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/ 28 July 2020

Uneven burdens, unrecognised gifts

By Angus Ritchie & Richard Springer

This autumn 2020 the diocesan ministry team will be running a series of theology webinars for clergy, for which this paper will be used.

The demographics of the pandemic and the Church’s response

Alvaro Quiroz Magaña writes that Latin American theology has “a more concrete understanding of the people of God… as a people especially of the poor – those who answer the call of faith from out of their poverty – as well as of those who make an option for the poor, entering into solidarity with their suffering.”[1]

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. In like fashion, St Paul and St 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 values and hierarchies of the world. The New Testament Church does not just have a “heart for the poor.” It has the poorest at its heart.

Many of the frontline workers who have been sustaining the wider community during the pandemic (such as care workers, delivery staff and transport workers) are on low wages, in insecure employment and overcrowded homes. A disproportionate number are Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic. This combination of poverty and service on the frontline is a key reason why Covid-19 has killed so many BAME people.

As we move out of lockdown, they will once again be most vulnerable, both to infection and to the job losses and spending cuts that are likely to ensue in the months ahead. Here, and in the suffering of elderly people (particularly those in care homes) and of people with disabilities, the pandemic has shone a light on pre-existing structural injustices.

A call to conversion of life

At the time of writing, there is a widespread and heartfelt desire for a more just future. But, as the long-term economic impact of the pandemic becomes more visible, there will be hard choices to make about the allocation of resources, about how the pain that is to come will be shared. Noble aspirations tend to dissipate when their cost becomes more evident.

The same is true of the broad-based expressions of revulsion at the killing of George Floyd. Worthy statements on social media or in press releases are not enough. The challenge is to persevere when the initial surge of outrage has died down. The parable of the sower has particular resonance here. New “seeds” of desire for justice and righteousness have been sown by the Holy Spirit. But, as Kyle J. Howard observes, not everyone who expresses noble intentions today will persist when “their worldview is challenged” or they are “choked out of perseverance by circumstance.”[2]

A Church with the poorest at its heart

In our ministry in east London, we have seen how community organising can help build a Church which is of, and not just for, the poorest.  For it invites us to consider: “Where does power like within your institution?” “Who is missing from the table when you make decisions?” “How are the members of your congregation who are experiencing the greatest injustice being recognised and developed as leaders?”

To answer these challenge involves redistributing power within our institution. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, the Church does not just have a social ethic. It is a social ethic.[3] As a diocese, we must recognise and develop leadership across races and social classes, and address the barriers to full participation for people with disabilities.  There needs to be both greater investment in such work, and a wider dialogue so that the development of such initiatives is co-created with those they are intended to benefit.

Community organising also invites us to work with, and to learn from, brothers and sisters in Christ in other denominations. As Selina Stone and Shermara Fletcher explain, there is much to learn from Pentecostal social action that is “rooted in the lives of the poorest” and “both expects and bears witness to the activity of the Holy Spirit in their midst.” [4]

It is often those who have the least in this world who recognise their need of God’s aid most clearly. They are not inherently more virtuous, nor is poverty something to be sentimentalised.  But they are less liable to fantasies of self-sufficiency the “wise and intelligent” of this world. In Jesus words

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.[5]

Those who have been through tribulation to be guides and teachers to the wider Body; both in identifying areas for campaigning, and in spiritual and pastoral leadership. Many of them have come to rely on God in a deep faith forged and refined in the fire of adversity. When the wider Body listens to its poorest and most marginalised members, it is also taught how to listen more deeply to the Lord. The wider Church needs to recognise, receive and develop the gifts of its poorest members as prophets and pastors, evangelists and priests.

From words to deeds

Christian engagement in community organising begins by listening to those who experience injustice directly (within our congregations, and among neighbours in other congregations, and of other faiths and beliefs). Their voices shape and lead its campaigns, so that the work develops their voice and power. This is vital if the economic and social costs of the pandemic and its aftermath are to be borne more equitably.

At all levels of diocesan life, there are opportunities to support the campaigns that are already emerging from such listening. To give just three examples:

  • Churches have been at the heart of the campaign to improve the Free School Meals voucher scheme, and ensure it is maintained over the summer.
  • The crisis in care of the elderly offers a vivid illustration of the interdependence of rich and poor: the excessive workload, low pay and inadequate protection of low-paid carers during the pandemic has an impact on elders and families from all social classes. Our well-being is bound up together. Rich and poor congregations alike have reason to engage in the new campaign for a Living Wage for Key Workers
  • The pandemic has also highlighted the impact of overcrowded and sub-standard housing – and, more positively, has shown the possibilities for housing rough sleepers. London Citizens campaigns for affordable housing and for a “Housing First” approach to homelessness continue to gather momentum.

While such campaigns are valuable, and a wide range of parishes and chaplaincies can get involved, we miss the real value of community organising to the Church if we consider it simply in terms of external action.

It can also contribute to our internal renewal, as it recalls us to some of the central practices of the New Testament – redistributing power to the most marginalised and oppressed; learning from those whose faith is forged in tribulation; recognising and developing a wider range of leaders for all aspects of the Church’s ministry and mission, and helping congregations in the poorest areas to grow in number, depth and impact.

In the challenging times which lie ahead, we hope an increasing number of parishes and chaplaincies in the diocese will harness the potential of organising – so we can build a Church more truly of, and not just for, the poorest.

Angus Ritchie & Richard Springer
June 2020

[1] Alvaro Quiroz Magaña, “Ecclesiology in the Theology of Liberation” in Ignacio Ellacuria and Jon Sobrino (eds.). Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology (New York: Orbis Books, 1993), 203-204.

[2] https://kylejhoward.com/counseling-articles/when-the-blind-see-dangers-pitfalls-for-allies-in-reconciliation/ (accessed 3 June 2020)

[3]  Stanley Hauerwas, “Reforming Christian Social Ethics: Ten Theses” in  The Hauerwas Reader (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 111.

[4] Forthcoming essay with Angus Ritchie on “Building Together: Catholic and Pentecostal perspectives on Theology and Housing”

[5] Matthew 11.25-6


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