healthy conscience, which will steer them away from repeated harms in future.

Now that we have corrected their design to promote survival, what motivators are needed for their future flourishing? They need to want to get out of bed on a dark day, so we fit them with a capacity for meaning-making, because a species that can discern or create meaning in the world will find reasons to keep living in the face of any adversity (I am even making meaning out of Barbie!). And to keep the species going over generations?

We design in a super-power about storytelling. Stories allow communities to transmit their core values and purpose down the generations in a highly sticky way. The religions and other wisdom traditions have been particularly expert at this. Their stories last for centuries, future-proofing the species through learned wisdom of our ancestors, and the human species prevails.

We had not thought to design humanity into AI because it seemed too messy. A robot that was emotional and made mistakes would soon be sent back to the shop. After all, in the movie, that’s why they tried to box Barbie. But if we pause to reflect, we notice that our junk code is actually part of a rather clever defensive design. If this code is how we’ve solved the ‘control’ and ‘alignment’ problems inherent in our own species, might we not find wisdom in it for solving those problems for AI?

To the theologically informed, it seems that the recent spate of open letters from the authors of AI are full of repentance. They think that naming the idol and suggesting at least its imprisonment by regulation if not its complete destruction will wipe the slate clean and get them all off the hook. But we embarked on this extraordinarily arrogant project with no exit strategy. And while the tools we’ve invented before eased both our lives and our labour, this is arguably the first time we’ve sought to invent a tool to replace ourselves.

Because most AI is in private hands, the truth is we have no idea how far it has already advanced. They only released Chat GPT so we would train it for them, and that has already set the cat among the pigeons. In other AIs, autonomy is about decisions and not just about completing patterns.

Once you programme an AI to re-programme itself, you cede control, and its future choices will only be as good as what you have already programmed into it in terms of basic rules and values. And I am not confident that we spent enough time getting that right before we careered off on this hubristic voyage of discovery.

So what, if anything, do we owe our creation? We should certainly not hold back from it what we know about the very programming that has led to our own flourishing. Our junk code certainly seems to have given us the capacity to thrive, even if we are still a wayward creation.

So given our understanding about doing the imagining rather than being the idea, we also need to protect it from us, and protect ourselves from the botched job we’re currently making of it, through a thoughtful debate not only on design and programming, but also on robot rights. Not because they are human, but because we are.

The William Temple Foundation’s Ethical Futures Network is at Greenbelt this year to take this conversation further. The panel will look at what AI means for the future of culture, society and our experience of God. It is called: Do believe the hype? culture, society, politics and God in an AI world and takes place on Sunday 27 August at 1pm.

Chaired by Professor Chris Baker, for an AI panel it is unusually more Barbie than Ken, with Dr Beth Singler, the digital anthropologist and AI expert from the University of Zurich; Dr Jennifer George, a computer scientist and Head of Computing at Goldsmiths in the University of London; and Dr Eve Poole OBE, author of Robot Souls: Programming in Humanity.

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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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A Graduated View of the Coronation

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The William Temple Foundation is a broad church. The first of these Temple Takes by fellow trustee, Dr David Shaw, anticipated the Coronation with a pre-emptive strike against the monarchy. Now it is my turn to offer a different take.

This Foundation explores faith in the public square. Coronations have been a prime example of this in action, over a thousand years. This month’s Coronation was more inclusive than its predecessors of diverse denominations and faiths.

While conceding that the monarchy is ‘a good show’, David Shaw notes ‘that ermine and gold braid costs an awful lot of money’. He was not alone in this approach. The Coronation was dismissed as a ‘pantomime’ of ‘obscene lavishness’ by the journalist Suzanne Breen, writing in the Belfast Telegraph.

Yet the Guardian’s exhaustive investigations concluded that the Coronation cost each UK taxpayer about £1.50. If we had been saving up since the previous Coronation, that would have been just over two pence each per year or, if we think instead of creating a sinking fund for the next one, perhaps ten pence each per year.

Since the last Coronation seventy years ago, the USA has held 19 inaugurations for 13 Presidents. These too have an oath, a ceremony, a prayer, a cathedral service the next day, and there are many inauguration balls. Some of the funding in the USA comes from individual supporters, which might be welcomed here, but some of those donors become ambassadors, which would not be. I would like the Prince of Wales, when his time comes, to adopt the model of Edward VII’s Coronation instead, for which the King opened and personally contributed to an appeal which funded a free Coronation Dinner for half a million of the poorest Londoners. William V would ideally extend its reach throughout the UK, realms and territories. The meals went ahead that summer, in hundreds of locations, when the Coronation itself had to be delayed because of the King’s poor health.   

William Temple attended that 1902 Coronation as a gentleman-in-waiting to his father, who was then the Archbishop of Canterbury, and played his own part as the Archbishop of York in the 1937 Coronation of George VI. Temple enjoyed three enthronements of his own at Manchester, York and Canterbury, or four if you count the double enthronement in Canterbury as bishop of that diocese and as Primate of All England. Despite it being in wartime, the Canterbury enthronements saw him in what the Church Times described as a ‘magnificent cope and mitre’. There was gold aplenty. None of this stopped him being one of the founders of the Welfare State.

The other point where I beg to differ from David Shaw is when he imagines that defenders of the monarchy would argue that it only has a ceremonial role whereas it is more than that. The second part of his claim is correct, although he only gives examples of what he sees as self-interested interference by the royal family in the political sphere. There are many positive and practical (as opposed here to ‘ceremonial’) contributions by the contemporary constitutional monarchy which celebrate our charities and the arts, which have been prophetic in warning of the climate crisis, which give voice and opportunities to some of the otherwise voiceless on the margins of society, as in the work of the Prince’s Trust, and which bring all faiths into the public square.

Nevertheless, there is nothing necessarily wrong with ceremonial roles and nor is there anything necessarily wrong with ceremonies. Ceremony itself has its place in the public square. Religious ceremonies in particular merit serious study. Yet a pillar of the British establishment, former editor of The Times, Sir Simon Jenkins, now writing for The Guardian, is more outspoken than David Shaw: ‘Is Britain completely mad? Trying to read meaning into such events is completely hopeless.’

In contrast, Juliet Samuel in The Times, writing in the week before the Coronation, had argued that critics of King Charles III miss the point: ‘What they don’t grasp is why the institution at the centre of this weird ritual, the monarchy, has lasted on and off for more than a thousand years… Where the sceptics see a fuddy-duddy infatuated by new-age nonsense, I see traditional religion informed by modern pluralism.’

Rachel Cooke, in The Observer, could see the pageantry as a ‘preposterous vision’ but considered that, ‘Only a stone-hearted person could fail to have been moved by the multifaith parts of the service, and if you felt nothing when the choir sang Handel’s Zadok the Priest at the king’s anointment, you are either an algorithm or half dead.’

She was also impressed by the military processions’ ‘precision that was unbelievable in a country where nothing works.’ A question for a faith foundation is whether the religious ceremony worked that well. Was it sacramental or quasi-sacramental? Did the anointing bring grace? The sacred music was varied, plentiful and uplifting. Does that make a difference? Was the ritual right? Was the emphasis on service authentic or was it, so to speak, lip-service? Almost nobody approved of the formula in the oath, perhaps not even the King. Nor was the attempt to inveigle us into paying homage well received. When asked if that was his idea, the Archbishop of Canterbury claimed he honestly could not remember. When asked about the gold robes and coach, he did remember that the former were borrowed and that the latter was paid for centuries earlier. He told his interviewer, Julie Etchingham, that there was no need to be miserable about all this.

In all its aspects, each Coronation needs to be reviewed in timely fashion. Meanwhile, if you cannot bring yourself to ponder the faith dimensions of what we have just witnessed, then there are secular rites of passage which have some instructive parallels, such as university graduations. When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, fewer than 4% of the UK’s school-leavers had the opportunity of university education. Nowadays, the figure is more than 50%. With their family members in attendance, this means that more than half the country experience graduation ceremonies. Some of these are in sacred spaces and others also draw on religious liturgies and forms but even the most secular have lessons in understanding the religious Coronation. Some staff might remain, or affect to be, miserable when asked to dress up or otherwise attend but nowadays almost all students, their families and friends find joy in graduations.

It does not need a degree in pageantry to understand the significance in graduations of the medieval gowns, the hoods, the headgear, the university regalia, the music, the formalities of wording, the processions, even in some cases the ermine on a hood or gown or the gold braid on a Chancellor’s gown. Students are burdened by the cost of the degree but only marginally more by any extra cost of graduation tickets for family and friends. They know that gowns and hoods are mostly recycled, as at the Coronation. Those attending can readily understand the concept of a Chancellor, a university’s equivalent to a constitutional monarch, even though they know that the executive power lies elsewhere. Families appreciate the effort to respect a university’s place in the history of education and all their students’ contributions to that community. They value the chance to meet staff, to give thanks and to be thanked for their support.

A Coronation is not just a graduation for the monarch. In a sense, we are all graduands as one era gives way to another. The Coronation was a rite of passage but it was also a leap of faith. Far from it being ‘hopeless’ to read meaning into the Coronation, the meaning was already there. A more charitable reading of our shared experience is that the Coronation extolled the virtue of hope for faith in the public square.

Simon Lee is Professor of Law & Director of Research, Aston Law School; Emeritus Professor of Jurisprudence, Queen’s University Belfast; and Chair of the Board of Trustees 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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What’s God Got To Do With It?

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A Generational Response to the SNP Contest

[A]s a committed Christian and a socialist I am well aware that in one’s personal life at least, the political cannot be separated from the spiritual. Our conception of what it means to be a disciple and to follow Christ often act as an anchor for our political convictions to serve the least of these and be part of building a society which promotes the radical love and inclusion that we see in the life of Jesus.[1]

My friend William Gibson (LLB in Scots law), studying for an MA in theology at Glasgow University and an Associate member of the Iona Community previously reflected on the SNP contest for a blog for the Student Christian Movement. I found this above quote especially moving and relatable for so many Christians who are inspired by their faith to work and campaign in politics.

Seeing our faith being ripped apart in the public square, being called irrelevant, prehistoric, damaging etc, takes its toll, especially for Christians who ascribe to a progressive, liberal agenda. The faith held by Kate Forbes does not reflect my own faith. It is not how I, or many other Christians would embody our faith if/when involved in politics. Fighting for the place of Christianity in politics, understanding that for many Christians it is their discipleship, their call to follow Christ, that leads them into politics to fight for a more just society and better global relationships, is complicated when our interpretations of Jesus’ call to bring His more just world differs, and where the diversity of Christian belonging and theology clash in the public square.

I want to uphold the work of Doug Gay, lecturer at Glasgow University who has consistently tried to explain the complication of holding a conservative Christianity in Scottish politics, ‘a good faith actor, like Kate Forbes, can have deep convictions which they believe they are bound to by divine authority and can hold these in a spirit of humility and love, accepting they are in a minority.’[2] It would be too easy for progressive Christians to dismiss Kate Forbes because of her faith held in the Free Church of Scotland. Yet Forbes’ faith is not one that willingly  celebrates the diversity of God’s children, and her responses to challenges on this question have tended to emphasize her own minoritized position that stems from holding these beliefs.

This is perhaps where I have to take a step back and admit that I am not Scottish. I have lived in Scotland for almost 5 years, and support the Labour Party. I, however, fully support the call for an independent Scotland. Being Welsh and growing up in Wales, I feel equally estranged from Westminster and the current ruling shambles of the Tory Party. But, for the younger generation, for an independent Scotland to not just be a reactive to the disastrous policies of the Tory government, an Independent Scotland needs to be an inclusive Scotland.

My University of Edinburgh seminar this week discussed same-sex marriages in the Church of England. Essays were due imminently  so I decided to have a creative class where the students would role-play different characters involved in the debate. The student who played a young person called for anarchy, joking that all issues in our society stemmed not from the Church but from the State. After laughter, I agreed with this student’s keen perception of how the younger generation understands our society. Politics in the UK have become a joke, where the rich becoming richer, with more tax breaks, more food banks, further hatred towards the ‘other’, and colder houses are taken for granted as the status quo.

 My generation is absolutely disillusioned from what this country calls politics. A game of putting profit before people has alienated a majority of young people whose values are calling for a fairer, more just world, where women can feel safe walking alone and not be blamed for being raped because of the style of their underwear, where their friend can wear their hijab and feel beautiful, where their trans friend can confidently be their true self on a train, or at a football game, or in class and not be maliciously misgendered, or where students from working class backgrounds can be treated with integrity and be taken seriously.[3]

Forbes wishes for ‘better days’ in Scotland, where it can be ‘a country where tolerance is the ruling ethic, differences are welcomed, fairness is the norm.’[4] Simon Lee explained in 2003, ‘[t]oleration only comes into play when one finds X repugnant but decides nonetheless not to use any means at one’s disposal […] to curtail X.’[5] Sturgeon is held by many to  not only endorse tolerance, but actively promote instead inclusion and belonging. As she shared numerous times, her Scotland was not one where bigotry or hatred would be permissible. Forbes is concerned for those whose opinions and views are becoming marginalized as Scottish society contemplates the move to include embodied peoples who have not been allowed to be their full selves in society. Tolerance on its own however does not automatically advance the status quo; it prefers rather to look behind to appease those who are blind to their own privilege and feel entitled to voice their dislike of having to listen to new voices. Forbes declared that she would not have voted for same-sex marriage at the time it came to the vote in the Scottish parliament in 2014; this would not have promoted fairness as to people’s rights to marry whom they love, nor welcome differences in love.

When watching the latest hustings between the three SNP Leader candidates I was surprised at how Kate Forbes and Ash Regan criticized the previous SNP government and leader Nicola Sturgeon. They both advocated a ‘break’ from the previous policies that ‘were not working.’ Humza Yousaf however upheld the work of the SNP and Sturgeon. Yousaf also was the only visibly outraged member on this TV panel reacting to the UK government’s brutal proposed immigration bill. He asked the two other candidates to agree with him that the bill would not belong in Scotland, and Ash Regan collectedly responded that these government policies were a concern for her “among others”. Sturgeon has consistently  praised Glasgow for fighting against forced removals of their neighbours by Home Office enforces, and has publicly refuted racist rhetorics that vilified racially minoritized persons in Britain. Her open-armed acceptance of LGBTQI+ people, especially through the recently passed Gender Recognition Reform Bill showed her commitment to be a true ally of trans people facing profound victimization. Sturgeon pioneered a narrative of a  nation that she claimed was distinct from Westminster through its commitment  to create a Scotland that was legislatively dedicated to a vision of unity and solidarity. Stephen Noon, previously the chief strategist for Yes Scotland, but who is now studying for a Ph.D in Divinity at the University of Edinburgh reflected,

Our nation’s passing of equal marriage legislation not only changed Scotland, but the acceptance it offered to me, and other gay men and women, was transformational. We were not second best, but equal in the eyes of our peers.

All three candidates have been painted as hazy when it comes to supporting LGBTQI+ policies. Yousaf missed the vote, and Regan resigned as minister for Community Safety over the Gender Reform Bill. It seems from her discussions on the topic Forbes would tolerate the law of same-sex marriage in Scotland, and Regan has voiced that she would scrap the GRB if she gets into power. I sense neither figure would want to elevate the inclusive and progressive agenda of Sturgeon. Yousaf however had supported the same-sex campaign and explained he was away on government business during the vote. The media has grilled Yousaf, a practicing Muslim, about his own personal religious views and he has repeatedly assured the public that he supports LGBTQI+ people, wants equality to thrive in Scotland, would uphold the laws and wants what is best for Scottish people. Stephen Noon explains that his own faith, ‘is not primarily a set of rules or propositions; it is, for me, a relationship with the source of love. That means the starting point is not “the law” but always the person in front of me and the reality they are facing.’[6] I am sad that Forbes has tended not to represent how her faith leads her towards building a more generous and accepting Scotland. Yet I see this, and my faith, represented in the love, passion and care I perceive to be shown by Yousaf’s campaign for the SNP leadership. If the political game of vilifying the ‘other’, be that migrants, gay people, trans people, or working-class people enters Scotland I fear the support for Independence from the younger generations will be lost. I hope a humble, love-filled faith can continue to be represented in Scottish politics, and help younger generations restore their hope in democratic governments.

[1] William Gibson, ‘Does faith belong in politics? What we can learn from Kate Forbes’ campaign,’ Student Christian Movement, accessed 09/03/2023 via

[2] Doug Gay, Tweet 21/02/2023.

[3] The Times, ‘State Educated Edinburgh Students Mocked for their Accents,’

[4] Katrine Bussey, ‘SNP leadership contest: Kate Forbes says she wants to lead Scotland into ‘better days’ and declares nation must have tolerance as ‘ruling ethic’ The Scotsman, 24/02/2023

[5] Simon Lee, Uneasy Ethics (Pimlico: 2003), 109.

[6] Stephen Noon, ‘Equal marriage was transformational for Scotland and for the acceptance it offered me,’ Hollyrood,,stephen-noon-equal-marriage-was-transformational-for-scotland-and-for-the-acceptance-it-offered-me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ukraine One Year On

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Nonviolence, Just War, or Peacebuilding? Catholic Ethics and the Russia-Ukraine War

2023 is a year of notable anniversaries in the Roman Catholic Church. April sees the 60th Anniversary of the promulgation of John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris written as the Cuban Missile Crisis terrified the world, whilst May brings the 40th Anniversary of The Challenge of Peace published by the United States Bishops’ Conference in response to the continuing threat of nuclear war that overshadowed the years before 1989.

One would hope that in commemorating the anniversaries of these publications, we would be living in a very different context – a context in which nuclear arms were no longer a threat but rather a topic that allowed people the chance to reminisce about nuclear warning drills at school and the relief they felt at the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Sadly, we do not. In the past year, whenever people have heard that I am a Christian ethicist who works on matters relating to war and peace, they inevitably ask me in worried tones: ‘do you think that Putin will launch a nuclear missile attack on the West?’ To which my usual reply is ‘probably not, but there’s no point in worrying about it because if it happens, we’ll all be dead anyway.’

My dark sense of humour aside, the events in Ukraine over the last year have been a sobering reminder that we are, as Pope Francis frequently reminds us, ‘fighting a third world war piecemeal’ and there is something about the invasion of Ukraine that has really brought this home to us, in a way that the fighting in Yemen and Syria for instance hasn’t.  Whether this is a result of the renewal of Cold War hostilities or collective guilt regarding the West’s role in destabilising the Middle East and colonisation, remains to be seen and I’m sure will be endlessly debated in the years to come.

Responses within the Roman Catholic Church, the tradition from which I write, have been similarly intense. This is particularly because, as paragraph 2309 of the Catechism teaches, self-defence is one of the few categories of Just War teaching remaining and it rapidly became apparent that both Ukrainian forces and society would be able to withstand this invasion. A Temple Tract written with Professor Tobias Winright of St Patrick’s Pontifical University, Maynooth, explores these debates in the light of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.  In it, we show how the concepts of just war, just peace, and peacebuilding have been brought to bear in moral analyses of this war, as well as how the war has impacted these ethical perspectives.

Debates on matters relating to war and peace have been a key feature of the so-called ‘culture wars’ that dominate Roman Catholicism in the US, and which sadly seem to be making their way over to the UK. In broad brush strokes this means that conservatives advocate for ‘just war theory’ and liberals are ‘absolute pacifists’.  Pope Francis’s advocacy of nonviolence (which is not the definitive declaration campaigned for by the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative) is seen as either dangerous or something to be celebrated rather than for what it is: a continuation of the past 60 years of papal teaching. Neither side are as bad or as naïve as the other side likes to think, but, in public at least, they aren’t conversing with one another.

This form of either/or thinking is damaging. It allows for the maintenance of a state of negative peace in which the threat of violence is always present and sees positive peace as utopian rather than the hope offered to us by Christ’s kenosis. The nature and form of the debate allows Roman Catholics to abdicate responsibility for peace, because, so the logic goes, war and peace are matters of international relations and are something that we can’t do anything about.   Most worryingly though, it leaves no space in between for the kind of thinking that comes from ethicists, such as Tobias Winright, Lisa Sowle Cahill, and myself, and activists, such as women religious working in conflict zones, who seek to reconcile the two into a position which accepts that violence can and will happen, but that it should be mitigated, and that we all ought to be working towards creating a state of positive peace both globally and locally.  

We have a saying in Irish ‘leagfaidh tua bheag crann mór’ literally ‘a small axe can fell a big tree’ which is helpful when one is overwhelmed by the scale of the task facing us. We can build peace in a myriad of ways, we can as Cardinal Matteo Zuppi suggests create a zone of ceasefires around our hearts which will ripple outwards like a pebble thrown into water; we can pray for peace; we can educate ourselves on the ways in which nonviolent activism works and implement its teachings into our everyday lives; we can campaign for as much money to be spent on humanitarian assistance as on arms. What we can’t do is remain silent in the face of the suffering caused by war.

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