No cavalry coming over the hill

No cavalry coming over the hill

Church Times Comment 22 June 2014
By Canon Paul Hackwood

Life expectancy for the UK poor is twenty years shorter than for the rest of the country. Such devastating variations in life chances are one of the litmus tests for what constitutes a just society. And yet one of the growing threats to unlocking more just relationships is the overwhelming feeling among so many that there is nothing that can be done; worse still, that any change will come from elsewhere – from ‘them’. But at the Church Urban Fund our emerging view is that there is concrete hope that we can offer: it is represented by the churches that we are working with daily who are responding to the needs of their local communities with services such as food banks, luncheon clubs and night shelters. So how can ‘we’ re-imagine our belief in the human capacity to make a difference in tough times?

Since 2008 we have faced an economic crisis. Ever since, policy makers have been trying to make sense of a world in which their options to raise taxes are severely constrained, and where repaying the interest on breath-taking  amounts of public debt gobbles up huge resources despite voluminous cuts from public services. No matter who wins the next election the money is not coming back.

Yet collectively if we read some Church statements and many secular poverty lobby press releases, we continue to hang stubbornly onto the idea that we have very few real choices: either, we think, the ‘invisible hand’ of the market determines us and will sort it all out in the end, or we cling to a conviction that we are somehow bound to an all-powerful state endlessly legislating for the good life but never quite delivering it. In this world view, some kind of magic solution will emerge if only we can ‘keep calm and carry on’.

One path is underpinned by a set of purist assumptions about the ability of markets to structure our relationships with each other and, thus, to create a good society. For some, the crisis of 2008 seems only to have refined and sharpened this view of the world. Yet in practice, it seems to lead us at best to a generalised unhappiness and the deep feeling that ‘there must be more to life than this’; at worst it creates, at least for some, a life that is ‘nasty, brutishand short’ as they are left out on long hours and low wages or in atomized alienation in neighbourhoods set aside from the mainstream.

The second future possibility is the emergence of a state that is strangled by its own commitments and the stagnation that comes from an economy unable to pay for the assumptions of an earlier age. In this scenario, we end up living with promises made by successive governments that cannot be afforded: a state that simply runs out of money. Having promised ourselves all sorts of goodies from pensions to healthcare and education, the poor lose out again as the legitimacy and ability of the state to deliver is chipped – and chopped – away .

This is where the Church Urban Fund and the wider Christian community has something distinctive to offer in shaping the argument and the practice about what change might look like. In Middlesbrough we have supported a project which brings together young men with a history of offending and provides them with positive male role models to begin to reshape their lives. In Derby we have pump-primed an Innovation Centre to unlock the under-used property, time and talents of the Church to address social needs in collaboration with local universities and civic associations. In London we have provided a service which breaks the cycle of homelessness by providing mentors in times of crisis when there is the danger of falling back into destitution.

Our research reveals that over half of all community activities and support are now accessed through Church provision, with local churches and clergy remaining key sources of civic leadership and action. It is not in grand words such as re-building, re-gaining, re-generating or even re-vitalizing that change now comes about, but in concrete deeds in particular places. The transformation of hearts and minds necessary for real change is unlocked by a deeper engagement, so revealing the deeper foundations in which are rooted our common life. To put that more practically, Thomas Piketty, in his Capital in the Twenty-First century, argues what we do next arises from the choices that we make rather than the inevitable forces that we might wish to let us off the hook.

At Church Urban Fund we have been re-inventing our mission for these complex times. Through a nationwide network of joint ventures with Diocese we now offer fresh ways of both supporting churches in the practical activity they engage in in local communities and providing them with the tools that they need to speak up and speak out with real traction about what is happening locally. We believe that this is where real change will come about because this is where we can begin again to recognise the value of our relationship with our neighbour and the responsibility we owe to each other.  We want to help the Church raise again a fresh voice about how we want to live together: a society where all are included, where people are valued for who they are, and where everyone has the chance to shape their own and their community’s future. It is this that we are highlighting with our Poverty Sunday campaign which begins this coming Sunday.

Indeed CUF’s experience is that whereas in so many communities conversation and contributions can be engulfed by a harsh negativity local churches can be a real antidote. We need to be asking ourselves the question ‘What sort of society do we want to live in?’ then going out and showing what it looks like,  and arguing for how much more fulsome it could be.

That is why we have commissioned a report with the Think Tank Theos which we will  launching in two weeks time called: Good Neighbours: How Churches Help Communities Flourish. Flourishing, for us, goes to the heart of the Christian vision. But it is also a concrete word that reflects how people can belong, take part, feel welcomed, and seize a future again. It is the moment when the ‘they’ of impersonal forces becomes an ‘us’ by which all our relationships make sense so empowering us to make a difference once again. And in a society where the poor can currently expect to live, on average, twenty years less than everyone else it is a capacity which has never been more urgently needed.

Canon Paul Hackwood

Author: Trudy Adjrah

Date: 02 July 2014