Back in 1985 the Church of England published a call to action called ‘Faith in the City’. It’s hard to believe that that is now thirty years ago. I was just two years into ordained ministry so it became a really important event for me and, I suppose, became very formative in terms of how I understood priestly ministry. At that stage I was a curate in a parish in east Leeds. I can’t claim it was the most deprived of parishes, but there were areas of social deprivation just on the doorstep and I was, in just two years time, destined to go further into the inner city where the issues that ‘Faith in the City’ sought us to address were very real.
As a young priest it felt that this was a real response to the passion that we felt for community engagement and regeneration, for ending the social exclusion that seemed to be developing in the political atmosphere of the times. These were the days of Harry Enfield and his ‘Loadsamoney’ character, of ‘Spitting Image’ which had hit our screens in 1984 with its hard edged depiction of the Prime Minister and her cabinet (my all time favourite moment was of Mrs Thatcher at dinner with the cabinet. The waiter asks her about her order ‘and what about the vegetables?’ to which she responds ‘They’ll have what I’m having’).
Of course, the reaction to ‘Faith in the City’ from the government could have been predicted. The government and the media who supported them told the church that basically it was none of our business, that we should get back into church and abandon this ‘leftist’ agenda.
So I have been fascinated watching the reaction to the publication of the Pastoral Letter from the House of Bishops in preparation for the May General Election. ‘Leftist’, ‘not the business of the church’, it feels like thirty years ago and of course some of the issues addressed all those years ago are still around today – social exclusion, scapegoating, wages, employment, benefits, housing. The other interesting thing that gives me that sense of deja vu – which is always quite an unsettling feeling – is that the economy has undoubtably turned around after the banking crisis of 2008. The world which surrounds the Cathedral is one of redevelopment, investment, high spending, high rising, aspirational. I was in the Shard last week enjoying a ‘mocktail’ at one of the bars (well, it is Lent) and it was gorgeous. We had to queue to get in and once we had shot up in the express lift to the levels where the restaurants and bars are you step out into a glamouros, happening world that always makes me feel as though I am in one of those swanky joints in Manhatten. But you look down onto some communities that are in real and desperate need. The view from the Shard is of glittering success and grinding poverty and in the same communities. You need to be careful which way you look if you don’t want to be disturbed.
So I’m delighted that the Bishops have put this challenge to the church as the politicians try to win our votes in May. Those who live in the ‘Westminster village’ may not like us having a view but of course we have to, of course we are involved in politics, we are the church of the incarnation and that means that God has invested his own self in the human condition.
What disturbs me is when people dismiss the important things that are being said by pronouncing them ‘leftist’. What it shows is that people are scared of socialism and I include politicians amongst those. But society is what the church is about, relationships is what the church is about because the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is about society and about relationship, about God being in divine society, about God being in relationship. And that manifested itself in the life of the early church.
The writer of the Acts of the Apostles may have been recording our early history of the church through ‘rose coloured spectacles’ but that vision of who we are has been critical in developing our attitude to what society at its very best should be like.
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2.44-47)
Now is that ‘socialist’, is that ‘leftist’ or is it, as I believe, responding to the call of the Old Testament prophets to do as Micah expressed it
What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Some figures put it all in disturbing perspective for me, and I know that there are many statistics to challenge one another with. In figures from 2011/12 it was estimated that unclaimed benefits amounted to £12.3bn, that benefit fraud amounted to £2.03bn and the cost to the Exchequer of tax evasion and avoidance was £32.06bn. So why are those on benefits in our society made to feel as though they are the problem? Why do those who are potentially the most excluded in our society face the further ignominy of being made the scapegoats? Why are the wealthy getting wealthier and the poorer poorer?
The bishops are encouraging us to ask the questions and set the Christian moral compass against what all the parties will be telling us in the weeks ahead. We have been here before and we will be here again, because this is where the kingdom of God meets the kingdoms of this world.
may we do justice,
and walk humbly with you.