Monday, July 27, 2009

UK Bishop of Urban Life and Faith wants CoE to "commit" to "uncomfortable Britain" - what does that mean for churches worldwide?

The Rt Revd Stephen Lowe, Bishop of Hulme, is the Bishop for Urban Life and Faith in the Church of England. He recently gave the Synod a presentation on his report The Urban Church: Three years on from “Faithful Cities”. (Article by the Church Times)

... [Bishop Lowe] began by describing life on a depressed Rochdale housing estate. A half-time parish priest and a CUF-funded com munity worker were the Church’s continued pres ence in what the Bishop described as “a different world from the comfort able church in comfortable Britain”. The BNP found support, while main stream political activity struggled against apathy and impotence.

Clergy in such communities were often undervalued, poorly sup ported, and under-resourced. “We are also not training and equipping enough men and women to work in uncomfortable Britain.”

Such parishes would always need subsidy from the Church Commissioners and the comfortable churches, who needed to remember the theological imperative behind the parish system. Adding more parishes into benefices in urban contexts was “a recipe for disaster”,as the lack of articulate, literate, and numerate lay leaders meant more clergy dependency. Bishop Lowe warned that political correctness by government might defeat attempts to get some pump-priming resources.

“If politicians want the Church of England to contribute to welfare as we do on education, they have to help us build our capacity and work in proper partnership with us rather than accusations of special pleading when we make our case for help.”
He called for socially and eco nom ically mixed communities, and an end to socially divisive gated com munities. “Our presence at a national level, prodding Governments about their urban presence, is vital,” he said. A national Church that took its theology seriously must be prepared to be prophetic about the shape of society. “For that to happen, we must not become a comfortable Church for a comfortable nation, but a Church totally committed to its con tinued presence in uncomfortable England.”

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd John God dard (Northern Suffragans), said that “the most vulnerable in our society deserve the best of our priests and the best of our resources.”...

What does it mean for a church to commit to life in "uncomfortable Britain", or any urban area/urbanized country? It's a given that governments should invest in poor areas and poor people - what might it mean for the church to do so?

This connects to an article published today in the Washington Post, which reported on a study on neighborhood poverty levels done by Pew, a nonprofit US research firm. The study found that for African-Americans, which are the racial/ethnic group facing the highest level of housing segregation in the US (i.e. African-Americans are much more likely to live in predominantly African-American neighborhoods even if they are middle class). The article found that the single largest predictor of future poverty for African-Americans. The proposed solution is intensive investment in poor neighborhoods - it seems that giving housing vouchers to low-income families so that they can live in middle-income neighborhoods hasn't been successful.

However, we also have to do something about the segregation of rich from poor and Black from White, in the church. I attend the Church of the Epiphany, a historic parish in downtown DC. To put it bluntly, wealthy Whites (and I think Asians) have generally fled the downtown area. Epiphany's membership is on the decline and aging, and the budget is getting crunched. Inner city churches in general face these problems. On the plus side, the church maintains an active homeless ministry, serving breakfast weekly and lunch weekly (church attendance not required for the former, the latter is done as part of a service in a park). Epiphany is also a racially diverse parish, in contrast to most churches. A number of members are homeless. Others live in a mix of DC and the suburbs.

In the Church Times article cited above, Bishop Lowe says that the CoE has found it difficult to get people to work in “these uncomfortable places”. As a consequence, the British National Party (a nationalist far right party) has found that "white ghetto estates" are "a fertile ground to sow their poison." I don't see that sort of poison being sown by ultra-nationalists in US minority communities, but there are other problems - crime, ill-treatment by the police and the laws, environmental problems, lack of investment and social and public services.

What does it look like for the Church to invest in the poorest areas? How do we get congregations started in these areas? How do we fund them? How do we minister to the poor? All these are central questions for a church which follows a God who served the poor.

This might be hard to do, but I wonder if this is an opportunity for mainline Protestant churches, at least, to consolidate their parishes and operate ecumenically. Many churches are finding that they have to close parishes - don't just close them, see if the congregation can partner with a similar church. Alternatively, Epiphany provides office/worship space for a downtown nonprofit and a Muslim congregation - perhaps inner city churches can explore this sort of space sharing to make full use of the property, and in turn, the partners can contribute to its upkeep so that at least the church's variable costs are covered.

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