Spirituality and Action in Shadwell

Community Organising, Prayer, The Centre for Theology & Community l

Since 2015, CTC has been engaged in a partnership with St George-in-the-East to renew the parish’s life, and to help it renew others, through community organising rooted in prayer and theological reflection. Last week, in a lecture at Ridley Hall in Cambridge, Fr Richard Springer (Rector of St George-in-the-East, and Director of CTC’s Urban Leadership School) and the Revd Alanna Harris (Curate at St George-in-the-East) reflected on the relationship between spirituality and action in the parish’s life.

Our Context

Alanna: We are based at St George in the East, in Shadwell, in Tower Hamlets.   Shadwell is not a well-known place, but we’re right on the edge of the City of London.  Together with Whitechapel, which is just north of here, this area is the historic heart of the old East End, which has spread a long way further East of here now. The West end of our parish boundaries the city – it goes almost up to the Tower of London – and as you move further East through the parish, Shadwell is framed (and slightly cut up) by some major arterial roads which run east/west in and out of the city. In amongst these roads there’s a lot of densely packed housing – a significant proportion of which is social housing.  This area in many ways is shaped by its proximity to other places. It doesn’t have much of a centre itself.  Lots of the people that live around here work in the city, either as professional city workers, or as ‘hidden’ city workers – the cleaners, security guards, shop assistants, delivery drivers we’ve come to recognise as ‘key workers’ in the last few months. 

Tower Hamlets is a borough of contrasts: with some of the highest levels of income inequality in the UK, as well as high levels of both child and pensioner poverty, all just a stone’s throw from the financial district of the city of London, and from the skyscrapers at Canary Wharf.  

Approximately 40% of the population are Muslim, and in Shadwell the Muslim community is primarily of Bangladeshi descent.  Relating well to our neighbours at the local mosques is an important part of engaging in our community.

Our congregation at St Georges is very representative of the local, non-Muslim, neighbourhood.  The majority of our congregation live within one mile of the church, and the growth we’ve seen in recent years has come from people in the neighbourhood. We have all ages attending here, and quite a few families especially many of whom we initially connected with through our Parish School.   

Economically it’s a diverse congregation too.  Some here are quite well off, others working class, some unemployed, or underemployed, some homeless.  It’s quite a mix.  Some people have been part of St Georges for years –  decades even – but many of our congregation are quite new to church. This may be the first church they’ve ever been involved in, or they’ve recently started re-attending after they came to get their children baptised. We’re in a time of growth, we’re very engaged in our local community, and things are evolving here quite rapidly. 

We describe our vision at St George in the East as being to Worship God, Welcome Neighbour, Challenge Injustice.

Spirituality at St George’s

Richard: The question we’ve been asked to speak to today, is this: What kind of spirituality enables us at St George-in-the-East, to worship God, welcome neighbours, challenge injustice?

The first thing I want to say is that spirituality is not a personal activity. How we behave in relation to God is always revealed in how we relate to one another. In other words, what we think of God is found primarily in how we build relationships and treat strangers.

In terms of our spiritual practices as a community, it is not easy to pigeon hole us within any one tradition of the church.  We might use the term ‘modern catholic’, ‘Catholic anglican’ to describe ourselves, but both our congregation and team are diverse in tradition and background. We have clergy, ordinands and lay staff formed in traditions which include black pentecostal, Scottish presbyterian, charismatic evangelical, Roman Catholic, Baptist, and free churches. For many of our team, these are identities they have not left behind when joining St Georges, but they are part of what they bring to their ministry here. 

In this way, there is a deep catholicity of tradition and background held together at St Georges – a complex mosaic reflective of the universal church. 

We are also deeply Anglican, in that we are fundamentally committed to this particular place, and this particular Parish of Shadwell. We have no interest in becoming a gathered congregation, but delight that the growth we’ve experienced in recent years has been among local people.

As we’ve reflected on our spiritual practice at St Georges, there are two key emphases we’ve noticed about our approach. These are not exclusive to us, of course, but they are certainly fundamental to how we do things here, and we think they could be two areas that are fruitful for us to explore together with you all at Ridley Hall:

The first is that we have a strong emphasis on Discernment.  This is key to how we approach everything. All the time we are asking ourselves the question, what is God doing here, in this place, with these people, today?

The second is a deep commitment to the Integration of Prayer & Action.  These two activities should never be separated, but they are all the time woven together, flowing in and out of each other. 


Richard: First, let’s consider the idea of discernment in more detail…..

I want to give you an example of discernment at St George’s. Right now we have a team of people from our church and the neighbourhood working with architects and others to design a row of houses to build on a strip of church-owned land next to our building. These will be permanently affordable homes for local people.

How did we end up doing this? I didn’t train at college to oversee building development and it wasn’t in any mission action plan.

First, we listened to our neighbourhood’s needs. We heard that the provision of sustainably affordable housing in our neighbourhood is an urgent need, including for people in our congregation and we wanted to respond. 

Second, we listened to what our congregation cared about and there are people here passionate about doing something practical – motivated by their faith and direct experiences of being homeless or vulnerably housed – and with the right encouragement and support we knew these people could become leaders on doing something. 

Third, we listened to God reminding us what we already have rather than worrying about what we do not have – a constant temptation in ministry. In our case, God has given us a strip of land we own that could potentially be developed – and some really motivated people.

Fourth, we listened to Scripture. I have been greatly encouraged that people across our church have repeatedly come back to Isaiah 58, which has become a word for this part of our work: 

6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? …

10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

11 The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations, you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

So we connect the needs of our neighbourhood, the passions of our people, the gifts God has given us, and look for signs and words from the Lord including through our reading together of Scripture. It’s not complicated, but it’s hard work.

In this process of discernment, we spend a lot of time having personal, one to one conversations with people in church and in our neighbourhood. This is a practice I’ve learned from community organising, and it’s become central to our discernment because it places people and relationships at the centre, and it gives us a structure for allowing the Spirit to speak through the lives, vocations, interests and insights of all God’s people by making us listen deeply and carefully.

The community organising discipline of having one-to-ones with lots of different people helps ensure I am not just listening to people like me, or the people I like. It rebalances power and influence within our church life, so that the people who get heard are not just the eloquent and the confident. In particular, it helps me ensure that I am listening carefully and deeply to those who often end up on the margins of our communities – the poor, the homeless.

If we want to hear from God, these are people we need to listen to. In the Gospels, it is those who experience poverty and marginalisation – the Syro-Phonecian woman, the woman with the haemorrhage, the blind beggar Bartimaeus, lepers and children – who grasp the true meaning of the Kingdom. Similarly, Paul and James remind their readers that God chooses the poorest and most vulnerable to be at the heart of his work, in ways that are a constant challenge to the world’s values. The New Testament Church does not just have a “heart for the poor.” It has the poorest at its heart. 

As we find in Shadwell, often those who have the least in this world recognise their need of God most clearly. They are not more virtuous nor should we sentimentalise poverty.  But I think they are less liable to fantasies of self-sufficiency than the “wise and intelligent” of this world. Jesus says

I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

When the wider Body listens to its poorest and most marginalised members, it is also taught how to listen more deeply to the Lord.

I’m listening to what people in our neighbourhood are thinking, what the Imam of the mosque or the landlady at the pub care about and what they are giving their time and energy and money to. As I do this, it’s not just about gathering data or working out how to market what we do to them – I am expecting to hear from God through these conversations. At St George’s, we have an instinct which is both charismatic and deeply catholic that we expect the Holy Spirit to be at work already beyond our Church walls and so the point of listening to others is to try and see where he is working already and calling us to join in.

Prayer and Action

Alanna: Following on from our focus on discernment, the second emphasis we have here at St Georges is a commitment to the integration of prayer and action.  

One of our colleagues, Angus, often asks the question: Is our prayer the icing on the bun or the yeast in the dough?  Do we make our plans and bring them to God in prayer only when they’re fully baked and ready, asking for a blessing, or is prayer integral to how we act?

It might be easy to see how prayer leads to action, but one thing that I find quite exciting is when we see that integration working in the other direction too – when we see action leading us more deeply into prayer.

Let me describe one example of this. In my first few months here as curate I saw the conclusion of a local campaign to make the park surrounding our church safer. Particularly in the winter months, people didn’t feel safe walking through the park after dark but they needed to because it’s a main route to the local tube station.  So a team of local residents and church members had come together who all cared about this and their campaign eventually pressured the council to put in some lighting to make the paths safer. It was a small but significant WIN for this local community.  

Now the time came for the lights to be installed, and as a church we planned a special event to celebrate the big ‘switch on’ with the mayor of Tower Hamlets. We all gathered in the park after dark: people from the church, from the community, from the council, all huddled around in our hats and coats on a cold November night. We had sparklers, we gave out hot chocolates – there was a real party atmosphere! And once the mayor had switched on the lights and we’d all stood around to admire them for a few minutes, everybody then filed into the church building for an open time of prayer. Each person was given an advent candle because it was late November, and some of the key campaign leaders led us all through compline by candlelight, weaving in powerful stories and testimonies from the campaign journey as they did so. We prayed for the safety of all those who use the park, and we celebrated and thanked God for this milestone moment.  

It was the first time I’d seen anything like this! It was a beautiful time of prayer that flowed naturally out of the celebrations outside, and somehow brought together all of the different people gathered there. It was inviting, relational, and yet, there would have been no doubt in the minds of the guests attending this event, that for the members of the church involved in this campaign, their motivation for doing so was their faith.  And when they were successful, they weren’t congratulating themselves, they were thanking God. It was a powerful witness.

This approach to integrating prayer and action, leads us at St Georges to foster a spirituality which is both missional, contextual.

First, missional, What do I mean by this? I don’t simply mean the local justice campaigns we find ourselves involved in as a church, it also cuts through to the DNA of how we organise our corporate worship, and spiritual practices.

Missional spirituality is invitational. We can’t expect people outside our church to want to join in our worship, to encounter Jesus for themselves and come to faith in him, if we haven’t thought about inviting them or making our spiritual practices accessible to newcomers and outsiders.  In practice, this means we have a bias towards open, public worship that we can invite people into, for example.

But we don’t want to invite people in without getting to know them, so we also aim to be relational. We try to foster a corporate spirituality which builds relationships, which weaves us together as a people and which encourages us to build relationships with those outside our church in our community. So, for example during lockdown recently, this desire for worship to be relational meant that rather than simply broadcasting our Sunday liturgy, we did everything on Zoom – with all the unscripted, unmuted chaos that sometimes involved – and this really mattered to us as a church, because it meant we could see each other’s faces as we sang together.

Our spiritual practice at St George’s is centred on the Eucharist, and our rhythms of prayer, worship, Bible study, and so on, point to what we believe the Eucharist achieves, which is the formation of a people through sharing together in the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

So, we aim for our spiritual practices to have mission woven through them in ways which are both invitational and relational, trying to view each person we encounter as a potential part of God’s people and God’s plans, everyone with their own particular set of gifts, experiences and needs. 

We are trying to make the boundaries around our worship life porous, because if God is at work both inside and outside of the church, we want people to be able to move freely both ways -both being sent out, and drawn in. 

But we are also clear that mission means action, including action for the common good, and so our spirituality flows from this commitment too.

We find people respond in Shadwell not when the Gospel is proclaimed in abstract, or cloaked with all the cultural baggage that can be par for the course with Anglicanism, but when the Gospel is made concrete and proclaimed among and with people. This means paying attention to the whole of people’s lives: I’m in a neighbourhood where people need safe and affordable housing, some people need food and help keeping warm in their flats over winter. These needs and struggles matter, and no presentation of the Gospel which sees material needs as irrelevant or merely preliminary is going to cut it here. Our action to challenge injustice isn’t just to get a foot in the door to proclaim the Gospel, nor is the good news of eternal salvation reduced to fixing the damp – but rather it is recognising that God saves people in all dimensions of a person’s life, spiritual and material. So our spirituality has to engage with material action.

So our spirituality is missional, and because of that it’s also contextual. I don’t think we could be missional without paying close attention to and responding to our context – and that means going through the processes of listening and discernment Rich talked about earlier, and bringing that together with our priestly role as leaders of prayer and worship to discern what the spiritual life of our church needs here and now in this season.

When we Evangelize it’s easy to inadvertently impose a particular culture on a church or community rather than discern how the message of Jesus is most accessible, most comprehensible, most real, in this particular time and place and among these specific people.

One of the things I’m learning as a Curate here is that our approach in Shadwell is not to rush in with all my great ideas from college days, but to start with listening and then develop a spiritual life with rather than for our people, and this leads to, I think, a much more homegrown spirituality.

To take an example: the monthly worship service which has grown out of our homeless community, the Open Table, is a blend of Pentecostal and Catholic worship in the context of an Anglican Eucharist celebrated on the altar around which a meal has just been shared. That wasn’t dreamed up by a priest, but arose out of the particular people involved in that community and their own experiences and needs.  

As priests, of course we need things in the toolbox ready to offer and adapt and use – and we have to make theological judgements too about what practices we think are helpful, and what kind of discipleship we want to enable. Some of us will be more or less comfortable with praying the rosary, for example, or working through a Tim Keller study guide. So there are decisions to be made! 

But a missionary God calls us to foster the spiritual lives of people in ways which are, missional, accessible, invitational, rooted in relationship – and that means adapting the way we do things to this time and place and these people so that we might better reach, serve, and be among those to whom God has called us.

So our spirituality brings prayer and action together in ways which, we hope, are missional and contextual, and in ways which are deeply integral with each other. We have a lot to learn of course, but to go back to that earlier image we are want prayer and action to be indivisible – like the yeast which has worked it’s way through the whole batch of dough, rather than the icing on the bun!


Richard and Alanna: So let’s finish by coming back to our original question: What sort of ‘spirituality’ enables us to ‘worship God, Welcome Our Neighbour, and Challenge Injustice in Shadwell?

Our answer is that we are aiming here to foster a spirituality that is rooted in careful attentive listening and discernment.  

It is both contemplative and active.  An integration of prayer and action that sometimes on the surface may look very slow and patient, other times agitational and prophetic, as we act together with our neighbours on issues affecting this community.

Our approach to spirituality is missional, and contextual, invitational and relational, always trying to respond to the people and place to which we are sent here in Shadwell.

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