Making the invisible visible, valuing the devalued, consecrating the desecrated, creating mutual space for common good, forging relationships with the vulnerable, building constructive alternatives – each of these are vital aspects of Christian mission. +Adrian Newman, the Church Urban Fund Bishop in Residence, sets out four theological principles for how a vulnerable church can contribute to the emergence of a better post-pandemic world. This was originally published on CUF’s Living Theology Forum to animate the emerging purpose and institutional identity of CUF as it undergoes a period of change. Shared here with kind permission.
1. The Kingdom of God is the animating vision of the Gospel
It was 1997. I had been the Rector of St Martin in the Bull Ring for about a year, and had led a 6-month process of listening, reflecting, learning and praying to try and discern what the church should be doing as the Bullring was about to be demolished and a new, shiny shopping centre built all around us.
I had been away for a few weeks, distilling all that we had reflected on together, and I’d written up a proposal for the church, which I’d called ‘Fully Human, Fully Alive’; I was in the process of meeting up with different groups in the life of St Martin’s to get their feedback. And so it was that I found myself sitting in my front room with the social responsibility committee, and after some fairly polite opening exchanges one of the group nailed me with this killer question: this plan, this strategy, is it about saving the church or saving the world?
That question needs to haunt every church, every Vicar, every congregation, every Diocese and ecclesiastical council, dare I say every Christian charity. Is this about saving the church or saving the world? It’s one of the best and most important questions that anyone can ask of what we are trying to do within the life of our churches. It is so easy to be motivated by a desire to build a bigger, better church, when as followers of Jesus Christ we should be motivated by a desire to save the world. Our vision is the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God could be described as the central teaching of Jesus Christ, the newly-reordered society that he came to announce and inaugurate. It is a vision based on the nature and character of God, for the character of God is perfectly reflected in the Kingdom that bears his name.
This Kingdom is not a place or a system, it is a state of affairs that pertains when the very nature of God breathes life in to all that can be experienced or known.
So when the Bible ascribes to God qualities of justice, love, mercy, and peace (for example), it reads these across to describe the world in which the reign of God is known – a world of justice, love, mercy and peace. And this in turn forms the basis for human behaviour, the actions God requires of us, and for how we should behave towards one another.
Examples of this in Scripture are almost too numerous to mention, but the following provide a sample:
- Micah 6:8 (‘What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love and mercy, and walk humbly with your God?’)
- Psalm 82:3-4 (‘Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy’)
- Amos 5:24 (‘Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’)
- Matthew 25:35 and 40 (‘I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Truly I tell you just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’)
- 1 John 3:16-17 (‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?’)
And of course it is implicit in Jesus’ reference to the ‘greatest commandment’ in Matthew 22:37-39: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
As Pope Francis put it: Reading the Scriptures makes it clear that the Gospel is not merely about our personal relationship with God…..The Gospel is about the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 4:43); it is about loving God who reigns in our world. To the extent that he reigns within us, the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity. Both Christian preaching and life, then, are meant to have an impact on society. We are seeking God’s kingdom: “Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt 6:33). Jesus’ mission is to inaugurate the kingdom of his Father; he commands his disciples to proclaim the good news that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 10:7). (Evangelii Gaudium 180)
There’s a phrase about the Kingdom of God which is drawn from a book by Michael Taylor, who when he was Director of Christian Aid some years ago said this: The evidence of lasting progress in overcoming poverty and injustice is slight. The teachings of the Christian faith insist that the Kingdom, though present and growing within our history, will be fully realised only beyond it. Like love, it is an impossible possibility.
I like that: an impossible possibility. That’s what drives and motivates us if we are working for a better, fairer world.
It is this quality, of somehow being both ‘at hand’ and ‘only fully realised beyond history’, which makes the Kingdom of God such a powerful idea and a potent vision. It occupies the liminal space between Now and Not Yet, taking its vision from Heaven but applying it to Earth.
It is this theological vision of a new world order that motivates and inspires us: it is this we are working towards; it is this we see in Christ and which we believe will be fulfilled when Christ returns: the vision that God is going to bring all things together and all things to a good end in Christ.
And this is where the Church comes in.
After 9/11, the argument raged about how we could defeat terror, and a simple Christian, listening to the litany of military experts talking about bombing this and destroying that and hitting at the heart of the other, said: the only way to defeat terror is to out-imagine it.
To participate in the church is to live inside God’s imagination.
The role of the church is to out-imagine the conventional frameworks within which people imagine the world and its possibilities.
The church is called to live in the light of God’s emerging future, God’s Now and Not Yet, and to transform our communities by out-imagining evil, holding before people an impossible possibility. The Kingdom of God.
And so, as Jesus taught us, our daily prayer remains ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. The pattern of God’s coming Kingdom is to be our guide and inspiration for redeeming the life of our world now.
This is a high calling. It will involve a continuing commitment to engage with the real issues of human existence – employment, justice, education, health care, law and order, equality, environment, and the rest – from a Christian perspective; it will involve speaking up for – and giving voice to – those who have no voice in the political process; it will involve frontier care for the casualties of the system; it will involve challenging decisions which flout core Christian values; it will involve a humble willingness to listen and learn from others, an ability to absorb the complexities of the problems facing a 21st century global society.
One of the key disciplines for the church will be that of ‘contemplation’, that ability to see the things that others miss. Indeed ‘contemplation’ is at the heart of what the church might be able to contribute to social justice, and why.
The ancient world believed that the word ‘temple’, long before it referred to an earthly building, designated a place in the sky, a divine arrangement of the stars, a dwelling place for the gods. In its youngest and purest form, ‘con-temple-ation’ was about building on earth a sort of temple – which could be a building, but also your personality, a moral structure, or indeed some form of mutual society – which corresponded with the temple in the sky. Contemplation meant – literally – bringing together the two temples, the one in the sky with the one on earth. That is to say, all of human life is to be brought into conformity with the harmony of heaven.
Once you understand this, you begin to see that ‘contemplation’ is a very practical, almost a political, discipline. It sounds very spiritual, but it connects fundamentally with the practical, physical and political realities of life.
The writer to the Hebrews put it like this: ‘Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come’ (Heb 13:14).
The essence of our spirituality is to be a ‘contemplation’ of the Kingdom of God, a growing conformity between the realities of Earth and Heaven.
And this of course links prayer and worship with all of our political activity. Our activism emerges from contemplation, from prayer, from worship, from drawing together God’s vision for the world as it might be, with our experience of the world as it is. Rowan Williams puts it like this: “While we speak of the sacramental acts of the church gathered for worship, I think that the Bible encourages us to believe that every action in which God’s justice becomes manifest is also sacramental in the sense that it shows God’s future. For us to be aware of that, to work and pray with it, is where the sacraments in the narrowest since become important. The community gathered around the Lord’s table is a sign of God’s future” [Rowan Williams: No-one Can Be Forgotten In God’s Kingdom, Anvil Vol 25, no2, 2008, p124]
In other words, the Church does not simply have a social ethic, it is one. In eternity, the distinction between world and Church collapses, as Christ gathers all things into himself.
And this is why social justice isn’t just a bolt-on, a last-ditch attempt to make the Church seem relevant to a world intent on looking in the opposite direction. It’s at the heart of what makes us distinctive, which is to be a community of prayer and worship, and a sign of the Kingdom, a foretaste of God’s future.
This indeed adds urgency to the prayers of the Church, not as an arm-twisting of the Almighty to bless our actions done in his name, but as a place of creative contemplation where we recognise that all social action is God’s before it is ours.
Prayer has this subversive nature – we become still, motionless, as we trust ourselves to God’s activity; we become silent, as we trust ourselves to God’s voice; we become vulnerable, as we trust ourselves to God’s saving power. We come to God in the foolishness of prayer, to release his wisdom into our needy world. There is no antithesis between prayer and action – prayer is an act of cooperation with the Holy Spirit to incarnate God’s future in the here and now.
And lest we forget, ‘Liturgy’ (leitourgia) is a Greek composite word meaning originally a public duty, an act of service undertaken by a citizen. ‘The work of the people’ reminds us – if we ever needed it – that what we do in church is intimately connected to what we do as a church.
So the Kingdom of God is the animating vision of the Gospel, reminding us that the world we long for, and the world we are called to work towards, is simply a reflection of the character and nature of God. And as those made in the image of God, our calling is to conform our actions with the pattern of this Kingdom, this impossible possibility, this Now and Not Yet. The church is to be an agent of transformation by living inside God’s imagination and finding ways to express this in the complexities of existence. This is a work of action and contemplation, praxis and prayer.
But there is another dimension to the Kingdom of God, which I might best express by saying that it is ‘ec-centric’. That is to say, it’s a state of affairs that takes its energy from the edge and not the centre. The world as we know and experience it Now invariably centralises all forms of power; the world of Not Yet, as we glimpse it in the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, is different. It focuses on the marginalised and the excluded, places them at the centre, and asks us to imagine what life would be like if we could begin to do the same Now.
And this leads us naturally into an exploration of a second theological principle, the place the Gospel affords the poor.
2. The poor have a special place at the heart of the Gospel
The Exodus of slaves from Egypt was a pivotal event in the creation of God’s chosen people. God acted to save a group of people from enslavement and poverty.
So foundational was this experience that Old Testament Law developed on the basis that no-one was to be forgotten and no-one was to be invisible. Fair treatment of the poor became a centrepiece of the Law, with justice inextricably linked to caring for the least favoured in society.
The Torah established economic laws to ensure that everyone capable of working had access to work that was paid well enough that their families could flourish. Those without land and the means to provide for themselves (such as the poor, foreigners, orphans, widows and the disabled) received special treatment (Leviticus 25:35-37).
Every seven years, debts were to be cancelled and Israelite slaves freed (Deuteronomy 15). And the same would happen every fifty years (the Year of Jubilee, more of which later), when land would be returned to the family group to which it had originally been entrusted (Leviticus 25). This was an important mechanism for controlling long-term economic inequality between the rich and the poor.
The power of this extraordinary vision for a new society cannot be overstated. By taking a community’s story – their history – and fashioning an enlightened system of Law around it, in which everybody was responsible to God and to (and for) each other, the people used their direct experience of poverty, enslavement and oppression to inform the very type of society they planned to create, free from such evils.
But as the story of the Israelites progresses, the inevitable is constantly waiting to happen. The slaves become the masters, the oppressed become the oppressors, the poor become the rich, the powerless become the powerful. Despite their history and their best intentions, the human tendency to self-interest and spiritual amnesia kicks in, and the Israelites become the very thing they have been freed from.
Enter Jesus of Nazareth.
Christianity came to birth in a social setting where poverty and personal debt was a distinctive and pervasive feature of life, and the early faith took its identity in large measure from this fact.
Debt was a central part of the social environment in which Jesus and the early church emerged. In the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, large sums of money flowed in through trade; but there were high demands for taxes and tribute levied on the poor. Wealth creation was as necessary then as it is now for the well-being of society. Those who were rich had significant sums of money which they needed to invest, and the poor had reason enough to borrow. It was a situation not unlike the one we witnessed just a few years ago, with large sums of money chasing a great many willing borrowers.
The result, in Jesus’ day, was that many of the village farmers, making just enough to live on by working the land with their families, were easily led into debts which they were unable to repay. The pages of the Gospels offer fascinating glimpses into this world of the powerful rich and the financially-enslaved poor.
Many of Jesus’ followers knew from first-hand experience exactly what debt was like. Jesus’ imagery and stories draw on these experiences to illustrate the character of God and the transformed social relationships of the Kingdom. Start looking for evidence of the central question of poverty and debt in the Gospels, and you can’t stop. It’s everywhere! Think of the parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, Dives and Lazarus, or the Labourers in the Vineyard, among others.
But nowhere is it more clearly expressed than in the famous words which introduce us to what Jesus’ ministry is going to be about: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord‘ (Luke 4:18-19). These words, quoting Isaiah 61, frame the Gospel picture of Jesus Christ.
‘The acceptable year of the Lord’ is a direct reference to the Year of Jubilee, a fascinating and ancient idea designed to protect the poor.
Jubilee was a form of social experiment, all the more tantalising because we don’t have any historical records to tell us whether anyone was ever brave enough to try it – or, if they did, whether or not it worked.
Every fifty years, all fields had to lie fallow, everyone would return to their ancestral homes, all debts would be cancelled, all slaves set free. In other words, every 50th year, anyone trapped, enslaved or oppressed by the inevitable way that money attracts money, land attracts land, power attracts power; all those enslaved by the structures that create poverty would be set free, and released. No one could accumulate money, land, property or power beyond the 50th year. Every 2nd generation, everyone went back to square one.
This was utopian, idealistic, probably never implemented and quite possibly unachievable. They called it the Year of Jubilee, the year of liberation, the year of freedom; and it was this year of the Lord’s favour that Jesus came to proclaim.
The implications of this are simple, yet profound. Jesus Christ was born into a world characterised in large measure by the experience of poverty and debt, and his life and message was about releasing people from its grip into the fullness of life which God had promised. This is the gospel that Christians live and preach.
Roman Catholic social teaching calls this God’s ‘option for the poor’. Others, more boldly, call it a divine ‘bias to the poor’ (David Sheppard, when Bishop of Liverpool, famously wrote a book of this title in 1983 which became hugely influential in framing much of the work of Faith in The City).
The idea is not so much that God is partial and shows an unequal love and concern for all people, but that he is far from neutral when it comes to the struggle for justice, where he is unequivocally on the side of the poor.
This is an idea rooted in the incarnation (2 Corinthians 8:9 ‘For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’) and it finds powerful expression in the life of Christ.
Jesus was, after all, conceived by a poor young woman from Nowheresville in a tiny country on the outer edges of a great empire; born in a manger, in the midst of animals, like children of poor families; presented in the Temple with a sacrifice of two turtledoves, the offering made by those who could not afford a lamb; experienced the life of a refugee as a young child; and was raised to work with his own hands to earn his living.
When he emerged in public and began to preach his message of the Kingdom of God, he announced this – as we have seen – with an unequivocal statement about the redemption of the poor. Unsurprisingly, crowds of the dispossessed followed him, and his message to them was equally unequivocal: “Blessed are you poor, yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20). Jesus chose lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, widows and other marginalised people to spread the message of the Kingdom of God.
To care for the poor seems to be part of the very nature of God. And since God cares for the poor, it is no surprise that he expects the same of Christians. For Jesus scandalously taught that the key to Heaven was seeing his presence in the poor and needy, and responding with mercy (Matthew 25:31-46).
There are numerous warnings in Scripture of coming judgement on those that perpetuate injustice and neglect of the poor. Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55 “He has put down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble and meek; he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away”), Hannah’s Song (1 Samuel 2:2-8) and the Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-25) all describe an exaltation of the poor and a curse on the rich.
It is not that God loves the poor more, it is that the rich are often guilty of exploitation and oppression of the poor. As followers of Christ, discipleship will take us deep in to God’s heart of mercy towards the poor and lead us to action.
Which of course raises the question of how this is to be done.
Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin in the Fields, has developed a helpful matrix to help us think about what we are doing when we engage with issues of poverty [Sam Wells: A Nazareth Manifesto, 2015]. The four quadrants of that matrix (Working For the poor, Working With the poor, Being For the poor, and Being With the poor) represent different expressions of the way in which churches, charities – and others – contribute to the anti-poverty agenda, ranging from paternalistic benevolence (Working For), to collaborative partnership (Working With), advocacy and political engagement (Being For), and incarnational solidarity (Being With).
Agencies such as CUF have always seen, acknowledged and supported a role for all of these different expressions, but if push comes to shove our focus will be on incarnational solidarity. We believe in empowerment and genuine mutuality in our engagement with the poor.
Partly this is a reflection of a long-established approach to the development of healthy communities, known as Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), which starts from the premise that vulnerable communities are not deficit-based and in need of handouts, but asset-based and possessing much if not all that they need to flourish.
Partly it is a reflection of a radical strand of liberation theology that suggests ‘the poor are our teachers’.
But mostly it is just the logical extension of considering Jesus, who regarded the poor not as recipients of his benevolent largesse, but as brothers and sisters gathering as equals around a shared table.
As Pope Francis puts it: ‘I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them’. (Evangelii Gaudium 198)
The recent focus on the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the ways in which a dominant culture can, de facto, become the lens through which society is viewed. For ‘white privilege’, read ‘establishment privilege’ or any other host of privileges which go largely unrecognised simply because they are the unquestioned perspectives of the agents of power or the authors of history.
It is too easy for the Church of England, or indeed CUF, to make comfortably-off middle class attitudes the unstated norm. Too easy for the poor to be ‘othered’ – unintentionally, but othered nonetheless. Too easy for us to keep busy with all manner of creative and well-intentioned bits of socially-transformative activity but to leave the power dynamics of our institutions and agencies essentially untouched.
As a friend put it to me recently: ‘A key challenge for Anglican social thought is to truly and deeply embrace the insight that we are not just to have a heart for the poor. Rather, in God’s economy – and therefore in the action of God, with which we are always only catching up! – the poor are the heart of the Church’.
I often find myself quoting David Sheppard’s words, written in the prologue to his revision of Built As A City (and published at the same time as Faith In The City), where he suggests there is an opportunity to radically re-imagine the Church of England as “standing for justice in a way which may lead to our own disadvantage”. However prophetic those words may have been at the time, very little has changed in the intervening 35 years to suggest that we are any closer to realising them.
The challenge remains this: churches (and governments, charitable trusts, welfare agencies, and the rest) should be thinking creatively about the way in which we can develop our work with the poor to become less paternalistic and more empowering. A church which is ‘poor and for the poor’ is a long way from what we have now.
All of which drives us towards a further principle, because it forces us to a fundamental review of the way we understand our relationships within society, and draws us into a consideration of the Common Good.
3. The Common Good is a vital focus of the Gospel
It is one of the axioms of Anglicanism that it is both ‘catholic’ and ‘reformed’. Whereas the reformation of the church has often been interpreted as holding a greater emphasis on the individual, catholicity speaks of embracing the whole of life, all of society, and a radical inclusion. Catholicity, almost by definition, believes in a startling equality. In the catholic faith, everybody matters.
Perhaps it is therefore unsurprising that the notion of the Common Good originated in Roman Catholic social teaching. However, today it is a concept widely appreciated in contexts sacred and secular, and within the church across the denominational and traditional spectrum – to the extent that it is recognised as one of the Church of England’s three over-arching goals [these are: contribute to the common good, promote spiritual and numerical growth, and re-imagine ministry].
The fundamental idea of the Common Good is that every person should have sufficient access to the goods and resources of society so that they can live a fulfilling life. The rights of the individual to personal possessions and community resources must be balanced with the needs of the disadvantaged and dispossessed. The Common Good is the point we reach when we work together for the collective wellbeing of every member of society rather than specific groups or individuals.
The theological basis for this belief is expressed most vividly in words from the very beginning of Scripture. Human beings, we read, are ‘made in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:26-7). We are differentiated from the animals by this “image”, which many see as an image of relationship – that is to say, what is unique to human beings is God’s relationship with us. This is expressed in a covenant relationship in the Old Testament, and a relationship with Christ in the New Testament. As people in relationship with God, we are called into similar relationships with one another, called to behave towards one another in the same way that God would behave towards us.
This shared common nature and origin, pointing to our innate equality with each other, is reinforced by the ‘universal’ nature of the Gospel – which is to say that the saving acts of Jesus Christ (his life, death and resurrection) are offered equally to everyone without distinction. God’s love, and his desire to renew our relationship with him, flows out in equal measure to all. As St Paul pointed out, the Gospel sweeps away all the old distinctions and divisions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female: ‘All are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28).
This Gospel demolition of the barriers, boundaries, divisions and distinctions that characterise human affairs (sacred and secular) is vividly illustrated by the public ministry of Jesus.
He overturns hierarchies of status, religion, race and gender in a startling way, embodying this in the company he keeps and the teaching he employs, specifically defining ‘the neighbour’ as the excluded and vilified outsider. In word and action he challenged – and challenges – our natural tendency to regard some as more equal than others and to live in solidarity only with ‘people like us’. It is radical and uncomfortable stuff.
It will be immediately obvious that the Common Good is closely linked to notions of equality and solidarity.
If human beings are made in the image of God, imbued with divine dignity, and valued equally across the spectrum of human diversity for all their individual and cultural differences, then by virtue of our shared humanity we must hold one another in the same degree of respect as God does. Each individual has a value that can never be lost and must never be ignored.
The overlap with Principles 1 and 2 is clear. If the Kingdom of God is a state of affairs where no-one is invisible or forgotten, and if God holds a special place in his heart for the poor, the concept of the Common Good provides a social framework for enacting this, for making equality and solidarity visible.
It is all about relationship.
Not that we should be surprised. The doctrine of the Trinity expresses the fact that the very essence of God is inter-relationship, and human beings are drawn into this divine dance as those made in his image. The essence of our reality is to be discovered in relationship, and we become fully human in and through our relationships with others.
And to be explicit about this, it’s not simply about relationships in the Church, this is a sweeping vision for all human relationships.
There is a fascinating insight about this in Luke 10:1-9, which is one of the few examples we have of Jesus sending out his disciples in mission, understood as a visible demonstration of the Kingdom of God (v9).
The fascinating thing is this: the disciples are told to base themselves for this work with people who ‘share in peace’ with them (v6). These people of peace appear to be crucial to being welcomed into a community and creating a context in which the Kingdom can be demonstrated.
It suggests that the first step in evangelising a community is to discover the people of peace. These are not necessarily believers, they are more likely to be sympathetic outsiders, people who you might say are ‘working on the human project’.
They may have questionable lifestyles, they may not be supporters of the church, they may be followers of another faith, but they are the people we meet with whom we find a rapport in terms of a common objective, a desire for a better world. In Jesus’ mission strategy, these people play a key role.
So they should in ours. It is in the nature of the Gospel that it will always bring us in to contact with people who take us outside our comfort zone and draw us in to relationship with them.
There is an important principle here for the Church of England as the established national church, because despite the huge strengths which come from establishment in our contribution to social justice (the church is present in every community, often functions as a trusted and honest broker to integrate different community perspectives and voices, has vast numbers of highly motivated volunteers, and an extensive ‘footprint’ of community activities), there is an equal and opposite danger that as the established church we view social issues from the perspective of the powerful and privileged.
In so doing we are likely to miss something profound and important, which is why we need to work with others (other denominations, other faiths, secular partners, etc). Not only are they people of peace who are working on the human project, but they will bring emphases and perspectives which we desperately need if we are to avoid the hubris of the powerful and privileged echo chamber.
The Common Good is a powerful idea, and places all that we do within a relational model of mutuality and collaboration, solidarity and equality.
The implications for the church are clear. If everyone belongs to one human family, regardless of their national, religious, ethnic, economic, political and ideological differences, then our obligation is to promote the rights and development of all peoples across communities, nations, and the world, irrespective of national boundaries; to advocate for a social order in which the human dignity of all is fostered; and to protest when it is in any way threatened.
And this is why social action is integral to the Gospel.
4. Social Action is integral to the Gospel Mission
If you go into Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral and walk down the central aisle of the nave to the altar crossing, turn around and look back towards the great West doors, just above the door you will see some words lit up in pink neon, sculpted in the handwriting of the artist Tracy Emin – “I felt you and I knew you loved me”.
This is an extraordinary piece of art for all sorts of reasons. It is unusual from an aesthetic point of view. It’s not often you find pink neon pinned to some ancient mediaeval stone in a sacred place, plugged in and turned on.
It’s also out of the theological ordinary. For this piece of art is controversial, outrageous, even a bit disturbing, although you could argue that Jesus was all of those things.
But perhaps the main reason it jars is the content of the message itself. “I felt you and I knew you loved me” is not what we expect to hear in a Christian setting. The usual message of the church is “I read about you and wondered if you existed”.
These words, written by a provocative British artist who, as far as I know, admits to nothing approaching orthodox Christian faith, clash with the word the church has traditionally made flesh. “I felt you and I knew you loved me”.
In 1985, following the miners’ strike, the Brixton riots and a series of major disturbances in urban areas around the country, the Church of England published its seminal report “Faith in the City”. It remains probably the most prophetic and influential report ever to emerge from the Church of England in modern times. It details the fracture lines that divided urban Britain at the time – education, race, class, wealth, opportunity – and challenged the whole of society from government, public sector, private sector, voluntary sector, and the Church, to take seriously the issues of urban deprivation that blighted the landscape of Britain in the mid-1980s.
“Faith in the City” inspired a generation of clergy to get stuck into the gritty and challenging world of urban ministry. Including a young, newly-ordained curate, who supported Watford and liked Bruce Springsteen.
I was ordained the year that “Faith in the City” was published. It was the motivating force behind my ministry in urban priority parishes for 20 years, and over my years as a Dean and a Bishop. It motivates me still.
In my experience of urban ministry over the years, the Gospel is received as liberation when it is communicated in ways that people can understand. And these are not usually the esoteric abstractions of Anglican theology, but the practical, down-to-earth expressions of love and justice, forgiveness and mercy that make the presence of God visible and tangible in tough situations.
Those nine little words etched in pink neon are a reminder of how and why we are called to mission and ministry in the places and amongst the people we serve: “I felt you and I knew you loved me”.
It’s all about Love.
Poverty arises through the inter-locking impact of many factors, all of which might be described as evidence of our failure to love.
As the community called to bear witness to the startling truth that ‘God is love’, the church has a unique role to play in addressing poverty in its various expressions (poverty of resources, poverty of relationships and poverty of identity). It is through the faith of this community expressed in concrete acts of love and kindness that the saving act of Jesus, mediating between God and humanity, is brought into world.
Social action is Christian mission. It is the lived expression (orthopraxy) of what we believe (orthodoxy). But the link between the two is Love.
Pope Francis made this an explicit emphasis in Evangelii Gaudium, where he says: “To evangelize is to make the kingdom of God present in our world. To believe in a Father who loves all men and women with an infinite love means realizing that “he thereby confers upon them an infinite dignity”. To believe that the Son of God assumed our human flesh means that each human person has been taken up into the very heart of God. To believe that Jesus shed his blood for us removes any doubt about the boundless love which ennobles each human being. Our redemption has a social dimension because “God, in Christ, redeems not only the individual person, but also the social relations existing between men”. To believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in everyone means realizing that he seeks to penetrate every human situation and all social bonds……Accepting the first proclamation, which invites us to receive God’s love and to love him in return with the very love which is his gift, brings forth in our lives and actions a primary and fundamental response: to desire, seek and protect the good of others.” (Evangelii Gaudium 176 and 178)
To put it another way: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:12)
If the Gospel is fundamentally about receiving and giving love, it helps to illuminate the well-known idea of the ‘Missio Dei’. Mission, simply put, is about seeing what God is doing and joining in. As with the Kingdom of God, ‘what God is doing’ will be intimately related to his nature and character. It will be seen and known and demonstrated and articulated by Love.
A missionary approach based on Love will embody the core principles of the Kingdom of God, a Bias to the Poor, and the Common Good. It is not a bad place to start. Or to end.
It also has the benefit of cutting through all the tired old arguments about evangelism and social action, as if these are somehow opposed to each other.
Working for social justice isn’t an add-on to Christianity, something for the left wing radicals to get their teeth in to. It’s at the heart of everything we are meant to be doing in our life together as a church.
Archbishop William Temple once said: “If we have to choose between making men Christian and making the social order more Christian we must choose the former. But there is no such antithesis. Certainly there can be no Christian society unless there is a large body of convinced and devoted Christian people to establish it and keep it true to its own principles” (William Temple, Christianity and Social Order 1942, p.90)
This holistic approach to mission lies at the heart of the Church of England’s approach, at least in principle: “The mission of the Church is its calling to share in the mission of God the Father to restore the fallen creation to Him through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, making manifest His Kingdom. Mission is about being sent – sent by a God who is a missionary. This mission of God (missio dei) is cosmic in scope, encompassing the struggle for justice, peace and the integrity of creation, and flows out of the nature of the Trinity as a fount of sending love”. (General Synod paper 1054 Making New Disciples p1-2).
Perhaps nowhere is this better stated than in the Five Marks of Mission, which express the Anglican Communion’s common commitment to, and understanding of, God’s holistic and integral mission.
The Five Marks of Mission take as their starting point an assumption that the church’s mission is derived from the mission of Jesus: “The Gospel according to St John puts the Great Commission in these simple words; ‘As the Father has sent me, even so I send you’ (John 20:21). Deliberately and precisely Jesus made his mission the model of our mission to the world. For this reason, our understanding of the Church’s mission must be deduced from our understanding of what Jesus considered his mission to be.” [official report of the 1984 Anglican Consultative Council]
The Five Marks of Mission therefore assume that the mission of the Church is derived from the mission of Christ, summarised as:
- To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
- To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
- To respond to human need by loving service
- To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
- To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth
The themes of the Kingdom of God, Bias to the Poor and Common Good run like a golden thread through these five marks. Social action is integrated deeply, profoundly and unerringly with a Christian understanding of mission.
At the height of the Covid-19 lockdown, a short but extraordinary paper was published with the intriguing title The Plague and the Parish [Journal of Mission Practice, The Common Good Foundation, and Together For The Common Good, 19/5/20]. Picking up on Pope Francis’ statement that we are not living through an era of change but a change of era, the authors looked to excavate the opportunities presented to church and society in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Alongside the overturning of ‘normality’ (“what was once invisible becomes visible, what was devalued becomes important, what was desecrated is reconsecrated” – exemplified for example by a new respect shown to key and previously undervalued workers, and the rediscovery of the significance of ‘place’), and a new emphasis on societal relationships that create mutual space for the common good, the authors suggested that only a ‘vulnerable church’ would be well placed to forge the relationships with anxious and vulnerable neighbours capable of changing things for the better: “The church needs those relationships because crunch time is coming. That precious mutuality, the recognition of neglected places and workers could count for nothing unless we build a constructive alternative that can resist the famine that will follow the plague”.
Making the invisible visible, valuing the devalued, consecrating the desecrated, creating mutual space for common good, forging relationships with the vulnerable, building constructive alternatives – as we have seen, each of these are vital aspects of Christian mission. And far from requiring a big, powerful church to achieve them, the irony (and beauty) is this: our weakness and vulnerability is our strength.
It reminded me of something Rowan Williams wrote in the epilogue to the book ‘Praying for England: Priestly Presence in Contemporary Culture’ [ed Sam Wells and Sarah Coakley, 2008]: “a church occupying the shell of national political significance but having lost much of the substance is peculiarly well placed to communicate something of the central vision of an undefended territory created by God’s displacement of divine power from heaven to earth and the cross”. (p178-9)
Our grace and our gift could be this: only a vulnerable church can contribute to the emergence of a better post-pandemic world.
And this makes mission not just about what we do but who we are. Not to save the church, but to save the world.
© Adrian Newman
Rt Revd Adrian Newman is the Church Urban Fund Bishop in Residence. He worked in industry as an economist before being called to ordination. He was a curate in East London in the mid-80s, and then Vicar of an outer-estate church in Sheffield for 7 years. In 1996 he was appointed Rector of St Martin in the Bull Ring, in Birmingham. In 2004 he became Dean of Rochester and in 2011 he returned to his beloved East End as Bishop of Stepney until he took early retirement at the end of 2018.
This essay was first published on the Church Urban Fund Theology Forum in November 2020. The Church Urban Fund is a Christian social action agency aligned closely with the Church of England. Click here to visit the Forum and read about its purpose and guiding principles.
This essay was included in the Lent 2021 T4CG Newsletter – click here to view.
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