The thoughts, reflections and musings of an average Church of England Priest
Tuesday, 24 November 2015
Blessed are the poor: Urban poverty and the Church
Recently I visited a parish on the very edge of a city centre and was treated to a tour of the features and facilities within its boundaries. We started at a splendid church hall with many rooms and a variety of posters and notices advertising Bridge and Canasta and the like. From there we went on to see the parish itself, row upon row of fine Edwardian and Victorian mansions boasting marvellous front lawns and palatial entrances.
As my host drove me round pointing out the homes of the notable residents, the celebrities and the ennobled I found myself reflecting upon how different it was from the estate church setting I work and reside in. My thoughts were then interrupted as my host pointed out a junction and pointedly explained how we had reached the boundary. 'That side of the road,' they said, 'is social housing. We don't have anything to do with them!" Point made, we drove on, more names bandied about as being residents, until we came to another junction and again we stopped and I was informed that this was another boundary. 'That road,' they said, pointing at what looked no different to the rest through my uneducated eyes, 'Used to be a lovely road, but now it's full of (voice dropping a little) of Asians!' The rest of the journey was much of the same, I was shown where the 'difficult parish' abutted their little piece of heaven and told stories of the great and good who were members of the paradise on earth that was theirs.
Over lunch (not beans on toast by the way!) one of the parishioners told me how they'd be interested in any ideas I had to reach into their community. 'We want to bring in people like us, were not interested in doing stuff in the poorer bits,' they said, 'After all, what we want is to get the numbers back up so we can continue to enjoy everything we always have. We're not looking at the sort of mission you've been talking about!'
Thankful that I hadn't choked on the canapés or caught anything mission threatening from those gathered in the place I mentioned social audits and the value of the palace that was their church hall (five rooms plus a kitchen and toilets almost as large as the building our church occupies!) was in attracting people and building relationships and left.
Laurie green in his book 'Blessed are the poor' Speaks of visiting a parish with a view to serving his title (i.e. its first ordained job) in that place. He writes thus:
"so there we were, huddled in the back of a rather large saloon car being driven by the parish rector is surrounded by other members of his parish staff. The Rector was very keen to impress, and in many ways he had reason to be proud of his team's achievements. The parish church was extraordinarily large, and he proudly boasted that they nearly filled it with willing members every Sunday.
He was now driving us around the rather prosperous neighbourhood and chanced to look across to the right where stood houses of distinctly lower quality than those we had viewed so far. He saw me looking more intently at them and, hoping to quell my fears, remarked: 'oh that's our council housing estate. But don't worry, I don't ever bother us.' and on hearing that, my decision was made. I wanted to spend the rest of my ministry living in those areas that others like to ignore.'" *
So, having found a kindred spirit in the first few pages, would the restt of the book live up to expectations? I found the book to be a wealth of theological reflection, which considering his now seminal work 'Let's do theology' (which appears in the hands of many training for ministry) should come as no surprise I guess. But add to this the insights of a man who has dedicated his ministry to working in the poorer places and ministering the love of God to those on the edges and thinking about it with the Bible aforethought and you soon realise that this is a bit of an understated gem. This is a book in which missional thinking, good honest ministry, the Bible and theology all collide as Laurie leads us into thinking about what this part of the beatitudes ('blessed are the poor') really means in a world where they only seem to inherit being marginalised, vilified and ignored. This is an invitation for us to explore just how counter-cultural we are called to be - and it is most certainly something I would love to send to the PCC of the church I make mention of at the beginning of this blog.
As someone blessed with living and working in an Urban priority area / Estate church I know the generosity and love, the enthusiasm for the Gospel lived out in a place where the minority are waged and everyday life is difficult. I also know that many around me in the wider community have definite views about social housing and those who have little. Those who have would like more and those who have little deserve all they get (but not my taxpayer's cash in benefits). The Rake's progress that was post-war social housing and it's demise with the 'Right to Buy' and the rise of the private sector landlords (and now housing associations who are providing a halfway house between state and private social housing) brings much fruit and many attitudes - not all of which are positive when it comes to the attitudes of the people formerly known as 'working class' towards the poor; for the poor have indeed become poorer, even amongst their own it seems.
This is no purely academic book on the poor and poverty (although the academic is present and appears correct) and it is not a quick read (200 pages requires some commitment); but it is an essential read for those looking to minister on the edges of our society. I have to say that, like most books with a 'theology' label, this is a book that doesn't come cheap with a price tag of £18.99 on Amazon (but under a tenner used) (AMAZON) but if you are serious about estate church and 'the poor' - which always sounds to me to be on a par with those who used to call out, 'Oh workman,' when I was a BT engineer as something just a little derogatory - then this is a book that demands shelf space.
* Introduction:page x Blessed are the poor? Urban poverty and the church SCM press London 2015 ISBN 978 0 334 05365 1