BLOGS

Why we need a more authentic populism

The Centre for Theology & Community l

Last night, Centre Director Angus Ritchie preached at St Paul’s Cathedral, at a service for the Lord Mayors and Borough Mayors of London. His sermon explores Jesus’ understanding of servant leadership, and argues for an ‘authentic and inclusive populism’ instead of the ‘false populism’ which is damaging our politics today.

 

We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.

These words, made famous by WH Auden, capture the danger of always wanting to be the one serving – and never the one served. If I am always the one serving, I force those around me to be ever-grateful recipients. It’s a relationship that places me at the centre of the moral universe, every bit as much as simple selfishness.

Jesus sets before us a very different vision of servant leadership – a vision which has mutuality at its heart. Leaders may be called to serve others, but we also need to be open to being served. There is, therefore, a mutual vulnerability, a sharing of control and of responsibility.

Jesus’ humility as a leader is manifest in both his willingness to “be the servant of all” and his willingness to allow others to minister to him – often in situations that cause surprise or even scandal, for example when a woman breaks a bottle of expensive perfume over his feet and washes them with her hair.

In the ministry of Jesus, the most marginalised – lepers, women who would be deemed ritually unclean, the blind beggar Bartimaeus – are not just passive beneficiaries. He recognises them as actors, as tellers of uncomfortable truths, and disruptors of the status quo. Each of them has cried out to him for healing and for justice, with courage and tenacity. It is these qualities – not servility or excessive deference – that Jesus praises as true faith.

As Jesus says, those on the margins often see see the truth most clearly. In Matthew 11, he prays

I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.

In Jesus’ eyes, the poorest and most marginalised are not simply recipients of help. They are bearers of God’s truth to the wider community. Moreover, as Jesus’ observes, they are very often the people who show forth God’s sacrificial generosity. Standing in the Temple, he contrasts the (ostentatious but proportionately tiny) giving of the rich with the offering of the widow whose small coin is all that she has.

That pattern – of a Church which is of and not just with or for the poorest in society – continues in the extraordinarily fruitful ministry of St Paul, planting new congregations across the Roman Empire. As he reminds the Christians in Corinth in our second lesson:

not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

In the eyes of the world, the poorest and most vulnerable may seem to be trapped in dependency – clients of benefactors or of bureaucracies. But in the economy of God, they are the source of transformation; the ones he raises up, again and again, to be the leaders in his Kingdom. What the world considers peripheral turns out to be the centre of his transforming work.

In Biblical terms, this is the pattern of God’s engagement with his people from the very beginning. Israel’s election – as a people enslaved and marginalised, but loved by the Lord of hosts – must shape their interactions with those beyond their community.

Remembering that they were once fragile and vulnerable, God’s people are told in our first lesson that they must “love the stranger”, for they too were “strangers in the land of Egypt.”

We live in an era of deep distrust of institutions both political and religious. Fairly or unfairly, there is a sense that established centres of power are increasingly detached from the lives of ordinary citizens.

This climate creates fertile soil for divisive and extremist populisms – movements that offer simplistic solutions to people’s sense of alienation and discontent, movements that offer an all-too-familiar array of scapegoats (usually religious, ethnic or social “strangers”) to blame for society’s ills

How, I wonder, would it affect our attitude to such populism if we stood where today’s Scriptures invite us to stand – if we thought of the poorest and most marginalised, not as the “hard to reach” or the objects of our charity, but as the very heart of God’s transforming work?

From that perspective, the problem with today’s political climate would not be that it is too populist – but that its populism is dishonest. In reality, those perpetrating a rhetoric of division and scapegoating are not rooted in the lives and communities they seek to inflame.

As Pope Francis has observed, “populism” has very different meanings in different contexts:

In Latin America, it means that the people —for instance, people’s movements — are the protagonists. They are self-organized. When I started to hear about populism in Europe I didn’t know what to make of it, until I realized that it had different meanings.

Francis is contrasting an authentic populism (in which the people are the protagonists) with a false “populism” in which people do not “talk among themselves” but seek refuge from their fears in a “charismatic leader”.

This false populism does not grow out of the experience or agency of ordinary citizens. It divides but it also disempowers. It leaves ordinary citizens as largely passive spectators – at most as cheerleaders behind charismatic leaders who are detached from the realities of their daily lives.

We see an authentic populism in the work of groups like Citizens UK. Their broad-based community organising is based on the institutions local residents are already part of, in which they are already learning to relate and negotiate across difference to build a common life.

Community organising is best known for its campaigns: for a Living Wage, affordable housing, a more welcoming attitude to refugees. The changes that organising has secured – many of them with the active co-operation of public servants in this congregation – are of course hugely significant in building more just and harmonious communities. But the most important feature of organising is its focus on the action of the very people whom policy-makers often call “hard to reach.” From their perspective the world looks very different: they experience power as something that is “hard to reach,” but when they find a way of organising together that can make a difference, they are willing to give sacrificially of their time and energy.

That is why so many of London’s churches have become involved in community organising. They are not just a voice for the voiceless. They are becoming places where the voiceless get to speak – and act – for themselves.

I think of Lucy, whose church helped her and her family fight eviction from their flat. At a prayer meeting soon after, she meditated with others on the words in the Gospel – ‘Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful’ and St. Peter’s exhortation to: ‘Be hospitable’.  Lucy gave thanks for what she had experienced, and she and her family felt moved to give a home to another woman who faced homelessness in her small flat.

I think of Colleen, who had been trapped in spiralling debt because of the exploitative practices of Wonga – and who, despite the shame associated with indebtedness and poverty – was willing to stand up and tell her story, as part of the Citizens UK campaign to put a cap on payday lending. The ripples of her courageous witness, and that of so many other citizens, continue to be felt today.

I also think of Abdul, who through the Living Wage campaign, was brought face to face with the head of HSBC, whose office he cleaned on a poverty wage. “Sir John,” Abdul said, “we work in the same office and yet live in different worlds.” A year later, the bank began to pay Abdul a genuinely Living Wage – beginning a movement which continues to grow and flourish.

As civic leaders, you will be confronted every day with demands for new policies, new initiatives – to meet people’s needs and solve people’s problems. Weighing up the merits of such proposals is an important part of your work. But what is most significant about the stories of Lucy, Colleen and Abdul is the fact that (in Pope Francis’ words) they have been the protagonists – as have thousands of people like them, often in London’s most deprived and diverse neighbourhoods, people who are now organising together to tend and transform their common life. Their action embodies a truly authentic and inclusive populism

No new policy or new initiative will, on its own, address the malaise in our democratic order. The rise of false populisms, which divide and scapegoat, is a symptom of the alienation of an increasing number of citizens, from the democratic process – from the building and tending of a common life.

In our day, as in the times of Moses and of Jesus, God speaks and acts most powerfully and truthfully through the lives of the poorest. Far from being problems which need policy solutions, or clients who need help, they are the agents God chooses to place at the heart of his work of transformation. If we are to be servant leaders, we must begin by being open to the truths which they tell and the gifts which they bring – and helping to build a politics in which they too are protagonists.

Discerning God’s plan for our lives

The Centre for Theology & Community l

After a year on the Stepney Internship Programme, Laura Macfarlane has recently started work at CTC – co-ordinating our Vocations Project. Below, she introduces her work, including plans for an Emerging Leaders’ Weekend …

How can we discern God’s plan for our lives in the context of today’s society?

This is a question that many of us find ourselves asking at every stage of our lives. Education encourages us to make as much money and have as much career success as possible. Society often forces us to take whatever job we can find in order to thrive, or just to survive. Even churches can too often focus on the importance of full-time ministry or, at the very least, paid work which is traditionally considered to be a way to serve God and others. While these ministry roles are important, we believe that each of us best serves God by discerning the vocation that God has for us, whatever that many be!

At the Vocations Project, we believe that vocation is about so much more than the paid work that we do or the ministry that we take part in. Rather, vocation is what connects our deepest selves, who God has created us to be, to what we do in all areas of our lives. Vocation inspires us to explore who God has created us to be and, through that, to discover how we can live and work in a way that is most in accordance with our created selves, be that in our church, our career, our home or our private lives. Understanding our vocation may mean a change of career but, most importantly, it means living out our God-given gifts and desires in the situations in which we find ourselves. It means becoming connected to the lives that we live as deeply as we can in order to find fulfilment, and to realise God’s Kingdom, in every part of what we do.

This definition of vocation took a long time to discover and develop. In Summer 2016, I took part in the Summer Internship with the Centre for Theology and Community, the theme of which was vocation. Myself and other participants on the internship found that we were being encouraged to think about vocation in a way that we never had before; a way that put being before doing and individuals before career. From that time of learning, the vocation project was born.

The Project has now been established as a part of the life of CTC. Our mission is to work with Christian institutions in East London and beyond to help create space for everyone to discern their vocation with the help of a community of individuals and with God. We are committed to prayer and reflection, to conversations and to action to support individuals in their personal vocational journey. Over the past two years we have led sessions and events in institutions, put together resources and written a detailed report on vocation in our society, which will be available soon through CTC.

There are many ways to get involved in the project, as an institution or an individual. Whether its an event in your institution, providing resources or organising 121s with individuals looking to discern, we would love to get to know and to serve you. We also have a residential “Emerging Leaders” weekend approaching for 18-30 year olds looking to explore their God-given vocation, whatever that may be!

If you are interested in finding out more about any part of the Project, or if you or members of your institution may be interested in attending the Emerging Leaders weekend, please Email me at vocations@theology-centre.org to request information or to arrange a 121 chat about what the project can do for you. We can’t wait to see how the project will grow!

Towards a transformational politics

The Centre for Theology & Community l

Miriam Brittenden was one of last year’s participants in the Buxton Leadership Programme. Here she reflects on what she has learned – and what these experiences might have to say to our wider polity…

Three months ago, I was sat around a table in my church, sharing a meal with neighbours. It was not just any meal, but a celebration. Somehow (with much prayer and exhaustive campaigning) between us, and many who were not present, we had managed to win 40 affordable homes for our community and a patch of scrubland opposite the church.

As I looked around the room, I was struck by the diversity around me – individuals of all ages (from babies to the elderly), ethnicities, Muslims, Christians, rich, middle class, poor. As different members of the group shared their highlights of their involvement in the campaign, I realised the joy many of us were feeling, was not simply because of the (astonishing) feat we had accomplished in the lands and homes themselves which were to be built, but the community of people that had been nurtured along the way.

As one woman put it ‘I’d never met most of the people in this room if it wasn’t for this campaign’.

My biggest “take home” from the Buxton Leadership programme this year is that we are spiritual beings as much as we are physical, striving for identity, belonging and community. This is something which I think both the left and right are equally guilty of forgetting. Through both placements that I completed this year as party of the programme, I have witnessed first-hand just what a shame this is, since the nurturing of social bonds amongst politically empowered, engaged and authentically diverse but fundamentally united local communities, is just as valuable as the issue they are attempting to challenge, whether that issue be housing or knife crime.

Too often our political debate forgets this and it opts for a transactional approach over a transformative one, preferring to see people as passive recipients to be done for or market consumers, to be done too. Community organising, through the lens of Christianity however says people are inherently precious, made in the image of God, and agents who can act for their own collective good and fulfilment.

Bobby Kennedy said in a speech in 1968 that ‘Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another great task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction, purpose and dignity, that afflicts us all’. Those words couldn’t be truer fifty years later – you only have to look at the raw political divisions which criss-cross the not just the UK, but much of western democracy (both sides of the Atlantic) to see a mass of people crying out for some kind of shared vision which offers more.

Policy makers in Government could learn a great deal from this too. In my role as parliamentary assistant to the Bishop of Durham, I’ve had the privilege of supporting a campaign led by the Bishop to reverse the Government’s decision to limit child tax credits to only two children per family, under Universal Credit. This is a policy with only a transactional, economic vision, whose aim is to reduce costs and move as many people into work as possible. It is a policy which sees the decision to have a child as a purely economic and rational one, a view which undermines the cultural role of motherhood and the family, making the choice to stay at home with children one only reserved for those parents who can afford too, and pushing many more children, who are surely an invaluable good in and of themselves, into poverty.

The second lesson that this year has taught me is that change won’t happen without working with those with whom you disagree. As Adrian Pabst has put it ‘equality is not about making everyone the same, but rather creating equal access to the good life in common’, and in order to create that equal access to that good life, we need to try and understand those who think differently to us.[1] Whilst campaigning to tackle London’s housing crisis, it would be all very well maligning greedy developers or an ineffective, bureaucratic Government and local council that is failing to meet housing demand, but if we weren’t willing to work with these parties, our CLT campaign would ultimately have failed.

Likewise, in the two-child limit campaign, I soon learned that in order to win an argument, and to win a campaign, you need to build relationships with decision makers of all different stripes. The reality is, that with a Conservative government in power, policies won’t shift without conversation with Tories AND Labour, and the other parties (including the DUP!). For each meeting with the Bishop and an MP, it was important to understand where that individual was likely to be coming from, to remember that they are a fellow human, with reasons for living out the politics they live out, to put ourselves in their shoes and perspective, to frame the arguments accordingly and find our common interest.  Though there is still a very long way to go with that campaign, we now have already a significant cross-party coalition of MPs who want to work with us on that issue.

Above all, we desperately need a warmer politics, a politics of the common good in which the goal is not flourishing for the minority, or even the majority, but flourishing for all. Shouting or putting up walls, from either side of the fence, gets you nowhere, building relationships across those divides does.

This is not tantamount to ‘selling out’, it is accepting that we live in a world in which we are not all on the same page, where we often fight and disagree, soften with harmful consequences. But the reality is, we are all humans, children of the living God, with hopes, fears, aspirations and stories to tell. When we stop, listen, and work with ‘the other’ whether that be a conservative MP or a mother living in overcrowded social housing, and we trust God, not only do we escape our echo chambers, we begin to discover that maybe another world is possible.

[1] Adrian Pabst, (2015) ‘Preface’ in Ian Geary & Adrian Pabst (eds.) Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics, London, Tauris & Co. p.xxx

‘Come into the land I will show you’… A new course for lay leaders

The Centre for Theology & Community l

A new, year-long evening course – coordinated by Ana Ferreira – for lay leaders has begun as part of the Urban Leadership School. The first term had thirteen participants from St George-in-the-East, Shadwell, St Mary’s, Walthamstow and St Stephen’s, Manor Park. Dunstan Rodrigues describes and reflects on what happened.

‘Leave your country, your family and your father’s house, and come into the land I will show you…” (Genesis 12:1)

With intrigued, nervous and curious expressions, thirteen lay leaders from Shadwell, Walthamstow and Manor Park listened to these words uttered by the Chaplain of CTC, Sr. Josephine Canny OA, at the beginning of the first session of the new ULS evening course. A teacher, accountant, journalist, security guard, shop assistant – the people assembled were from all walks in life yet had in common a love of their respective communities and a zeal to serve them in new ways.

‘…Come into the land I will show you…’

Resounding throughout history, these words first spoken to Abraham perhaps produced similar uneasy questions in him as they did in that group on the first sunny Monday evening:

“Where, Lord, are you leading me!?’

‘Am I prepared for the journey?’

‘Are you really calling me!?’

After powerfully telling the story of Abraham, Sr. Josephine then proclaimed that God calls us similarly: in ways more suprising, daring and wonderful than we can imagine, into a land that the Lord will show us…

This opening reflection set the tone for what the new evening course is about: that is, providing a space for these lay leaders to reflect on how God is calling them. Each evening opened with reflections on the call of different figures from scripture – Abraham, Mary, Job and the first disciples – alongside the stories of people in East London currently working for peace and human flourishing. We dwelled on what we can learn from our ancestors: like Moses, it was suggested that we are called to be attentive to the cries of our community; like Mary, to act from a place of peace, trust and contemplation; and, like the first disciples, to become ‘fishers of people’ and use the gifts we have been given for the kingdom of God.

In addition, the course is an opportunity to learn, practise and reflect on the craft of community organising. Organising – it was suggested – is a great means to help us hear the ‘cries of our people’ and to act. While many of the lay leaders have completed and benefitted from training run by Citizens UK, the evening course builds on this and examines the craft of organising with the eyes of faith. For instance, in the last two sessions, the group learnt and practised the art of having one-to-one conversations. As well as a means of strengthening relationships, identifying leaders and developing capacity, we reflected on how one-to-ones are like sacramental encounters: we ‘walk on holy ground’ in approaching the other and can become aware of the presence of the risen Jesus with us in our encounters.

Finally, the course is itself a reflective, prayerful sanctuary – where Christians from different denominations share a meal, pray together, and learn from one another and their stories. In one powerful sharing experience, the group shared stories of people in their community whose struggles touch their hearts. We heard amazing and moving stories involving homelessness, gang violence, asylum, youth unemployment, and the group grew in trust and a resolve to act. Hosted by Rev. Richard Springer, the evening meals – after long, hot working days – were always most welcome and were full of lively conversation. At the end of the term, the group remarked about how wonderful it had been to learn from, walk alongside and become friends with one another.

In summary, then, this year long evening course combines contemplative practice, instruction in community organising with faith sharing, prayer and food.  At a time of scary and often bewildering political and social uncertainty, our hope is that the course will bear fruit in the lives of the group and – through them – the communities of Manor Park, Shadwell and Walthamstow.

London, the Living Wage and the end of Poverty

The Centre for Theology & Community l

This is a summary of a talk given by Tim Thorlby, Managing Director of Clean for Good (and also Development Director of the Centre for Theology & Community) at an event on 10th July 2018 organised by Capital Mass, The St Paul’s Institute and Theos to mark ‘The War on Wonga: Five Years on’ A video of this, and other, talks given on the evening is available at www.capitalmass.org.uk 

We start by listening

Clean for Good is a professional contract cleaning company. We clean offices, cafes, community centres and churches across London.

But we’re an unusual cleaning company.  We’re unusual because Clean for Good was founded in a church – a Parish in the City of London.

This church noticed that as tens of thousands of well-paid City workers came to work every morning, thousands of badly paid workers were going home. Two different worlds passed each other on the pavement each morning.

The church listened to the stories from these workers; stories of low pay, unpredictable income and, often, poor working conditions.  And they asked the question – what does Good News look like for low paid workers?

Their answer was to set up an ethical cleaning company which would provide the jobs, the living wage and the respect that the cleaners wanted.

So Clean for Good was set up to be Good News for cleaners in London.

Why does it matter?

It matters because 700,000 people in London, today, work for a living and yet still live in poverty – because they earn less than the Living Wage. (Figures from the Trust for London)

An Independent Foundation has worked out how much you need to earn to be able to live in London – and its £10.20 per hour, the current London Living Wage.  It’s called a Living Wage, because it’s a wage you can live on. And it is 30% higher than the Government’s Min Wage.

These 700,000 people and their families are trying to live on the Minimum Wage and it isn’t working, because you can’t live on the Minimum Wage in London – it’s just not high enough. Our cleaners already know that.  An increasing body of research is confirming it too – most recently, a report from the JRF.

The London Living Wage

The London Living Wage is an important part of why Clean for Good is different.

Every day we make two promises:

  • We promise our customers that we will deliver a good professional cleaning service to them
  • And we also promise our cleaners that we will treat them fairly and with respect

Our promise to cleaners means 3 things:

  • It means that we’re a fully accredited Living Wage Employer – paying the London Living Wage to all of our staff, all of the time. Very few cleaning companies in London have made this commitment.
  • Secondly, our promise to cleaners means that we also directly employ them – no zero hours contracts, no self-employment – our cleaners get a stable income and decent employment benefits – paid leave, paid sick leave and a pension
  • And thirdly, we train and manage our cleaners and invest in them

This makes us pretty unusual.

There are good business reasons to pay a living wage to your employees and the Living Wage Foundation has published evidence on this. But the most compelling reason is a moral one; if we believe that every human being is made in the image of God – that people have more than just an ‘economic value’ – then we cannot accept wage levels that leave people living in poverty.

And we are all involved in this whether we like it or not. Every day, every week, someone empties our bins. They serve us. If it’s my bin, its my responsibility.

Who empties your bins at your workplace? What is their name? What do they get paid? 

The London Living Wage is Good News for all low pay workers and the wonderful thing about it is that we don’t need to wait for any new legislation or regulation – any employer can simply decide to pay it today.

The widespread adoption of the Living Wage across London would be the biggest attack on poverty since the foundation of the Welfare State. It would lift 700,000 people, and their families, out of poverty.

I would encourage every employer to pay it – whether business, charity or public sector. No amount of philanthropy makes up for the lack of it.  It’s not a question of charity, it’s a matter of justice; a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

As someone who runs a business in one of the most competitive and lowest paid sectors in London, I feel qualified to make this call. Our commitment to the Living Wage makes us one of the most expensive cleaning companies in London, but over the last year or so we have secured customers across London and now have a turnover of £1/3 million.  If we can do it, so can you.

And if you need an ethical cleaning company – you’ll find us at www.cleanforgood.co.uk

 

Thy Kingdom Come!

The Centre for Theology & Community l

Centre Director Angus Ritchie was one of the speakers  at last night’s “Thy Kingdom Come” celebration in St Paul’s Cathedral. Here is his sermon on “Seeking Justice”.

Words from Revelation Chapter 21: “Jesus said to me, ‘It is done!’”

The Book of Revelation is written to a community facing persecution – persecution by an Empire whose power seems overwhelming. The message of Revelation is that, despite all external appearances, despite all the logic of the world, the victory is already being won – in fact has already been won, decisively, at Calvary, and on Easter Day.

From anger to action

The Centre for Theology & Community l

CTC’s Co-ordinating Fellow, the Revd Dr Simon Cuff, gave a talk to clergy in south London on the anger – and action – of Jesus. The full talk is online here, and a condensed form is given in this blog.

Whatever God’s anger is, it is identical with his love. God’s anger is God’s love.

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.

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