Shaping debate on religion in public life.

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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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On Schumacher’s Shoulders

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Ahead of the Big One series of events planned for the weekend of the 24th April by over 200 organisations around citizens’ participation and climate emergency, William Temple Trustee Lois Tarbet reflects on EF Schumacher’s big and beautiful advice for gaining insight into the prospects for climate change following the IPCC’s most recent report.

Climate ticking time-bomb

On 20 March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the final instalment of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). AR6, developed with hundreds of scientists over a period of eight years, represents the most comprehensive and authoritative assessment of climate science.  The media has extracted headlines from AR6 telling of irreversible changes to the planet, a ticking climate time-bomb, inevitable catastrophic impacts from climate change and a final warning for drastic action to be taken now or never. There are also more hopeful messages about the mix of strategies and systemwide transformations that could help to limit global warming, albeit that a quantum leap will be needed for those strategies to succeed.

Climate status and stock-take

Summaries of the 1000+ page AR6 are offered by the World Resources Institute, the Guardian, Carbon Brief and others. They report that temperatures have risen faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over the last 2,000 years, that global surface temperatures are now 1.1C higher than during the preindustrial era and that observed increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations since around 1750 are unequivocally caused by GHG emissions from human activities. With high or very high confidence, AR6 authors report that, amongst other things, climate change has caused irreversible losses and mass mortality events in ecosystems and species on land and at sea.

Climate outlook

The outlook in AR6 is grim. However, it also sets out how net zero CO2 and GHG emissions can be achieved through strong reductions across all sectors. We can choose to make it less grim and there are multiple strategies that could be used, but will we? History suggests not. In its’ 2018 report, the IPCC warned that in order to limit warming to 1.50C, GHG emissions would have to be halved by 2030 compared with 2010. However, the IEA reports that carbon emissions rose last year by just under 1%.  

Climate procrastination

When I attended my first climate conference in 2009 in Copenhagen, the media reported that climate scientists were “screaming from the rooftops” to be heard. Over a decade later, a Nasa climate scientist, weeping with frustration, begged the public to believe that scientists are not exaggerating when they say we stand to lose everything. Although progress has been made, we still appear to procrastinate – why?

Climate signals

Are the signals from AR6 not dire enough to prompt action – or are they too extreme to be believed? Is talk of 1 or 2 degrees of warming at variance with the scale of the damage such seemingly small temperature increases will cause? Are decision-makers too far away from sinking small island states to feel their peril? Are humans hard-wired to ignore accumulating evidence or are human institutions incapable of understanding signals from natural systems? Are we locked into the existing economic and societal paradigm? Are we focussing too much on solutions rather than insights?

Climate “solutions”

AR6 might generate feelings of hopelessness in some. But this must be balanced against the plethora of proposed solutions offered by scientists, economists, religious leaders, technicians, lawyers and politicians. From geoengineering and circular economics to calls for behavioural and cultural change there is a cornucopia of ideas to unlock climate action. But all are dogged by varying degrees of uncertainty as to whether they, alone or in concert, will achieve the desired outcomes and this can hamper their uptake or testing.

Climate wisdom

Many solutions are developed with a view to seeking objective answers, proof and results. However, in Small Is Beautiful, EF Schumacher warned against over-reliance on solutions and on allowing cleverness to displace wisdom. Wisdom he says “demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful…” Science and technology must exercise the wisdom to limit itself like nature, which knows where and when to stop – nature is self-balancing, self-adjusting and self-cleansing.

Climate calm

While the noise of proposed climate solutions, reports, agreements and political wranglings reverberates, the earth (as Thomas Berry says) is silently keeping an accurate record of our climate folly in its rocks, systems, stores and sinks. Wisdom says Schumacher is to be found not in noise, but in the stillness inside ourselves, from which insights beyond our reasoning powers emerge. Schumacher asks whether we need more than a simple act of insight to realise that infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility or whether we need numbers, trends, feedback loops, masses of facts and computer results to tell us that time is short.


AR6 is full of humbling and terrifying facts, knowledge, numbers and proposals which will hopefully inform future climate-positive policy, scientific, economic, technological and cultural decisions. However, if they are to stand on Schumacher’s shoulders, those decisions must not be based on cleverness alone, but also on the “beyond reason” insights of wisdom borne from stillness.

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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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A Mysterious Way of Celebrating 250 Years of Amazing Grace

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Exactly 250 years ago today, on 1st January 1773, the words of Amazing Grace were first heard here in Olney, Buckinghamshire. They were composed by the Reverend John Newton to accompany his sermon. In the following century, they were set to the tune we associate with Newton’s words. 

The same judge who heard the Tobias Rustat case about, and in, Jesus College, Cambridge in 2022 had granted a faculty in 2021 to the Church of St Peter & St Paul, Olney, to present a more balanced account of Reverend John Newton ahead of today’s anniversary. Chancellor Hodge QC’s conclusion was that,

‘The planned changes to the eastern end of the south aisle of the church are designed to bring into regular and beneficial use what is presently a little-used area of the church and to ensure that it is available to educate visitors, in a balanced way, about John Newton, his life and his work, and to celebrate his later, and worthy, achievements whilst not overlooking or in any way seeking to diminish his earlier sins. The proposals will enhance the significance of the church through its strong connections with John Newton; and they will have no adverse or negative impact upon the significance of the church building. The four pews that will be removed are of no intrinsic, practical, or historical significance; and they will not be lost to the church. Rather, the proposals are entirely positive in terms of their impact. As the ‘Home of Amazing Grace’, with significant connections with John Newton and William Cowper, the church already attracts thousands of visitors every year; and the changes that are being proposed will only serve to enhance the visitors’ experience, thereby enhancing the church’s mission. The new displays will serve to remind the worshipping congregation and visitors alike that Jesus came “to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5, 32). They will also bring to mind the true saying of Saint Paul, worthy of all to be received: “That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1, 15) as we are instructed during the Service of Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer. From the material that has been presented to me, it would appear that the church are alive to the need both to ensure that there is appropriate diversity amongst the presenters of materials which are to be displayed within the church, and to recognise the vital contributions made to the abolition of the vile trade in human flesh by African and other global majority heritage writers and abolitionists, women and working class reformers rather than simply focusing upon the work of prominent, white, upper and middle class male abolitionists like John Newton and William Wilberforce.’

In an era of cancellation, how has this legacy of a former slave-trader survived? It was an act of redemption but its lasting impact has been helped considerably by other creative acts of genius through the ages. John Newton’s eighteenth century words were blessed fifty years later by the American William Walker who set Amazing Grace in the 1830s to variations on a folk tune known as New Britain, and who popularised this version through his entrepreneurial and religious vocation of selling hymnals. Amazing Grace was revived in popular culture in the second half of the twentieth century. In 2015, it was used to great effect by President Barack Obama in his eulogy for Reverend Clem Pinckney, one of the Black Christians murdered in their own church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white gunman they had welcomed into their worshipping community. Just looking at the point where the President began to sing, on YouTube, is graceful enough but it is worth watching or listening to the whole eulogy to appreciate the beautiful way in which President Obama introduced grace earlier in his oration and, especially, around the assumption that the murderer would have had about how his victims’ relatives, friends and church community would react, where President Obama made this unattributed allusion to another insight from Olney, this time by Newton’s friend, the poet William Cowper,

‘Oh, but God works in mysterious ways’
lightly paraphrasing the opening line of Cowper’s 1773 hymn,
‘God moves in a mysterious way’.

Instead of nursing a grievance, the community’s reaction was a measured, forgiving kind of grieving, an amazing grace, to which the President added beyond measure. The congregation is electrified by this phrase 16 minutes into the eulogy. Then President Obama begins to talk about grace. He gives a moving reason why sometimes a symbol should be removed, talking about how amazing it would be for the state of South Carolina to take down the Confederate flag in recognition that slavery was wrong. He links this back to God’s grace and faces squarely political controversies around race discrimination in employment and around gun laws. This eulogy is one of the greatest of contributions to the public square. It was only after 35 minutes that President Obama began to sing Amazing Grace.

On this 250th anniversary, then, it is timely to reflect on how we add to legacies and how they are linked. For example, I think it mattered that Newton lived here in Olney, with Cowper and all those oppressed in the lace industry and other disadvantaged circumstances, just as it mattered that Temple, Beveridge and Tawney lived in Toynbee Hall, in the midst of poverty, after their privileged time together as students. Newton and Cowper tried to help the poorest of their neighbours but also learned from them. They exchanged stories of Cowper’s life-threatening mental health issues and of Newton’s life-threatening journeys, including his shipwreck off the northern coast of Ireland.

Listening to Amazing Grace, which might have been directed to him, was thought to be William Cowper’s last experience in church and this hymn might have been his last. I gave the year, 1773, but it was actually in January, indeed in the next day or so after Amazing Grace, before another suicidal episode.                 

How amazing that, here in this little town of Olney, within hours of each other, Newton wrote the world’s favourite hymn and Cowper wrote the wondrous phrase that is so often echoed, as by President Obama, and which is often assumed to be a Biblical verse, but which was his original expression, about God moving in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.

I think Cowper might have drawn on the Giant’s Causeway and the storm in which his friend Newton almost died in the imagery of his opening stanza. Unlike Newton’s Amazing Grace, this example of Cowper’s genius has not yet benefited from such a fitting tune. So I wonder if, in death as in life, Newton (whose fame for this itself depends so much on the American Walker’s yoking of his words to the amazing New Britain tune) could come to the aid of his friend, Cowper. Since both hymns are in that 8, 6, 8, 6 syllable-rhythm, and bearing in mind President Obama’s intertwining of the two friends’ words, could ‘God moves in a mysterious way’ be sung to Amazing Grace’s New Britain tune? Might that be one small legacy from the celebrations here today, and around the world, of the 250th anniversary of Amazing Grace?

‘God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.’

Simon Lee lives in Olney and 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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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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Review of ‘The Least, the Last, and the Lost’ by Mez McConnell

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Mez McConnell, The Least, the Last, and the Lost: Understanding Poverty in the UK & The Responsibility of the Local Church 
Published by Evangelical Press 2021
ISBN 978-178397-328-6 

Reviewed by Greg Smith, Associate Research Fellow William Temple Foundation 

Mez McConnell has, with some contributions from his colleagues, produced a passionate book about urban and estate ministry which should be required reading for anyone involved in the field. It is also aimed at complacent middle class evangelical Christians whom he sees to be in denial about social class in the UK.  

McConnell writes as an insider who grew up in a tough unchurched environment, fell into addiction, crime and homelessness, but miraculously experienced a new birth and transformation of his life through an encounter with Jesus Christ. For the last two decades he has served as a pastor and church planter in a working-class housing scheme (council estate) in Edinburgh.  He now leads a Scottish network of church planting and revitalisation called 20 Schemes

As in Paul Keeble’s recent Urban Tract, McConnell underlines the importance of being there, and staying there long term, with a deep appreciation of yet without assimilation to local culture, and a spiritual life rooted in the deep love of Jesus and of people. He stresses above all the importance of the gospel, proclaimed in church, and in the street, in a clear evangelistic message calling for repentance and faith. He expects that some among the least, the last and the lost will respond in professions of faith, conversion and a journey of discipleship, as the church will provide personal mentoring and Biblical teaching. In his opinion, the local church is the only organisation or community that can tackle the deepest problems of such neighbourhoods.   

McConnell’s work is not the first to highlight the importance of stories in urban culture and is rich with examples. The stories shared in the book are full of realism, of struggle, of disappointment, of life in a bleak environment, yet interspersed with moments of joy, strength of family and community ties and overcoming difficult circumstances. 

McConnell should be commended for recognising the agency of people struggling with poverty, rather than trapping them in dependency and hopelessness. He also recognises the potential among people living on housing schemes for leadership in church and community and suggests models of training that are more appropriate and effective than traditional Bible College courses. Such training does not simply need to “dumb down” on Biblical knowledge or theology, but should rather be on an apprenticeship or in-service basis, applying the learning to real life situations.  

At 527 pages, this lengthy volume does not say everything McConnell wanted to say (there is more online at The first half of the book is about poverty, class and culture in the UK and draws somewhat uncritically, on research, including government statistics, reports from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and published and unpublished narratives about life on urban estates.  

The assumptions are largely about communities dominated by the “white British working class”, which is both increasingly difficult to define, and demographically questionable in an era of diverse intersecting identities. While McConnell repeatedly expresses his reluctance to stereotype, and his contempt for the genre of “poverty porn” media depictions, it felt difficult to finish the book without these established perceptions being confirmed or strengthened, rather than appreciating estate life in all its nuanced variety. 

The second section presents an excellent basic overview of the Biblical material on poverty from the Law and Prophets in the Old Testament to the Gospel narratives and the teaching and practice of the early church. However, his reading of the texts is very much “plain sense” without exploring the contextual settings either of the writers or of today’s readers.  One can sometimes detect a tendency to prioritise “the poor in spirit”, though without neglecting compassion for the materially poor. 

Perhaps the biggest weakness is the limited treatment of the Kingdom of God as among us now but not yet on earth in fullness. The author is steeped in Reformed theology which stresses God’s sovereign rule over the whole universe, a doctrine which has led many Christians to redemptive involvement in art and culture, science, medicine and social care politics and business. Yet he does not promote this as within the mission of God.  

This view could discourage the development of meaningful public theology, and Christian involvement in attempts to influence local decision makers or work for legislative reform to mitigate poverty, a theme very much part of the 19th Century evangelical heritage. 

In the third and fourth sections, which concentrate on the life of the church, there are a number of statements that may likely be a cause of discontent. Readers from outside Reformed and Evangelical tribe will perceive a traditional gospel of exclusivity, narrowness and perhaps even arrogance.  

The God McConnell offers is holy, just, and merciful, yet the vast majority of us seem destined (deservedly) for the eternal torments of hell. Church life and worship is centred on traditional expository sermons, and a ‘complementarian’ theology means that church leadership and authority is vested in men. Despite this, the book has some useful material on women’s ministries. 

On the other hand, Christians within conservative Evangelical tribe may also likely to be provoked. White British Evangelicals abound in affluent suburbs, but are rarely found living and serving in inner city or estates communities. At best their churches provide occasional opportunities for urban Christians to share testimonies and stories of front-line work—and in return promise prayer, or sometimes some financial support (though large sums of money rarely trickle down to urban churches as David Robertson argues in Part 3.4).  

Help in terms of long-term missionary personnel is extremely rare, while short term raids often do more harm than good. McConnell is critical without much nuance of “mercy ministries” (such as food banks and homeless shelters) especially when these are delivered by para church organisations. He argues that they tend to trap people in dependency and fail to communicate in words the gospel of salvation, simply by being too nice. 

While I am in many ways enthusiastic about this clarion call to urban mission and rejoice in the work of McConnell and 20 Schemes, through which estate residents are coming to faith in Jesus and local churches are beginning to flourish, the book often appears to lack appreciation of the wider urban mission movement, its history and literature. Indeed, McConnell has little time for pluralism within Christianity: while mainline liberal denominations get some credit for being present in urban estates, they have abandoned the gospel, and charismatics and Pentecostals, (especially prosperity preachers) are seen as heretical.  

I see some similarities between Mez McConell and the brilliant, if annoying General William Booth  whose passion for “the Least, the Last and the Lost” of the book’s title, led to the foundation of the Salvation Army. The later development of that movement as a major charitable service provider suggests that the urban church cannot live by hellfire preaching alone. 

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