BLOGS

Organising to end homelessness

The Centre for Theology & Community l

Shermara Fletcher heads the William Seymour Programme at CTC, engaging Pentecostals in community organising. She is also the community organiser in The Open Table at St George-in-the-East. Last night, at a gathering of leaders from a wide range of congregations across London, she reflected on the role of community organising in the struggle to end homelessness.

Good Evening, it is great to be here amongst you. For the next five minutes I’ll sharing with you why community organising is a powerful tool in addressing homelessness.

Cleaning for Good

The Centre for Theology & Community l

Earlier this month, our Development Director Tim Thorlby spoke at the launch of London Living Wage Week, at an event with Mayor Sadiq Khan. CTC is a founding partner in the enterprise, and Tim is currently on secondment as its Managing Director. In his talk, he explained the roots of the company in community organising…

A new kind of politics

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After the first six weeks of this year’s Buxton Leadership Programme, its new Co-ordinator Miriam Brittenden reflects on the way in which it offers “a new kind of politics”…

Rarely has the UK felt so bitterly divided, and rarely has ‘politics’ as it is conventionally understood, felt so broken. Three years of in-fighting, intractable disagreements, and a profound inability to compromise over the dreaded ‘B-word’ have worn down the morale of the nation. We stand at a pivotal moment in our history, and yet many would be forgiven for wanting to turn away from politics altogether.

Catholic Social Teaching and Consensus

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Our Co-ordinating Fellow, Fr Simon Cuff, has just had Love in Action – his guide to Catholic Social Teaching (CST) – published by SCM Press. The formal book launch is on 18 March in central London. Here he reflects on the importance of CST in our fractured society…

As a society, we are in desperate need of consensus. We disagree about how to tackle rising inequality, about how to solve the disparity of income across regions, about how to relate to the European Union. We even disagree about how best to disagree. We are in desperate need of consensus, of common ground.

People of power

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In our latest report, we explain how Community Organising recalls the Church to the vision of the Gospel. In this blog, based on the introduction to the report, its author Angus Ritchie summarises its argument… 

In the Bible and in the history of the Church, God raises up leaders from and not just for those who are oppressed. From Moses and Miriam to Rosa Parks and Desmond Tutu, God chooses the people who experience injustice to bring it to an end.

Two new reports

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Yesterday, two new reports were launched, the fruit of a growing collaboration between CTC and the Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN).

Realities are Greater than Ideas is a new CTC report on Evangelisation, Catholicism and Community Organising. Written by Dunstan Rodrigues, with essays by Prof Anna Rowlands and CTC Director Angus Ritchie, it combines stories from churches and chaplaincies with reflection on Catholic social teaching.

The report was funded by CSAN and the Catholic Diocese of Brentwood. CSAN Chief Executive Phil McCarthy welcomed the report as “a timely contribution to national debates on what it means to be a ‘Church of the poor’, and how Catholics can best address powerful systems that can increase or reduce division in our society.” He said that CSAN “have been pleased to support CTC in reflecting on how a process of community organising, in this case with Citizens UK, can shape Christians who, as Pope Francis yearns, are on the streets and not clinging to their own security.”

Steve Webb, Development Director in the Diocese of Brentwood said: “The Church sets before the world the ideal of a civilisation of love and this report will help many to turn the ideal into a local reality. Working together as a Catholic community in the wider community will achieve more than acting alone. As we seek to discover new ways to evangelise our diocese, we express our gratitude to the authors for providing materials that will foster (one to one) conversation and lead to action for the common good.”

Abide in Me is a report by CSAN, commended by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, which brings Catholic Social Thought to bear on Housing Challenges in England and Wales. It begins with an essay on “A Catholic vision of housing” by CTC Director Angus Ritchie. The essay argues that the Church’s contribution to debates on housing policy need to be “firmly grounded in its theology and worship,” – and that this necessarily involves seeing the poorest as agents in the shaping of housing policy, not its passive recipients. The exclusion of the poorest from this process “explains some of the serious defects in housing policy pursued by left and right-wing politicians in recent decades.”

Launching the report, Bishop Terry Drainey (Chair of Trustees of CSAN) said: “For Christians, a crisis is an opportunity. It nudges us to renew our mission in our own time and place, to be confident in entering on what might be a long haul, and to learn to love with fewer conditions. In that light, we are compelled to ask ourselves: ‘What more can Catholic social thought and action contribute on housing?’ With the bishops’ support, CSAN’s national team and the ecumenical Centre for Theology and Community have been addressing that question together in some depth. Today I am delighted to launch the first fruit of that collaboration.”

The Catholic Bishops Conference will be writing to their charities asking them to prioritise work on this issue in the next 10-12 years, and CSAN and CTC will be working together to help Catholic charities, parishes and schools to respond to this invitation.

Why we need a more authentic populism

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Last night, Centre Director Angus Ritchie preached at St Paul’s Cathedral, at a service for the Lord Mayors and Borough Mayors of London. His sermon explores Jesus’ understanding of servant leadership, and argues for an ‘authentic and inclusive populism’ instead of the ‘false populism’ which is damaging our politics today.

 

We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.

These words, made famous by WH Auden, capture the danger of always wanting to be the one serving – and never the one served. If I am always the one serving, I force those around me to be ever-grateful recipients. It’s a relationship that places me at the centre of the moral universe, every bit as much as simple selfishness.

Jesus sets before us a very different vision of servant leadership – a vision which has mutuality at its heart. Leaders may be called to serve others, but we also need to be open to being served. There is, therefore, a mutual vulnerability, a sharing of control and of responsibility.

Jesus’ humility as a leader is manifest in both his willingness to “be the servant of all” and his willingness to allow others to minister to him – often in situations that cause surprise or even scandal, for example when a woman breaks a bottle of expensive perfume over his feet and washes them with her hair.

In the ministry of Jesus, the most marginalised – lepers, women who would be deemed ritually unclean, the blind beggar Bartimaeus – are not just passive beneficiaries. He recognises them as actors, as tellers of uncomfortable truths, and disruptors of the status quo. Each of them has cried out to him for healing and for justice, with courage and tenacity. It is these qualities – not servility or excessive deference – that Jesus praises as true faith.

As Jesus says, those on the margins often see see the truth most clearly. In Matthew 11, he prays

I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.

In Jesus’ eyes, the poorest and most marginalised are not simply recipients of help. They are bearers of God’s truth to the wider community. Moreover, as Jesus’ observes, they are very often the people who show forth God’s sacrificial generosity. Standing in the Temple, he contrasts the (ostentatious but proportionately tiny) giving of the rich with the offering of the widow whose small coin is all that she has.

That pattern – of a Church which is of and not just with or for the poorest in society – continues in the extraordinarily fruitful ministry of St Paul, planting new congregations across the Roman Empire. As he reminds the Christians in Corinth in our second lesson:

not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

In the eyes of the world, the poorest and most vulnerable may seem to be trapped in dependency – clients of benefactors or of bureaucracies. But in the economy of God, they are the source of transformation; the ones he raises up, again and again, to be the leaders in his Kingdom. What the world considers peripheral turns out to be the centre of his transforming work.

In Biblical terms, this is the pattern of God’s engagement with his people from the very beginning. Israel’s election – as a people enslaved and marginalised, but loved by the Lord of hosts – must shape their interactions with those beyond their community.

Remembering that they were once fragile and vulnerable, God’s people are told in our first lesson that they must “love the stranger”, for they too were “strangers in the land of Egypt.”

We live in an era of deep distrust of institutions both political and religious. Fairly or unfairly, there is a sense that established centres of power are increasingly detached from the lives of ordinary citizens.

This climate creates fertile soil for divisive and extremist populisms – movements that offer simplistic solutions to people’s sense of alienation and discontent, movements that offer an all-too-familiar array of scapegoats (usually religious, ethnic or social “strangers”) to blame for society’s ills

How, I wonder, would it affect our attitude to such populism if we stood where today’s Scriptures invite us to stand – if we thought of the poorest and most marginalised, not as the “hard to reach” or the objects of our charity, but as the very heart of God’s transforming work?

From that perspective, the problem with today’s political climate would not be that it is too populist – but that its populism is dishonest. In reality, those perpetrating a rhetoric of division and scapegoating are not rooted in the lives and communities they seek to inflame.

As Pope Francis has observed, “populism” has very different meanings in different contexts:

In Latin America, it means that the people —for instance, people’s movements — are the protagonists. They are self-organized. When I started to hear about populism in Europe I didn’t know what to make of it, until I realized that it had different meanings.

Francis is contrasting an authentic populism (in which the people are the protagonists) with a false “populism” in which people do not “talk among themselves” but seek refuge from their fears in a “charismatic leader”.

This false populism does not grow out of the experience or agency of ordinary citizens. It divides but it also disempowers. It leaves ordinary citizens as largely passive spectators – at most as cheerleaders behind charismatic leaders who are detached from the realities of their daily lives.

We see an authentic populism in the work of groups like Citizens UK. Their broad-based community organising is based on the institutions local residents are already part of, in which they are already learning to relate and negotiate across difference to build a common life.

Community organising is best known for its campaigns: for a Living Wage, affordable housing, a more welcoming attitude to refugees. The changes that organising has secured – many of them with the active co-operation of public servants in this congregation – are of course hugely significant in building more just and harmonious communities. But the most important feature of organising is its focus on the action of the very people whom policy-makers often call “hard to reach.” From their perspective the world looks very different: they experience power as something that is “hard to reach,” but when they find a way of organising together that can make a difference, they are willing to give sacrificially of their time and energy.

That is why so many of London’s churches have become involved in community organising. They are not just a voice for the voiceless. They are becoming places where the voiceless get to speak – and act – for themselves.

I think of Lucy, whose church helped her and her family fight eviction from their flat. At a prayer meeting soon after, she meditated with others on the words in the Gospel – ‘Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful’ and St. Peter’s exhortation to: ‘Be hospitable’.  Lucy gave thanks for what she had experienced, and she and her family felt moved to give a home to another woman who faced homelessness in her small flat.

I think of Colleen, who had been trapped in spiralling debt because of the exploitative practices of Wonga – and who, despite the shame associated with indebtedness and poverty – was willing to stand up and tell her story, as part of the Citizens UK campaign to put a cap on payday lending. The ripples of her courageous witness, and that of so many other citizens, continue to be felt today.

I also think of Abdul, who through the Living Wage campaign, was brought face to face with the head of HSBC, whose office he cleaned on a poverty wage. “Sir John,” Abdul said, “we work in the same office and yet live in different worlds.” A year later, the bank began to pay Abdul a genuinely Living Wage – beginning a movement which continues to grow and flourish.

As civic leaders, you will be confronted every day with demands for new policies, new initiatives – to meet people’s needs and solve people’s problems. Weighing up the merits of such proposals is an important part of your work. But what is most significant about the stories of Lucy, Colleen and Abdul is the fact that (in Pope Francis’ words) they have been the protagonists – as have thousands of people like them, often in London’s most deprived and diverse neighbourhoods, people who are now organising together to tend and transform their common life. Their action embodies a truly authentic and inclusive populism

No new policy or new initiative will, on its own, address the malaise in our democratic order. The rise of false populisms, which divide and scapegoat, is a symptom of the alienation of an increasing number of citizens, from the democratic process – from the building and tending of a common life.

In our day, as in the times of Moses and of Jesus, God speaks and acts most powerfully and truthfully through the lives of the poorest. Far from being problems which need policy solutions, or clients who need help, they are the agents God chooses to place at the heart of his work of transformation. If we are to be servant leaders, we must begin by being open to the truths which they tell and the gifts which they bring – and helping to build a politics in which they too are protagonists.

Discerning God’s plan for our lives

The Centre for Theology & Community l

After a year on the Stepney Internship Programme, Laura Macfarlane has recently started work at CTC – co-ordinating our Vocations Project. Below, she introduces her work, including plans for an Emerging Leaders’ Weekend (book here) …

How can we discern God’s plan for our lives in the context of today’s society?

This is a question that many of us find ourselves asking at every stage of our lives. Education encourages us to make as much money and have as much career success as possible. Society often forces us to take whatever job we can find in order to thrive, or just to survive. Even churches can too often focus on the importance of full-time ministry or, at the very least, paid work which is traditionally considered to be a way to serve God and others. While these ministry roles are important, we believe that each of us best serves God by discerning the vocation that God has for us, whatever that many be!

At the Vocations Project, we believe that vocation is about so much more than the paid work that we do or the ministry that we take part in. Rather, vocation is what connects our deepest selves, who God has created us to be, to what we do in all areas of our lives. Vocation inspires us to explore who God has created us to be and, through that, to discover how we can live and work in a way that is most in accordance with our created selves, be that in our church, our career, our home or our private lives. Understanding our vocation may mean a change of career but, most importantly, it means living out our God-given gifts and desires in the situations in which we find ourselves. It means becoming connected to the lives that we live as deeply as we can in order to find fulfilment, and to realise God’s Kingdom, in every part of what we do.

This definition of vocation took a long time to discover and develop. In Summer 2016, I took part in the Summer Internship with the Centre for Theology and Community, the theme of which was vocation. Myself and other participants on the internship found that we were being encouraged to think about vocation in a way that we never had before; a way that put being before doing and individuals before career. From that time of learning, the vocation project was born.

The Project has now been established as a part of the life of CTC. Our mission is to work with Christian institutions in East London and beyond to help create space for everyone to discern their vocation with the help of a community of individuals and with God. We are committed to prayer and reflection, to conversations and to action to support individuals in their personal vocational journey. Over the past two years we have led sessions and events in institutions, put together resources and written a detailed report on vocation in our society, which will be available soon through CTC.

There are many ways to get involved in the project, as an institution or an individual. Whether its an event in your institution, providing resources or organising 121s with individuals looking to discern, we would love to get to know and to serve you. We also have a residential “Emerging Leaders” weekend approaching for 18-30 year olds looking to explore their God-given vocation, whatever that may be!

If you are interested in finding out more about any part of the Project, either book a place here on December’s Emerging Leaders’ Weekend or Email me at vocations@theology-centre.org to request information or to arrange a 121 chat about what the project can do for you. We can’t wait to see how the project will grow!

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