From ideas to action

The Centre for Theology & Community l

As part of our series of posts from the recent theological consultation with The Children’s Society, here is a reflection by CTC’s Adam Atkinson and Angus Ritchie (both priests at St Peter’s, Bethnal Green)

‘The world as it should be’ preoccupies many of us.  It can be a distraction as well as an inspiration.  Our contexts is Bethnal Green, aka ‘the world as it is’.  If you stand on the steps of our parish strip club on Hackney Road and pointed out a mile radius – the context of that area is not just cultural creatives, Tec city entrepreneurs, boutiques and nightlife.  It is also 40% unemployment and 54% child poverty.

As Anglican priests in Bethnal Green we are living, working and praying for transformation: for the spiritual, social and cultural transformation that the Gospel brings, as the Kingdom of God comes near in the person of Jesus.  We lead an institution that is trying to love God and love neighbour, faithfully and effectively.

Soon after arriving as yet another immigrant to East London (albeit a new-wave middle class one), Adam was introduced to a community organiser.  They spoke about addressing the social need of the city and the organiser asked Adam why he was here.  Adam replied: ‘To be a voice for the voiceless.’  The organiser shot back “Why do they need you to speak for them?  How about helping them to have a voice?’

The voice of the poor has to be at the heart of social transformation.  This Consultation has explored the gap between rhetoric and reality on issues of poverty and inequality.  We hear a great many words – from politicians of all stripes – about the excessive gap between rich and poor.  Indeed, we have an unprecedented political consensus on the urgency of tackling domestic as well as global poverty.  And yet the gap between rich and poor gets wider.  This isn’t a party political point: both the last government and this one fall short of the agreed targets for cutting child poverty.  Lots of edifying words: but few of them becoming flesh in Bethnal Green.

Time and again, we find the redistribution of power is the essential prelude to real change.  ‘Being a voice for the voiceless’ is not enough.  Is the voiceless who feel the urgency of poverty most keenly. It is when they find their voice and build their power that change becomes possible. That’s why The Children’s Society is so committed to including young people in this conversation.  It is also why community organising – the systematic building of power among the poor – has a crucial role to play in closing the gap between rhetoric and reality on the issue of child poverty.

What is power?  The best definition we know is this: ‘the ability to act’.  Power is not good or bad.  That depends on how you use it, and to what ends. We are familiar with different types of power: Positional power – where a leader operates through the mandate given to them by an office of some sort, a Mayor, a Bishop, a boss in an office hierarchy.  Often people with such positions of power confess that they don’t feel that they really do have much power.  Ironically people without positional power often assume that they need to achieve the position before they can really affect change for the better.

There’s financial power – we’d all quite like more of that.  Indeed the ebbing tide of financial power in families as well as in governments is causing much anguish.  A growing – and painful – inability to act.

As Christians, we share a real and dynamic notion of spiritual power.  We pray, things happen.  It is borne out by our experience and by that of the church.
 There is also such a thing as relational power.  Indeed, relational power when combined with any of the above renders them especially potent.  But it is potent on its own.  Relational power is what community organizing works with.  Relational power really is powerful, it is also something we all need but it happens to be freely available.

 At its heart community organising is about the building of these relationships.  Relationships within and between ‘institutions’: organizations of free association, places that have a life of their own where people gather such as churches, schools, mosques, TRAs, community groups.  These institutions then decide to work together for the common good.

Relational power – sometimes referred to as ‘relational capacity’ – is built through one-to-one conversations.  If I want to build relational power I need to create, develop and keep good relationships.  Again, this is an astonishingly simple idea but often more honoured in the breach that in the observance. 
 A simple personal calendar test will suffice to see if this is something we really do prioritise.  Ask how I spent my time in the last week or month and you will get a fairly clear idea of my priorities.  How many times did I meet with people simply to get to know them, to find out what makes them tick, to build a relationship?

A Catholic priest friend of ours has put three one to one conversations in his calendar every week for the last three years.  As a consequence he can say that he has built a relational culture, where people have followed his lead and carried out one-to-ones themselves, where he certainly knows and is known as a person not just as the parish priest, and where people’s gifts and passions are uncovered and therefore stand more of a chance of being fulfilled.

‘Community organising’ sounds like something new.  With the rise of Barack Obama, it has come (no doubt fleetingly) into fashion.  In fact, it calls us back to some traditions the church has forgotten, as it has followed the wider culture in becoming more project-driven and less relational.  The importance of relationships to young people’s wellbeing, and the pressures in modern life which lead less time to be invested in them, is well documented The Children’s Society’s own Good Childhood Inquiry.  As John Milbank has reminded us, the Church is called to embody – as well as to promote – true reciprocity and society.  And as he suggests, practicing what we preach is central to authentic and effective evangelism.

Community organising is not a distraction from the church’s central task.  Rather, it recalls to a more faithful embodiment and proclamation of the Gospel.  In so doing, it builds the power of our poorest neighbourhoods: enabling the vision of society we have shared at this Consultation to move from the ‘world as it should be’ into the ‘world as it is’.

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