Here, Alison Milbank sees the potential for a solution to two contemporary crises: housing and church decline. She places holiness, and the agency of local communities, at the centre of her analysis. She describes practical ways forward whereby the vulnerable local church refreshes its sense of purpose through faithfulness, imagination, humility, relationship and reciprocity.
The local church and the housing crisis
During the various lockdowns associated with COVID-19, people began to experience home in new ways. For many office workers and professionals, the domestic space became their workplace and there were many positive features to a life without commuting, when someone could stop work to plant a few tomatoes, bake bread or supervise children’s schoolwork. For the affluent and secure, the words of Micah were a reality: ‘they shall all sit under their own vines and their own fig tree and no one shall make them afraid’ (Micah 4.4 NRSV). Home-schooling while working might be stressful, but the home was a place of safety at a dangerous time and families often grew closer. For those in poor housing, by contrast, with little space to allow children to work and peeling walls, home could become a prison, especially when combined with loss of earnings and difficulty in paying the rent. Inequalities in housing were greatly exacerbated by the pandemic, while the enforced confinement to the home led to more domestic abuse and family breakdown. Paradoxically, house-building was allowed to continue throughout lockdown but most of what was built would be beyond the dreams of the homeless and the poorly housed, for hardly any of it was for rent, or affordable in any real way. For so-called ‘affordable housing’ is fixed according to house prices and 80% of market rents rather than earnings.
Christians began to realise the importance of their church buildings in a new way during the various lockdowns. Not only were they separated from each other but often denied the sacraments and the altars. Catholic bishops protested against church closure. Anglican clergy were traumatised in the first lockdown by being unable to enter their parish church to say their daily office. For a church is also a home to its clergy and congregation. Yet at the same time the local church in many places became even more important than before, as a centre for pastoral care and food distribution and a hospitable resource for the community. One of the most affecting BBC news items about the pandemic showed the work of St Matthew’s Burnley, which was the hub for food distribution, supporting the ecumenical collaboration of Fr Alex Frost and the amazing street pastor, Mick Fleming, in their work among the desperately poor and abandoned. In such circumstances, Micah’s words about the temple were realised: The mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it’ (Micah 4.1-2 NRSV). There is a connection between the Lord’s house and the security of the domestic household in Micah and this was demonstrated in the parish support given in Burnley.
This outreach work of feeding the hungry has gone along with a renewed understanding of the importance of the local, parish level in truly effective work to relieve the effects of the virus. There were some tasks that demanded a central administration, such as Kate Bingham’s connected small group  that commissioned so much vaccine provision, but time and time again, the virus revealed the importance of giving agency to local people. Only local people know which high-street pharmacist, which site for a clinic within a mosque or community centre, will give their neighbours confidence and reach those unsure about vaccination. Local test and trace provision has been far better targeted than its national version and much more effective. The Catholic Social Teaching idea of subsidiarity, that action should always be devolved to the most local level where possible, has been proven over and over again.
Yet while local churches showed themselves key players during the pandemic, at the same time they became ever more vulnerable. Without congregations to fill their pews their income dropped drastically. Even before Covid-19 arrived, long term decline in numbers of worshippers precipitated church closures across the denominations and plans to reduce clergy numbers. Lockdown has accelerated longstanding trends. The Church of England’s claim to be a presence in every community is under intense pressure. In 2020, the diocese of Chelmsford planned a reduction of full-time clergy by sixty over eighteen months, for example. Morale among laity and clergy alike is low across many of the Christian denominations and local congregations sometimes feel that the margin is being neglected in favour of centralised administration and mission strategy. How can the churches be hospitable when their resources are under such strain?
Into this paradoxical situation the Church of England launched a commission into housing in 2019, which published a report in 2021, Coming Home. Noting that by the government’s own figures there are four million households living in ‘non-decent’ conditions, with an estimate of double that number in overcrowded substandard housing, it calls for changes at the national level. As well as recommending reversals to cuts in social security support for housing and better protection for tenants in the private sector, it offers a challenge to churches to engage in housing advocacy and also housing provision. It builds on the groundwork laid by an earlier report on the housing and homelessness crisis, Abide in Me, produced by Caritas Social Action Network drawing on Catholic Social Teaching, in 2018.
One positive suggestion in the report is the creation of a new church measure to allow dioceses and parishes to use church land for social and environmental benefit. No longer will plans carefully made to adapt church land for community use be trumped by the larger monetary offer of a property developer. There is also a challenge made to individual churches to engage in housing initiatives where they can. Some inspiring examples are given in the study guide to accompany the report, including St George’s in the East, Shadwell, which campaigned with London Citizens to develop a strip of scrubland near the church belonging to Transport for London for genuinely affordable housing. They created a community trust which the then rector, Angus Ritchie announced, ‘will guarantee affordable housing for ever’. This was a genuine example of what the authors of The Plague and the Parish believed the parish was capable of being, namely, ‘the elemental theatre of living community’, a site that proclaims that ‘particularity is transcendent’. It took imagination and curiosity as well as embedded local knowledge and attention to particularity to notice the potential of this unregarded strip of land, which occurred when the parish invited other faith groups and local people to walk round the area to identify possible places to build. It also took real persistence to gain such a social benefit in the context of London with some of the highest property prices in the world.
Some of the examples of parishes contributing to local housing in the Church of England report do come from wealthy areas such as Stamford in Lincolnshire, where amid the affluence the church detected a dire social need for housing in a town with soaring rents. Cambridge may be wealthy but contains churches which are small and not necessarily well-resourced. Yet they were able to organise an ecumenical rota by which, as soon as the temperature drops, making sleeping outside difficult, a different church is open to receive rough sleepers each night and offer breakfast. There is also the example of the Roman Catholic parish of St Stephen’s Newham, where six families had to leave the area completely for rehousing as far away as Manchester. Homelessness and bad housing were at the heart of their own life as a church, and they created a housing team to advise their parishioners and others and help them negotiate with council officials and deal with complex bureaucracy. This initiative is particularly important in the context of churches which can no longer see themselves always as the givers, the ones who must perform the various acts of mercy, including providing shelter for the needy. Just as St George’s joined with local mosques and a Jewish housing trust and could not ‘go it alone’, so the people of St Stephen’s were both givers and receivers within the household of faith.
Even a vulnerable congregation can act sacrificially in response to local need. I once attended a mainly African American episcopal church in Charlottesville, Virginia. This not very affluent community lost its home in Vinegar Hill, a black neighbourhood, when it was redeveloped in an act of slum clearance that also removed black businesses and community infrastructure that was not easy to rebuild elsewhere. This was an act of a liberal local administration wishing to benefit the lives of the disadvantaged but not taking the advice and wisdom of the local people affected into consideration. Soon after the Trinity congregation had built a new church on Preston Avenue, which exhausted their resources, in faith they also took out a mortgage on a house next door, not for offices or Sunday school meetings but as a community resource. Their own ‘lord’s house’ of Micah’s prophecy was accompanied by a witness to the need for everyone to have their own vine and fig tree. When I knew it, the two apartments were a first stage for mothers leaving the safety of a women’s shelter for a new life for herself and her family, the fruit of a partnership with the refuge. More recently, the flats have provided accommodation for single young men. The yearly spring clean of the church, which was the labour of everyone from the priest to the children, included refurbishment of this property, Gertrude Mitchell House. I always thought of it as akin to the supposed house of St Peter the guides show pilgrims in Capernaum, in which rooms for married sons and their families were just built on to the original structure. It makes sense of Christ’s words, ‘in my father’s house there are many mansions’ (John 14.2 KJV), for the rooms represent new dwellings, connected to the whole.
I cite this example because it shows how relative weakness and vulnerability do not preclude generosity. Anyone who has ever been welcomed into a poor household in a traditional community knows the truth of this, as the law of hospitality means that the best is offered to the guest, often at sacrificial cost to the hosts. Is there any way in which the action of Trinity Episcopal can be imitated in the British situation? As numbers of worshippers continue to reduce, there will be a great deal of restructuring, as is the management language, and the temptation to make some quick money by selling off parsonages and churches. Sometimes this will be the right thing to do, especially if a shrine, or part of the church building can be reserved as a focus of holiness for local people. Yet what will happen if and when, as we hope in faith, the tide turns and faith returns? We will have sold off the patrimony of those people. This is of particular concern when land or a church has been acquired by the giving of past parishioners. G. K. Chesterton wrote that he believed in ‘the democracy of the dead’, by which he meant that those who have gone before us and those who will come after us all have a stake in our decisions in the present. Is there not a way in which redundant clergy houses or unused pieces of land can be preserved and used for community benefit? Once a building has been sold, you gain a sum of money, but the asset is lost unless the money is invested elsewhere and then it does not benefit the locality. Can the weakness of the church not be the means of serving the common good? How can the Church of England, for example, challenge parishes to engage in housing provision while selling off its own buildings to the highest bidder, as with the Old Deanery in Wells, where, according to the Guardian ‘the carefully worked out initiative by a community group, backed by the council, a local heritage organisation and the Conservative MP offered to buy the building for £1.25m, wanting to create an art gallery or museum, cafe and social hub.’ Their proposals included a profit-sharing partnership with the church but the Church Commissioners sold it to a property speculator for £1.6 million, claiming it could only sell to the highest bidder, even though charity law includes social benefit as an appropriate criterion.
In his insightful account of the present ecclesial situation in the Church of England, The Future Shapes of Anglicanism, Martyn Percy suggests that parish property, which has been taken into central or diocesan hands, be restored to local churches through mortgages or buying outright. He envisages situations in which a congregation might use the vicarage for a priest and other times when they might raise money through renting it out. While in some places this might be yet another burden put on hard-pressed lay leaders or churchwardens, Percy claims that two thirds of parishes in northern dioceses could already afford to ‘buy-back’ their benefice housing. This suggestion is made in order to restore power and agency to the local level, which is too often seen as the first place of retreat or as expendable. Diocesan administration seems to burgeon at the very time that local clerical provision is reduced, with salaries paid to executives at a level of those of secular organizations. Housing for archdeacons is bought and sold at the whim of the new possessor of the role, rather than being set in one place, with great cost implications. This is part of a marketization of the church in which executives or archdeacons need to be wooed to move, with the flexible housing as a perk. Martyn Percy would also like to restore greater differentials among clergy, albeit with parish work offering sometimes more remuneration than more senior positions, which was the case before funding was centralised. I think this a retrograde step, which empowers richer churches against the less affluent. What parishes involved in managing their own housing might engage in, however, are mutual exchanges and acts of reciprocal benefit with their locality.
I would like to suggest that Percy’s proposal be taken further, so that the house of faith, Micah’s Lord’s house, helps itself and helps provide the vine and fig tree in response to local housing need, in partnership with other community groups. Cannot church land be used both for clergy housing and for affordable rented accommodation? Long ago I was myself the beneficiary of a flat in a small block belonging to a church in Lambeth, which housed clergy as well as other people. They have now added accommodation for ex-offenders to the site. Rather than sell off a much-loved church, often a better option can be to adapt part of it for housing, while maintaining the rest for the church. This was a successful initiative for the Victorian St John’s Hafod in Swansea. It preserves the sense of the church as a stable and dependable institution, committed to its locality, first, as God’s house, witnessing to the holiness and particularity of the place in which it ministers and secondly, by its long-term commitment to the well-being of its inhabitants. Pentyrch Street Baptist Church in Cardiff was assisted by the ecumenical charity, Housing Justice, and its Faith in Affordable Homes project to develop land next to the church for six move-on flats. Starting from a base of just eight church members, they developed a ministry of hospitality, The Table, with a café based in the church financing more hospitality-based outreach. The theological vision behind The Table, according to Pastor Rob Morse, is to be a place ‘where everybody has somebody’: it is wholly relational.
These last two examples are from Wales but projects such as these could be found around all parts of the United Kingdom and in all major denominations. They originate in entrepreneurial vision but equally in situations of vulnerability and decline. In a series of meditations on the crucifixion, Sam Wells, vicar of St Martin’s in the Fields in London, argues that ‘the church is, and always has been most truly itself not when soaring in success or when plunged in despair but when success and despair are mingled like water and blood’. Wells imagines the scene at the foot of the cross when the church was born, issuing from the side of Christ with the water of baptism and the blood of the Eucharist. He interprets the water as the new gushing life and the blood as the pain and anguish; both flow out together. And what I have been trying to argue here is that we should hold together the fragility and loss so many of us experience in a humbled church with the opportunity that same vulnerability might present in imagining new ways to knit ourselves ever more strongly into the life of our communities.
In recent years, churches have often been used for social benefit beyond their liturgical role. They have included post offices, cafes, advice centres, badminton courts and vaccine provision within their walls. In some cases, this has been to step up to the loss of other essential local facilities; in others it has been a part of the church’s outreach in a time of falling numbers. There is nothing wrong with this mixture of motives and impetuses to action. As I have already pointed out, for too long the church has sought to be the sole patron, the giver, the one serving and centring community. In our new vulnerability we need to learn the virtue of humility and the gift of receiving from others. The word, ‘altruism’ derives from the secular religion of humanity of Auguste Comte and is not a Christian concept. Rather, we are called to love others as ourselves, in a reciprocal exchange of love that derives its meaning from the mutual self-giving of the Trinity. There is a wonderful drawing by Brueghel the Elder (and later engraved as well as copied by his son in oils, as in the image below). Brueghel the Younger’s version is entitled, The Seven Acts of Charity and portrays the acts of mercy derived mainly from Jesus’s parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.31-46.
What is striking about this presentation is the way there is real reciprocity between those being merciful and the recipients of their charity. The woman on the left in white thrusts her whole self towards the hungry in the act of offering bread, while the man in green to her right seems concerned to ask the pedlar with his basket if he would like the loaf in his hand, giving him dignity and agency. Those doing the clothing do not just provide garments in a distant way but tenderly help the the ragged and naked to put on the shirts they are given. Although housing the homeless is not a specific act, welcoming strangers is included, and a man stands ready at what looks like some kind of hostel to usher in the wayfarers. The charitable are all getting immense pleasure out of giving, while there is an equality in the way those visiting the prisoners shake hands with the disgraced in the stocks. Giving and receiving here have become a virtuous circle of energetic activity in which the distance between the charitable and their beneficiaries is breached. This reciprocity is highlighted by the authors of The Politics of Grace and Place, where this activity is like “a work of love that can form a bond that will be mutually strengthening and resilient enough to withstand events.”
In the village where I served my curacy, hitherto unknown men would emerge each year the day before the July fête to raise the large and complex tent system. They would stay for beer and hymns after the event, dismantle everything and then disappear until the following summer. They preferred, no doubt, a practical task over the weekly business of worship. Yet part of what they liked was offering something to us, rather than being beneficiaries of our giving. Reading Eamon Duffy’s accounts of English parish life just before the Reformation, I am struck by just how much the parish church was adorned with objects given by lay people: cloths, vestments, candles, carpets, images. They made it their own home and it was the heart of guild life, by which they organised charitable action such as that in the Brueghel painting. In such ways they tempered the authority of the priest and made the parish a site of reciprocity and mutual giving.
In the same way, it is possible to build reciprocity and exchange between a parish threatened with the loss of its building and local people in need of housing, so that the vine and fig tree of household stability and the common home of the Lord’s house could be mutually supportive. For the idea of the common good is quite different from a utilitarian concept of the general good, whereby the particular is subsumed to the greatest happiness of the whole. Rather, what is good for you is good for me: ultimately, we are not in competition. The Common Good is not a coercive idea but one which flourishes when people engage freely in work for a common purpose of benefit to them all. There may, indeed, be places where depopulation means the selling-off of a redundant church, but the sense of place made sacred, blessed by God’s stability and the holiness of the local people can still be signalled by a well-tended small shrine or even contemporary versions of the preaching cross of our Celtic and Anglo-Saxon past. (This is one element being considered in some reorganization of parishes upon the Anglo-Saxon Minster pattern.) Yet there may also be parishes where sacrificial giving of resources to aid homeless families brings blessings in its wake and new life, with some reciprocal benefit.
This short paper cannot address the complex practicalities of such engagement and churches should look to bodies with expertise in these areas, such as Faith in Affordable Housing and Housing Associations, as well as diocesan bodies administering glebe land, which funds clergy stipends. What is crucial is that the parochial or local charism be maintained in the many changes afoot across the denominations. Across centuries the local has been valued as holy, with the church building perceived as guarantor of the holiness of the particular. The parish has stood for the inclusive nature of God’s welcome, and for God’s stability over time: he is always with us. ‘The word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ as the words of John’s gospel have it (John 1.14 KJV). God makes his home within us for good and is present in the holiness of the people of God as well as in the holiness of the material stuff of the earth. None of that theological reality must be lost, nor the subsuming of local agency to the centre. Perhaps sheltering the homeless and badly housed can become part of that parochial charism and who knows? Perhaps we shall welcome angels unawares?
© Alison Milbank, March 2021
Alison Milbank is a British Anglican priest and literary scholar specialising in religion and culture. She is Canon Theologian at Southwell Minster and a professor at the University of Nottingham in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies.
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- For an alternative approach based on earnings, see the 2019 report of the Affordable Housing Commission, set up by the Smith Institute, Defining and Measuring Housing Affordability: an Alternative Approach at https://bit.ly/3sMpBOY, accessed on 23/3/21.
- See https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-55273677, which gives the details of Burnley’s desperate need and the background to Pastor Mick, accessed 23/3/21.
- See https://www.businessinsider.com/vaccine-supply-how-kate-bingham-put-uk-front-of-queue-2021-2?r=US&IR=T, accessed 28/3/21.
- See the definition in the 1931 encyclical of Pius XI, Quadragesima Anno, para. 79 at http://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_19310515_quadragesimo-anno.html, accessed 23/3/21.
- The full report, Coming Home: Tacking the Housing Crisis Together, can be found at https://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/priorities/coming-home accessed 23/3/21.
- Abide in Me can be found at https://www.csan.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Abide-in-Me-CSAN.pdf accessed 28/3/21.
- Church Times, 9 March 2018, at https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2018/9-march/news/uk/parishioners-east-london-win-battle-build-social-housing-land-church, accessed 23/3/21.
- The Plague and the Parish: An Invitation to the Churches at https://togetherforthecommongood.co.uk/news/the-plague-and-the-parish-an-invitation-to-the-churches, accessed 26/3/21.
- G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: The Bodley Head, 1957 ), 70.
- The Guardian, 29 November 2020 at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/29/church-plan-to-sell-deanery-puts-profit-before-community, accessed 25/3/21.
- Martyn Percy, The Future Shapes of Anglicanism: Currents, Contours, Charts (London: Routledge, 2017), 84.
- See the article, ‘Faith in Affordable Housing Helps Build Six New Homes in Cardiff’, 7 February 2020 at https://housingjustice.org.uk/news/2020/faith-in-affordable-housing-helps-build-six-new-affordable-homes-in-cardiff, accessed 25/3/21.
- Sam Wells, ‘Pierced’, in A Cross in the Heart of God: Reflections on the Death of Jesus (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2020), 107.
- It is laid out in Auguste Comte, Course of Positive Philosophy, 2 vols, trans. Harriet Martineau (London: John Chapman, 1853).
- The Politics of Grace and Place: a letter to the local church, at https://togetherforthecommongood.co.uk/leading-thinkers/the-politics-of-grace-and-place, accessed 28/3/21
- This is particularly evident in Eamon Duffy, The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), passim and Medieval Clothing and Textiles, Volume 6, edited by Robert Netherton and Gale Owen Crocker (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer, 2010), especially Thomas Izbicki, ‘Care of Altar Linens’, where he points out how in the thirteenth-century Diocese of Salisbury the cost of vestments was divided between priest and people (50).
- The Minster model is still under development. For an example, see Alan Bing, Reimagining Resourcing Churches: A Minster Model MEv 124 (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2018).