Sitting Between Two Worlds – the Buxton Urban Leadership Programme

The Centre for Theology & Community l

Alec James is on the Buxton Urban Leadership Programme. He spends half his week working as a church based community organiser at St Stephen’s, Manor Park, and spent the first half of the year working for Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP. Here he juxtaposes the worlds of Manor Park and Westminster, sharing from his experience.

12:00, Sunday, Mass ends at St Stephen’s church, Manor Park. Some head off: meals to cook, young mouths to feed. Some people talk with friends. There is a real vibrancy and life to this church, people not just talking about their Sunday plans but about serious matters. There are people in this church who are struggling. I know people in this church who struggle with overcrowding, severe damp, people threatened with homelessness, who have homes that are simply not suitable for their children’s needs, sometimes homes that are even dangerous for their children to live in. People here, where they can, share this with each other and do what they can to help. This, coming from a church, is such a beautiful vision of how faith lived out should work. I constantly learn and am challenged by the people here. When Jesus met someone in need, he did not just attend to their spiritual needs, but so often offered something that impacted the material: a healing, a miracle, a sign of his power, and a reminder that God also cares deeply about us, here and now, on earth.

12:30, Wednesday, Prime Ministers’ Questions, Westminster. Back and forth verbal jousts, where statistics and stories are weapons. MP’s rightly raise the scale of housing crisis, the spiralling number of homeless, occasionally citing the case of a family in dangerously overcrowded accommodation. The numbers quoted feel astronomical, the size of the challenge sometimes seeming, regretfully, to diminish the seriousness of the situation for each individual and family it hits. In fact I know from working in Westminster the challenge of maintaining this perspective, when in any given week you can deal with ten families facing eviction.

I have able to sit between the two worlds of national and local politics. I spent the first six months of my time on the Buxton programme working in the Office of Stephen Timms MP and as a Community Organiser, working alongside politicians and the people who feel the most severe impacts of the decisions they make. Parliament is an amazing place to work, and it works best when it connects to the people it exists to help represent. In Stephen’s office, I weekly was able to meet constituents in surgeries and drop-in clinics. I met families of seven in two-bedroom houses, seriously ill people being declared fit for work and having their benefits cut.

It was encouraging to see Stephen, and indeed many in Westminster, do what they can to help those people, both individually with their cases and structurally with their situations. However, I wasn’t always able to escape the feeling that constituents felt that policies are things that happen to them, rather than made with them in mind. These people often told me that they felt ignored by politicians. Politics must work for those who are on the margins, often through no fault of their own.

This brings me back to St Stephen’s at Manor Park. Here, people – empowered by the Spirit – are not passive recipients of the situations that they find themselves in. It is a place of real honesty, where people support, encourage and challenge one another. They are aware that political decisions matter, and have very real material impacts on their lives, and they stand up and do something about it. I am amazed and encouraged by their refusal to let policies be made for them without having a chance to shape them. Seeing the same faces every week is a vital reminder that the issue of housing is not just one to be raised in Prime Minister’s questions, but often a bleak reality faced by families day by day. To this end, I find just as much hope in working with people here as I do hearing stories of what is happening nationally. I get to sit in meetings where doctors and lawyers share a table with parishioners with undecided immigration cases, retired people and young parents, all of whom bring a meaningful and unique perspective as to how we can improve the situation locally. The people of this church are listening to local needs and using their voice.

In one sense, I have just juxtaposed the worlds of local and national political involvement. However, the church is a body with different parts. I am really left thankful that there are people in both spheres, and indeed sitting between the gaps, that are taking up the call we all share to make our communities better places for those who live there.



Listening, story-telling and Lent

The Centre for Theology & Community l

Fr Simon Cuff is Co-ordinating Fellow of CTC and a Tutor in Theology at St Mellitus College. At Evensong last Sunday he preached at SS Peter and Paul Church, Chingford – one of the churches in our Congregational Development Learning Community. The readings were 2 Kings 2.1-12; Psalm 50.1-6; 2 Corinthians 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9

For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, words from our second reading, the second letter to the Corinthians, the 4th chapter, the 6th verse.

May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 

I know what you did. 

Fr Andy knows what you did.

We all know what you did.

There are few of us, who when accused, don’t have something in the story of our past to make us feel instantly guilty. When we open the letter that reads: ‘I know what you did’, our mind tends not to race to ‘I didn’t do anything’, but to worry ‘how do they know?’ and ‘who is it that knows what I’ve done?’

And if you’re thinking – “Not me! I’m squeaky-clean with nothing to hide”. You might want to think a little harder.

Lent is the time given to us by the Church to confront those parts of our backstory which embarrass us or shame us, those parts of our past which we’ve left unreconciled for months or years or even decades.

Lent is the time to ask what is the story we tell God about ourselves? What is the story of ourselves we tell or show to others? And most importantly of all what is our real story – what is the story God has in mind for us?

Lent is above all the time to be honest. To be radically honest, with ourselves, and with God. To tell him what he already knows; to let the shame of what he already knows about our past lose its power over us, and to embrace the life which he has in mind for us. To live out the story which God has written for us since before we were born.

To let that God transform our lives, that God who our second reading reminds us is the creator of all that is, the God who said ‘let light shine out of darkness’. To allow God to help us to reconcile the mistakes of our past, and to live out that share in his new creation which he intends for us. To play our part in the story he has written for us, to discover what it is he has in store.

Finding out what that is takes discernment. We see that in our first reading. Elisha asks to take the over from Elijah, to inherit a double share of his spirit. Elijah responds: this may or may not be what God has in store for you. ‘If you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.’

Discerning our vocation is not easy, discovering what it is God want us to do, is as much our work as it is the church’s. Listening to those around us, hearing God speak to us through them about what it is he might be calling us to, what place God might have for us in his church, and even what sort of church he is calling us to be.

Chingford Parish Church is a member of Waltham Forest Citizens – a local alliance of those involved in community organising. As Christians, we get involved in community organising, because it helps us do better what we should already being doing in our Christian lives.

Listening and storytelling are at the heart of community organising. And listening and story-telling are at the heart of what it means to live the Christian life.

Listening to God as we confront the real story of our past. 

Listening to those around us as we try to discern the story God has written for us, our vocation and our place in his body – what it is he wants us to do. 

And listening to those outside the walls of our church, to those in our community, through whom God may be speaking to us, and in whom lies a challenge as to how we live as church in every place. 

Community organising helps us to hear the stories of those we might otherwise overlook, those outside our regular contact or beyond our radar. Through 121 conversations and intentionally listening to those who live and work around us, we hear the true of story of what its really like to live on our community.

We hear what God is saying to us through them, and we’re forced to ask – is the life they’re living, the story they’ve shared with us, the life which God intends for them, the story he wants written of what it means to live and work in Chingford. Or are we being called to work with them to write a new story? 

Are we being called to change those parts of our community which fail to live up to the kind of society which God wills, just as we’re called in Lent to change those parts of our lives which fail to live up to the story God has written for us? Are we content with poor-quality housing, homelessness, overcrowding, low pay, the treatment of the vulnerable and refugees and so and so on? Is their story the story God intends? Or is God calling us to do something together? To do bring about the sort of community which we believe God intends?

And what sort of community might that be? 

“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here’.”

What is the story God want us to live? What sort of community does he want us to live in? 

A story which is good, living lives reconciled with our past and living out God’s will in the future.

A community where not a single person is unable to say: ‘it is good for us to live here’.

And a church which is the catalyst for that transformation, in the reconciled lives of individual believers and in the nature of our community, where everyone who lives and works in Chingford can enjoy their share  of share in life in all its fullness. 

A church which transfigures and is transfigured. 

A church which those outside look upon and are dazzled to see a group of people living together in such a way that no earthly author could be the source of their story. 

A church which screams to world: ‘Here is the Son, the beloved. Listen to him’.

A big win on affordable housing in Shadwell

The Centre for Theology & Community l

On Friday, the Mayor of London announced a new programme of small housing developments on ten sites across the capital – all of them owned by Transport for London. 111 houses are to be built, and 76 of them will be affordable.

One of those sites is just two minutes’ walk from St George-in-the-East church. It’s easily the largest and most lucrative site – and yet all of the 42 homes to be built there will be affordable for local people. They won’t just be “affordable” Iin name – and they won’t just be “affordable” until those living in them sell them on at a huge profit. Because the development will be a Community Land Trust (CLT), they will be affordable for ever.

How has this come about?

The answer is one dear to the heart of this Centre: this has come about through community organising rooted in theological reflection and prayer.

Our Centre grew out of the work of east London churches who found that the practices organising helped them to become stronger and more faithful witnesses to Christ – growing in number and depth of discipleship, and acting with their neighbours to transform their communities.

In 2015, the Centre entered into a partnership with the parish of St George-in-the-East, to renew its life and mission through these same practices. The last three years have borne out our “both/and” vision of Christian mission. The Sunday congregation has more than trebled, new midweek congregations have been planted, and relationships with our Muslim neighbours have been deepened, as we have worked together to challenge injustice and help those in need.

Above: Worshippers processed to the CLT site yesterday after the Parish Eucharist, to give thanks for the campaign’s success.

It was in April 2016 that our congregation had its first experience of a community organising assembly – joining 6000 other Londoners to secure commitments from the Mayoral candidates on affordable housing. These included a pledge to deliver 1000 CLT homes by 2020.

As well as being the main issue at the London-wide gathering, housing topped the list of concerns at a community organising assembly which was held in St George’s the following month – with members of local churches, mosques and schools. In June 2016, local people went on a Walk for Affordable Housing – and identified a large, unsightly piece of land just minutes from the church. After some research, it emerges that this land was the “jewel in the crown” of Transport for London’s (TfL) Small Sites Programme, and was likely to be sold off for luxury housing.

Over the next eighteen months, local people worked together to build support for a Community Land Trust on the site. 2017 was a busy year for the campaign – and for Claire Moll and then Miriam Brittenden (members of the Community of St George trained in organising) who built and co-ordinated the action team. In Holy Week, St George’s Palm Sunday procession stopped at the site to pray for the campaign. In June, a packed assembly (chaired by Fr Richard from St George’s and Khoyrul Shaheed from Darul Ummah Mosque) persuaded Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs to back the plan for a CLT. In October, the campaign got into the local press as St George’s congregation processed to the site after the Parish Eucharist. And then, in December, children from the school recorded a Christmas video with testimony explaining why affordable housing mattered to them and their families.

Over the next eighteen month, tenders will be awarded and builders will move onto the site. Over 100 local people will win affordable, good quality housing – and many thousands more will see evidence of the power of community organising when it is rooted in prayer.

Who knows where that will lead?







Like the capillary oozing of water…

The Centre for Theology & Community l

Dunstan Rodrigues co-ordinates CTC’s Buxton Leadership Programme, as well as organising in the Catholic Parish of Manor Park. Here he and this year’s Buxton interns reflect on their experience of the programme…

“I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible, loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of pride”

Heart to heart

The Centre for Theology & Community l

Angus Ritchie (Director of CTC and Priest in Charge at St George-in-the-East) blogs on the role of storytelling in community organising – and the way his church is harnessing it this Advent.

There has been renewed interest over the last month or so in Heart to Heart Caitlin Burbridge’s excellent report for CTC on the way churches can harness the potential of storytelling to build relationships, share faith, and act for justice.

Advent and the Humility of God

The Centre for Theology & Community l

As Advent approaches, our Chaplain Sr Josephine Canny OA offers a reflection on what the season means, and how we can receive it as a gift.

Advent prepares us for the coming of God into our lives and into the heart of the world. The familiar crib at Christmas is a sign, as St. Francis of Assisi initially desired, to remind us of the degree of humility God showed in sharing our humanity.

21st century diakonia: A bigger team for a greater mission

The Centre for Theology & Community l

Tim Thorlby is CTC’s Development Director. He leads our work on missional enterprise and our primary research.  Here he blogs about two new reports being published by CTC – each encouraging the church to recognise, affirm and make more enterprising use of the skills and vocations of the lay people within it.

This week we are publishing two reports:

– 21st Century Stewards (written by Tim Thorlby), and

– Carry Each Other’s Burdens (written by Laura Bagley)


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