An open letter to Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, from Church Action on Poverty supporter Liz Delafield.

Cast your mind back to 2015. Churches together in Britain and Ireland had asked churches to  discuss with their local communities the question ‘What makes a good society?’ From these discussions they produced the 2020 vision. The expectation that the churches, other religious bodies and community organisations would work together with our elected representatives to build a good society in which all could thrive. It was where we aspired to be by the year 2020.  

This is what it said:

  • All citizens have access to enough income to enable them to live with dignity, either through paid work or through a properly functioning welfare safety net.
  • Reasonably priced homes where people can flourish are available for everyone who needs them and there is a reliable safety net for all homeless people.
  • All children and young people are enabled to live fulfilling flourishing lives, their contributions are valued, and they are enabled to grow and achieve their potential.
  • An economy that is in service to every person irrespective of their wealth or the market value of their labour; including robust action to clamp down on tax dodging.
  • UK greenhouse gas emissions are falling rapidly, and the Government has helped to secure a global climate deal that limits global temperature rises to 2 degrees.

This was not meant to be an exhaustive list. For example, the local conversation that I was involved in wanted to add ‘There is a thriving NHS which meets the needs of all.’

So with only just over a month until 2020, and another general election looming, this seems a good time to take stock. How did we do?

Quite simply, we failed. We did not build a good society – or even make steps towards it. If anything, we have moved further from our vision.

The implementation of Universal Credit and PIP assessment has led to greater hardship for many vulnerable people. An increasing number of people rely on food banks to get by. Homelessness is still evident in our communities. Most school budgets have been cut in real terms, reducing children’s and young people’s’ opportunities to thrive and achieve their potential. Cuts in local government have made youth services almost non existent in some areas. Young people’s mental health is an increasing concern. Tax dodging is still prevalent. As extinction rebellion campaigners remind us, the climate is in crisis and we have been far too slow to respond.

We failed – big time.

So what did we do with our vision? Did we hold it up as a beacon? Did we shout from our pulpits and to our communities “Look, this what we said. What are we doing about it?” No, we didn’t. We filed it away as yesterday’s news, a sound bite for the 2015 election.

Building the Good Society, or what Christians call the Kingdom of God, is not a short-term project. Neither is it only for politicians. It is a long term task that involves us all.

The General Election will take place during Advent. This is traditionally a time of waiting and preparation. But what are we waiting for? Not for a political leader, but for a vulnerable refugee child. A child who reminds us that leadership is about love and service. This is the way to a good society.

Let us remain faithful to our vision. No matter what happens in the election, let’s keep holding our politicians and churches to account. None of the people standing in this election is our saviour. We simply need to decide who would best love and serve with us as we strive towards a good society.  The road is long, and sometimes difficult, but as the advent and Christmas stories reminded us, Christ walks with us. 


​This post first appeared on Liz Delafield’s blog.

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A Good Society? We failed

Speaking Truth to Power: reflections from our North East gathering

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Father Chris Hughes shares some thoughts from our gathering in Newcastle on 9 November 2019.

Church Action on Poverty is nationally facilitating a number of regional gatherings engaging with local groups to explore issues related to poverty with a particular focus on ‘Speaking Truth to Power’.

On 9 November, St Nicholas’s Anglican Cathedral was the venue for the regional gathering for the North East of England, hosted by Church Action on Poverty North East.

Niall Cooper, the Director of Church Action on Poverty nationally, introduced the theme of the day ‘Speaking Truth to Power’. He noted that ‘truth’ does not seem to be held in much esteem at the moment. Niall then facilitated a ‘fireside chat’ with three women living and working in disadvantaged communities in Tyneside [including Heather and Cath], who in different ways have attempted to speak truth to power. It was evident that one reason truth needs to speak to power is that many of our law-makers have no idea what it could be like to be living on zero-hours contracts or welfare payments. The word ‘ignorance’ came up a great deal in the discussion.

 

Three workshops then followed. Niall Cooper showed (but with little sound) a short film made with support from Church Action on Poverty called Edgelands. It portrays the life of young people in Lancashire, where there is little adult support as they seek to deal with caring for sick parents, little money, homelessness and drug culture. The film was very much in the style of Ken Loach, revealing the stark reality of so many young people on these ‘edgelands’.

Revd Tracey Hume, a Methodist Deacon from Blaydon, Gateshead, talked about the Gateshead Poverty Truth Commission, which is bringing together those in authority and power with those experiencing poverty, so that it is the experiences and reality of those in poverty which will inform policy.

Rev Chris Howson, the Anglican Chaplain at Sunderland University, led a reflection on Matthew’s Gospel parable of the talents. He gave an ‘alternative reading’ of the parable arguing that the hero of the parable is the man who buries his talent since he is the one speaking truth to power.

The final input of the event was led by Debbie Honeywood, who plays Abbie in the new Ken Loach film Sorry We Missed You. After showing the trailer, Debbie talked about the issues in the film and how she prepared for the role. She worked in a care home for four weeks and discovered what life was like for carers as they sought to balance their holding up of a creaking social care system while still seeking to be mothers to their own children even if it is on a phone. Debbie spoke very powerfully on how people portrayed in the film are in isolated vulnerable situations. Communities of support have disappeared.

 

In the ensuing discussion, Debbie responded to a criticism of many of Loach’s films and especially in I, Daniel Blake, that one is left with no sense of hope. Debbie’s response was to say that it was the family, the one place where people are not isolated, that was the source of hope. This point is made very clear in the film when policeman makes it clear to the son that in having a family that cares he has an advantage that sadly many do not have.

As I left the event, I reflected on the ‘them’ that have power. It is ‘big business’ and ‘big government’. I wondered on how we can build relationship with those in power so that people in run-down communities in Tyneside can speak truth to power. It also struck me that although ‘big business’  is not democratically accountable, ‘big government’ is supposed to be. We are at the start of an election campaign, so I do wonder if in a very limited extent, those who have power is not simply ‘them’ but in a restricted way it is ‘us’. When politicians want our vote, we have more power over them than once they are elected for up to five years. So perhaps at this stage of an election where the next one may not be till autumn 2024, speaking truth to power, could also involve the opportunity, or perhaps an obligation, we have to ask our politicians to make commitments on the issues that matter to us. I appreciate that people may be sceptical on promises made, but at least with promises on particular issues politicians will be accountable to the electorate for the commitments made. It would be regrettable if this opportunity to speak truth to power while those who seek power need our vote is wasted. So I am left wondering what commitments do I want those who want my vote to make. I sense the possibility of speaking truth to power will only increase if we all ask that question.


This article first appeared on the Independent Catholic News website.

There are more gatherings coming up, in Bristol, London and Birmingham – then in Glasgow and Cardiff in the new year. Click here to find out more and book a place!

Scripture from the Margins: Bible bookmark

Scripture from the Margins: Untold Stories

A decade of action on poverty

Reflecting on the first two years of Food Power

Annual review 2018-19

A Good Society? We failed

Speaking Truth to Power: reflections from our North East gathering

What does it mean to be a church on the margins?

Edgelands

Why End UK Hunger?

Communities unite to say: Act now to end UK hunger

Second Class Citizens – powerful new book about disability and austerity

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield’s 11th annual Pilgrimage

A decade of action on poverty

Reflecting on the first two years of Food Power

A Good Society? We failed

We came up with a number of different answers to this question when a group of us gathered together in Sheffield on a sunny and rainy day in May, in a church that’s on a bit of a border itself: it’s on a boundary between two parts of the city that are subtly yet significantly different in terms of the life chances of those who live there.

We were meeting as part of a reflection day for a new ecumenical network of people who are working in churches ‘on the margins’ in South Yorkshire, set up by Church Action on Poverty. We are people who want to challenge injustice, build solidarity between the church and people marginalised by society, and recognise the spirit at work all over our community!

 

So what does it mean to be a church on the margins? Maybe it means pushing back against institutional pressure to shut down buildings that have dwindling populations in poorer areas. Maybe it’s the thin places. Maybe church on the margins is just, well, church? My favourite suggestion was that we stop thinking about the margins and start talking about church on the fringe. Fringe festivals are exciting, edgy; experiments happens, and we take risks on people we don’t know anything about. Shouldn’t church be a bit like that?

Reflecting together

Our day together was a chance to reflect on our own discipleship and explore our vision for our own churches and communities. I’ll tell you what we got up to, in case it’s helpful for your church.

After introducing ourselves – sharing our name and our pronoun and a little about our communities – we kicked off by looking at different images of Jesus, and picking out one that spoke to us. We had loads of them; here are three. What reaction do you have to them?

 

We then did what’s known as a ‘living’ Bible study, looking at the story of Jesus healing a man with leprosy, written about in the Gospel of Mark. We read the story a few times out loud, and then everyone was given a role and had to imagine they were Jesus, the person with leprosy, one of the onlookers, one of Jesus’ disciples, or one of the religious leaders.

In the story, the crowd drew back when they heard the leper’s bell ringing in case they were defiled by coming into contact with him, but Jesus had been sent by God to proclaim good news to the poor and destitute. The disciples and everyone else witness something outrageous, when Jesus transforms both the man’s disease, and his banishment from society. Before that, he’d been seen as unclean physically and religiously, because he is excluded from the worshipping community. 

We started to ask who we exclude from our worshipping communities. Who do we not want to touch? 

Next we shared stories we’d thought about in advance, of where we’ve seen the Spirit at work in what might be called the ‘margins’ of our society. Geoff talked about the man who comes to a group he’s part of and how he says it’s the only place he’s not viewed only as an addict, but something more than that. Alex talked about how they got drawn back to church when they came across one that was campaigning on behalf of a gay person seeking sanctuary. We heard lots of exciting things.
(We are not using people’s real names.)

Over a hearty lunch, Lisa showed us the art project she’d run with a local church, and the beautiful drawings she’d co-created with people in the community that got them interested in church, and coming to the coffee mornings.

In the afternoon, we shared some quiet time. Some people sat and drew, or wrote. Some people went for a walk in the rain. We were thinking about various questions, like:

  • Who likes going to your church? Why do they like it?
  • Who don’t you see in your church usually? How well does your church community reflect the geographical community it’s in?
  • What do you think it would be like if you were to visit your church for the first time: if you were Deaf; if you were a newly-arrived person seeking sanctuary, with English as an additional language; if you used a wheelchair; if you were a trans woman; if you used a food bank run from that church (choosing one that didn’t apply to us).

After sharing our responses, we closed a day of meeting old and new friends with a blessing (thanks to jesuitresource.org):

May the God who created a world of diversity and vibrancy 
Go with us as we embrace life in all its fullness 

May the Son who teaches us to care for strangers and foreigners 
Go with us as we try to be good neighbours in our communities 

May the Spirit who breaks down our barriers and celebrates community 
Go with us as we find the courage to create a place of welcome for all

Resources

We gave people some useful resources to take away and mull over, like…

I hope they’ll be useful to you, too.

I hope we can work together as a group in the future. I think we need time together to fuel up for our work living church in this way. Watch this space.


​Hannah Brock Womack is working to support our ‘community of praxis’ in Sheffield.

Photos: Sarah Purcell

Scripture from the Margins: Bible bookmark

Scripture from the Margins: Untold Stories

A decade of action on poverty

Reflecting on the first two years of Food Power

Annual review 2018-19

A Good Society? We failed

Speaking Truth to Power: reflections from our North East gathering

What does it mean to be a church on the margins?

Edgelands

Why End UK Hunger?

Communities unite to say: Act now to end UK hunger

Second Class Citizens – powerful new book about disability and austerity

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield’s 11th annual Pilgrimage

What will it take to end hunger in the UK?

Father Bill Rooke RIP

Learn how you can use our resources to put faith into action

Transforming unjust structures: how not to become stuck in the mud

SPARK newsletter autumn 2019

Forgotten People, Forgotten Places

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield 11th annual Pilgrimage, 12 October 2019

Vacancy: Programme Manager

Strengthening the local safety net

Transforming structural injustice

Dear Mr Johnson: Here’s how we can end poverty and hunger

Workshop registration open: Transforming injustice in UK austerity & poverty

Press release: Wales gets its first Your Local Pantry, to help tackle food poverty in Cardiff

A decade of action on poverty

Reflecting on the first two years of Food Power

A Good Society? We failed

Watch this powerful short film online.

Creatively amplifying the voices of our young people, telling their truth and stories in their language…

In the Edgelands, a land of forgotten estates, the film demonstrates the grim reality of issues surrounding food poverty, homelessness, and welfare. Edgelands contextualises these topics and uses them as a backdrop to put forward a message of resilience as one of the many creative ways the #DarwengetsHangry campaign is working to loosen the grip of poverty. 

It was made by the young people involved in the ‘Darwen Gets Hangry’ campaign, who have had Church Action on Poverty’s support for a couple of years now.  We were pleased to be able to provide a small grant through our ‘Speaking Truth to Power’ programme, which helped them to work with a young local film-maker and produce this powerful piece.

Please note that the film includes strong language from the start, and addresses issues including drug use and sexual exploitation.

Please share the film online, and help us make sure many people see it.

We are working on supporting materials that will help you use Edgelands to spark debate in schools and churches – sign up for our email updates if you would like to be notified when they are ready.

Scripture from the Margins: Bible bookmark

Scripture from the Margins: Untold Stories

A decade of action on poverty

Reflecting on the first two years of Food Power

Annual review 2018-19

A decade of action on poverty

Reflecting on the first two years of Food Power

A Good Society? We failed

Read our new report, laying out the evidence supporting our call for urgent action to End Hunger in the UK.

In 2018, Church Action on Poverty’s report for End Hunger UK Step Up to the Plate called for comprehensive government thinking on responding to hunger in the UK. Household food insecurity is now being measured in the UK – but comprehensive policy responses are still lacking.

Our new report Why End UK Hunger?, published in November 2019, emphasises again why action is so urgently needed.

 

We worked with the University of Sheffield, King’s College London and ENUF to produce the report. Edited by leading food poverty experts Dr Hannah Lambie-Mumford and Dr Rachel Loopstra, Why End UK Hunger? newly brings together leading thinkers to make renewed arguments for why it is so important to address the root causes of hunger on the basis of seven key ‘cases’:

  • the moral case;
  • the child’s case;
  • the health case;
  • the secure income case;
  • the human rights case;
  • the political case;
  • and the public opinion case.

This report supports End Hunger UK’s new goal: to persuade all UK political parties to develop serious action plans to halve household food insecurity by 2025, and to make good on our existing commitment within the Sustainable Development Goal to end hunger by 2030.

Scripture from the Margins: Bible bookmark

Scripture from the Margins: Untold Stories

A decade of action on poverty

Reflecting on the first two years of Food Power

Annual review 2018-19

A Good Society? We failed

Speaking Truth to Power: reflections from our North East gathering

What does it mean to be a church on the margins?

A decade of action on poverty

Reflecting on the first two years of Food Power

A Good Society? We failed