I had a bit of a rant on Twitter this morning. I was upset by the government’s continued assault on the poor and vulnerable through the dismantling of the welfare state, and I was frustrated with churches for what seems like apathy in the face of it, though it may be that it’s closer to self-preservation than lack of care.
Too often, it seems, we want to leave “politics” out of our religious life. “We’re here to worship,” people will say, “and to preach the Gospel, not to get involved in politics.” And insofar as being perceived as too political will put some people off, they may be right: in this society, tell people off and they’ll leave, or that’s the fear. But if we say we’re really called to preach the Gospel, to bring good news to all people, I don’t think we can afford to ignore the politics of our time or our vocation to care for the vulnerable in our society. That means if there is widespread hardship that the government is doing nothing to relieve (or indeed is exacerbating) we need to get involved.
Food, shelter, clothing, medical care. Will people who lack these basics be able to hear your Gospel? Where is your Gospel, your good news, to a sick person unable to get an appointment with their GP because of NHS cuts? Where is your Gospel, your good news, to a mother going hungry to try to feed her four children? Yes, this happens in the UK. Where is your Gospel, your good news, to those children sent to school with no breakfast, or inadequate breakfast? Can they hear you preach? Where is your Gospel, your good news, to someone who sleeps rough? Where is your Gospel to a woman afraid to leave her abusive husband because she can’t go to her parents and the women’s refuge is full?
That little outburst got the usual responses, which weren’t a huge surprise to me.
The first objection to the idea of churches getting involved in a large-scale way seems to be that it’s really the government’s job. This might take the form of people claiming there are already breakfast clubs (hint: most aren’t free), there are already disability benefits (hint: most are being clawed back in seriously detrimental ways), there are already women’s refuges (hint: funding has been slashed to ribbons), there is already provision in place for the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the vulnerable. That would be nice if it were true, but the reality of the matter is that provision was already inadequate and it is getting worse. The other form this takes is the claim that if voluntary organisations (including churches) get involved in sorting society out, it just provides further excuse for more cuts to the welfare state, validating the false doctrine of a Big Society that can create bricks with smaller and smaller amounts of straw. That may be so, but the alternative is sitting on our thumbs while people die. Yes, the government should be sorting this stuff out, but they aren’t, so it’s up to us.
The second objection to churches (and other voluntary organisations) getting involved is that they are partial, unaccountable, and likely to give help to people they think are “nice” or “deserving” or “acceptable”. While this is a fair criticism given the behaviour of some religious groups in the past, it is also a threat with the welfare state, which seeks to favour couples over single parents, people with fixed addresses over those who are homeless or transient, and has certain systemic difficulties helping people with, for example, mental health problems or multiple disabilities. Again, I’m not willing to sit on my thumbs while people die, just because some churches are homophobic.
I see the greater problem not as one of whether churches should help (and there is good work being done by a number of organisations), but, as mentioned earlier in this post, one of what seems like apathy. There are various organisations fighting poverty, and they do great work, but they’re usually the domain of small numbers of volunteers. Every parish has a small number of people who are committed to social justice, to caring for and serving the whole community, but it isn’t enough, and this isn’t seen as a problem. During the winter I help with a local night shelter for single people, run by a group of churches. It’s tiring work, but the absolute worst of it is closing at the end of March and knowing that most of the people who have been sleeping on our floors are going to be out on the streets for the next seven months. We should do better than that, and with twice as many people involved, we could. So where are they?
I think this is related, too, to the everlasting conversation about church management and numbers. In the C of E, at least in East London, we do have a problem with too many big Victorian barns with listed status and inadequate heating acting as a money-sink, but the fact is that numbers are falling anyway. The run-down buildings are a symptom of this decline, not the sole cause of it. We can fund fewer clergy than we once could (I understand this to be partly to do with the fact that we now insist they retire at some point, and pay them pensions after they do so, but that isn’t the whole story), despite a growing population, and that in turn seems to lead to lower numbers. The assessments recommending empowering the laity and learning to make do with fewer clergy are not new; this is not a trend of our generation, but of the past century (at least).
Let’s look at those who do go to church — well, there are some who are very committed, work hard to serve the community around them and contribute as much as they can. Fully half the adult choristers in my choir have other church roles to fill too, and many of those volunteer in at least three positions. This is commendable, even if it sometimes brings with it minor territorial spats and disagreements. Yes, community life is messy. But with the best will in the world, many of these dedicated volunteers are pretty burnt out. And then there are some who expect to be served and entertained, who will clear off if they get bored or offended instead of working to resolve difficulties (or, if it comes to it, joining another church where they are better able to contribute), who can’t or won’t commit to anything. Of course we must still welcome such people; Christian hospitality demands no less. And it isn’t easy to commit to any organisation in this day and age, when life is very much more mobile and scattered than it once was, and of course the Church of England is pretty good at media relations own-goals. So of course there will be some who are unreliable, some who are not yet ready to contribute. This is “modern life”, I’m told, and to an extent that’s true… and yet. And yet.
You see, I don’t think this apathy is such a part of modern life that it can’t be countered. Of course we need to extend a warm welcome to all, but we don’t need to accept that churches held together by a small group of exhausted volunteers are, or should be, the norm. Should we celebrate all that churches do to keep communities going? Yes, of course! But let’s not settle for what we’re doing, which is lurching along with a sort of demented pride from a lead theft to a heating breakdown, fuelled by tea in green cups. Let’s aim for life, and that abundantly, for everyone.
I’ve been reading Walter Brueggemann a bit this spring, and I’m struck (not for the first time) by his concept of preaching as poetry, of equipping the imagination of the hearer, giving vulnerable and tired people the mental and imaginative resources they need to live rightly in a flawed and hostile world. I think that the struggle to get people involved in church and the struggle to get churches involved in social justice are both related to broken narratives. The main narratives in our society today are not narratives of wisdom and kindness, stories of the worth and beauty of unconditional love for our neighbour, hopes of building a better world through cooperation. Instead we have narratives of competition, fantasies of “making it big” in finance or fame, and the fallacy that the only people who are poor and vulnerable are those who deserve it.
I am not someone who is comfortable with going around imposing my religious viewpoint on others. I tend to side with St Francis, who is meant to have said “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” I think we’re mostly frightened of doing this, worried about our heads ending up on some metaphorical plate. A friend of mine suggested that the Archbishop of Canterbury could, if he so chose, bring down the government by standing in Trafalgar Square with a placard. It wouldn’t even matter that much what the placard said, because of who he is and the likely response. But if he were to do so, exactly what sort of government would we put in place instead? Where are the wise leaders, the people with a commitment to service rather than profit? I think one reason we are in this mess is because our society has so succumbed to the competitive narrative that we have failed to produce these leaders. In the murky world of Murdoch and spin, changing the narrative is imperative.
I’ve been arguing with myself today, because one of my current projects is in the “leaky roofs and broken down heating” category. At St Andrew’s we need £25,000 to repair the organ, and being a small and poor parish, the prospects of coming up with those sorts of resources ourselves are pretty slim. So we’re hosting a hymnathon, which on the face of it is a very church-y, establishment, maintaining-the-status-quo sort of thing to do. Is the organ really so important, compared to feeding the hungry and healing the sick, or even fixing the heating? Some would say not.
I have been thinking about whether the organ, beautiful and beloved part of our heritage that it is, is really worth saving: but I’ve been asking the wrong question, and the answer is in the hymnathon itself. These hymns, all five hundred of them, are part of our Christian story, part of our narrative: and they’re a part of our narrative that people can engage with, without necessarily having to sign up to everything they think the C of E stands for. Singing together is a community-building activity. Singing hymns together is saying that cooperation is stronger than competition and Christ is stronger than sin and love conquers death. So the hymnathon is worth doing, even if we don’t raise the funds we need, and even if not everyone who sings believes what they are singing in the same way that I do.
If having a working organ in future means the opportunity to participate in wider community music in a way that hasn’t been possible for years, it’s worth it at double the price.