What is good news to the poor?
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
According to Bishop Philip North, writing in last week’s Church Times, the poor might hear the Church’s good news (not defined) when their voice is heard by the Church and amplified in the nation. Sadly, though, the Church hasn’t been listening, and so was surprised, even appalled and embarrassed when the poor finally spoke up and expressed their frustrations and aspirations by voting for Brexit.
Working class identity and focus revolves around family, place and work, says the Bishop. The educated middle classes who make up most of the C of E’s leadership take work for granted, are embarrassed by patriotism, and individualistic rather than family or community-oriented. The Church’s obsession with the sexuality debate is not the agenda of the poor. The solution is for the Church to re-engage with the neglected sectors of society, by setting up and revitalising churches on council estates with “the best leaders”, and put listening to the urban poor at the centre of its mission strategy.
Before I comment on this analysis, I ought to mention something of my own background otherwise I might be accused of pontificating about a subject of which I know very little [some would say that hasn’t stopped you before! – ed.]. I come from a relatively privileged background but have spent most of my ministry working among the less privileged, in South Africa and in England. In South Africa my wife and I walked with leaders of small churches in villages and townships as they sought to enable their congregations to be salt and light in contexts that would make anyone hesitate before talking about ‘poverty’ in Britain. In Northampton I was vicar on a small outer estate regarded as dismal and rough by the rest of the town. It’s for others and for God to judge success and failure in these ministries, but I can say that what Philip North is talking about from his own experience, I have also experienced.
I believe he is right in urging the Church once again to put into practice what David Sheppard in a previous generation called ‘bias to the poor’, with a concern for social justice not just in speeches and articles but in downward immersion, ‘incarnation’, ensuring that Christians are in the unattractive areas in their worship, witness, pastoral care and just being with people. It is a challenge to the more comfortable suburban churches to regard the poor not as a problem to be solved by someone in government, or worse still ‘out of sight out of mind’, but as people who need salvation in Christ and the basics of life. The under-resourcing and lack of encouragement for churches trying to survive and grow in these areas is an issue.
It is also true, as Bishop North says, that there are unfashionable values associated with what he calls the ‘working class’, which could provide a bridge for the Gospel.
But there are some points where his narrative about “the Church hearing the voice of the poor” needs to be challenged. First, there seems to be an assumption that “the Church” is the Bishops, and/or the central institution. It is only they, he seems to suggest, who can make sure the nation hears, or perhaps speak to the middle classes about what the poor are saying. This conjures up an image of Bishops sitting earnestly in focus groups on council estates hearing the locals moan, then going off to make a statement to the media and talking to local and national government about financial investment. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, is it addressing the real problems, including the spiritual malaise at the heart of our nation? Is there a danger of selective listening, and seeing the solution in research and funding? Is that not in itself a very secular and middle class approach?
Second, the strengthening of parishes in areas of urban deprivation, and planting of new congregations, can’t just be a centralised project. A Bishop can’t just look at a map and ‘deploy’ a few ‘good’ vicars to troubled areas. To put it in the language of the missionary heroes of the past, it only works when God (often miraculously) calls individuals with humility, faith and resilience to a place and a community, and when there is a network of local support. Of course a Diocese can facilitate this process, but a wise Bishop takes no credit if things go well, and doesn’t apportion blame if things go badly (just as a vicar having a hard time in a parish should avoid the easy option of blaming the Diocese, as I confess I have done in the past).
Thirdly, Bishop North is wrong to say that the sexuality debate is irrelevant and a distraction from the priority of mission to the urban poor. Casual sexual promiscuity, family breakdown and toxic relationships on council estates are not hidden by the veneer of sophistication found in middle class communities. Poor educational achievement and low self esteem cannot forever be blamed on Mrs Thatcher, but are partly a product of fatherlessness and lack of wholesome role models. The Church can send a positive message that faithful man-woman marriage, and singleness with sexual self control, is good for families and children. Any change to the Church’s teaching and practice on sexuality and marriage will undermine this.
So I believe that Philip North’s appeals to the Church to remember the urban underclass is an important corrective to the idea that we should just focus on evangelism in university towns with an eye on future leaders and funding. We need to encourage and nurture sacrificial ministry in rough areas, with humility, compassion and listening.
But what is the good news? It is not that my sinful, unregenerate voice is being heard by others. While there must be justice and equality for all, and while politicians in particular need to accurately understand the needs of their constituents, there is no special grace or wisdom in certain feelings being expressed, whether the educated with better access to power or those ‘at the bottom of society’ per se. The Gospel is not that I can have a say, but rather that God wants to speak to me! That I am valued enough to be able to access his friendship despite my sin and failure. So the Church’s main role is not primarily to get the voice of the urban poor to the nation, but to get the voice of God to the poor.
If this is the case, then as a predominantly middle class church we are floundering. If we see the poverty in our nation as only the visible and material manifestation, this tends to lead to mission with a theologically liberal, social justice agenda, focussing on raising money for projects rather than evangelism and disciple-making. If we see the solution to spiritual poverty as church-planting with the right techniques, this can to the few evangelicals who attempt ministry in these areas often feeling frustrated and with a sense of failure. Rather, it would be better to look at the problem the other way round: the struggle of both churches and social services to make a transformational impact in the British urban estates is a result not a cause of ingrained spiritual malaise. We need help from those experienced in ministry among the poor, the oppressed, the persecuted, the forgotten, the hungry at a much lower level than anything we find in Britain. Where can we find such wisdom? Outside our shores, perhaps?
See also: The church must reconnect with the poor and deprived: a Bishop’s swing and a miss, by Stephen Kneale