The Buxton Leadership Programme is underway with three new leaders – Alec James, Frankie Webster and Miriam Brittenden – joining CTC. They are spending half their week working in Parliament and the other practising community organising in East London. The Co-ordinator of the programme Dunstan Rodrigues introduces them and explores the significance and purpose of their endeavours.
It is a great delight to welcome three committed, energetic and shrewd leaders to CTC, each bringing their gifts and experiences and embedding themselves in the lively worlds of grassroots community organising and Parliamentary politics.Miriam Brittenden (pictured in the centre) arrives from studying History at Durham University, where she was the Local Coordinator of Just Love, volunteered in a foodbank, and was actively involved in journalism. This year, she will work as a Parliamentary Assistant for the Bishop of Durham and organise in Shadwell, based in St George-in-the-East – developing a team of leaders who are, among other things, advocating for a Community Land Trust in the area.
Frankie Webster (centre left) spent the last year working at St George-in-the-East on various initiatives, including an ongoing campaign to improve street lighting in the park. This year, she will be working for the Bishop of Winchester particularly around issues of Higher and Further Education. In addition, she organises English, Prayer, Action in Shadwell, a project which offers English lessons to Latin American cleaners, builds a community who learn together, and organises campaigns relating to their workplace issues.
Alec James (centre right) just finished working at Vice-President of the University of Exeter Students’ Guild where he represented students on key issues such as accommodation and well-being services, before which he studied Geography at Exeter. This year he will work for Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP, gaining much experience of how an office works. His organising placement will be in the Catholic Parish of Manor Park, developing local leaders in the community who will in turn reach out to the marginalised in their midst.
As Alec, Frankie and Miriam have settled into their placements, the first few weeks of the year have been a good time reflect on a fundamental question: What, really, are we trying to do and why?
One set of answers comes from exploring the legacy and life of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, the nineteenth century social refomer and abolitionist from whom the year takes its name. This legacy was insightfully discussed in the first seminar of the year by David Barclay (far right) from the Good Faith Partnership, the person who initiated the programme in 2013. David drew out some key lessons from Buxton’s experience, all of which can provide a sense of purpose for the present.
First, just as the abolition movement demonstrates the effectiveness of politics when it happens simultaneously at ‘high’ and ‘grassroots’ levels, so too the Buxton year enables both to be combined. TF Buxton and William Wilberforce – based in Parliament – worked closely with petitioners, boycott leaders and campaigners such as Thomas Clarkson and potter Josiah Wedgewood throughout the country. Similarly, Alec, Frankie and Miriam have the chance to experience both worlds of Parliament and civil society together, reflecting on they can best interact.
Second, just as Thomas Fowell Buxton and his fellow abolitionists were highly creative and tactical, so Alec, Frankie and Miriam have the space and conditions to practise politics with creativity. The abolitionists were the first people in British history to use petitions, boycotts and campaign icons. Likewise, a great aspect of community organising is that one is encouraged to practise politics creatively.
Third, just as Thomas Fowell Buxton practised the art of negotiation and compromise with power, so too will Alec, Frankie and Miriam. The famous 1833 Slavery Abolition Act came about after a great deal of difficult negotiation in Parliament. Similarly, Alec, Frankie and Miriam will practise the art of negotiation with market and state power, learning the patience and resolve needed to do so.
Fourth, and most strikingly, a feature that stands out was Buxton’s fidelity to Christ. He made a decision to spend his life working as a missionary, but one in politics. This is captured in a wonderful letter that he wrote to his wife in 1817:-
‘My mission is evidently not abroad, but it is no less a mission on that account. I feel that I may journey through life by two very different paths, and that the time is now come for choosing which I will pursue. I may go on, as I have been going on, not absolutely neglectful or futurity, nor absolutely devoted to it…. The other is a path of more labour and less indulgence. I may become a real soldier of Christ; I may feel that I have no business on earth but to do his will and to walk in his ways, and I may direct every energy I have to do the service of others….’
It is important to dwell on what it means to be faithful to Christ in politics today. This is something for each of us to discover, and will be an ongoing question for this year – perhaps the most fundamental question of all. Here are three tentative suggestions.
(1) Embrace penitential discoveries. In the Gospels, Jesus calls his listeners to repent. More than a simple declaration, repentance involves joyful realisations over time. It is about getting things wrong and, after stumbling, meeting the Lord in failure and crisis. During my year on the Buxton programme, this involved a painful realisation that I was not developing and attending to leaders, but anxiously worrying about the success of a campaign, thereby blindly treating vulnerable individuals as a means to an end. When these ideas came crashing down, then I was able to see things with a greater clarity, enabling me to relax. So, rather becoming swept up by and imposing ideas, fidelity to Christ is about discovering new things through failure and repentance.
(2) Befriend the loneliness of the cross. Jesus exhorts the disciples about the necessity of the cross – “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’(Matt 16). What does it mean to ‘take up one’s cross’ in this context? I think it has something to do with living with a certain kind of loneliness. Having two jobs is not easy Moreover, being a church based organiser is an odd, difficult thing. One acts between institutions – chiefly the church and organising alliance – agitating them to work with another. As such it is inevitable to feel pressurised by the interests of both, living in tension between them, and resisting being given one’s identity by one over the other. But in inhabitating this place inbetween – the loneliness of the cross – one can help reweave civil society and enrich both Church and broad based alliance.
(3) Delight with the People of God. After the resurrection, the risen and crucified Christ dwells among the People of God. We can encounter the face of Christ among those who are sick, those abandoned, those who mourn and are unheard. These people of the beautitudes are the people of East London – people who have great faith and a strong sense of solidarity. Surely fidelity to Christ involves delighting and celebrating with such people. A lovely story embodying this was told by Frankie. One of the members of English Prayer Action, a seventy five year old woman, lives with little ability to understand English and low self-esteem. Learning basic English with others in a similar situation has given her joy. She literally danced on a bus with jubilation when she, for the first time, understood what the bus driver said. “I understood”, she exclaimed to the English Prayer Action group, “I was so happy because I understood!!”.
Applications for Buxton 2018-9 open in November. To register your interest, email firstname.lastname@example.org