This summer marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Fr Basil Jellicoe, at just 36 years of age – bringing to an end an extraordinary ministry, rooted in the slums of north-east London. Jellicoe exemplified many of the best characteristics of the Anglo-Catholic clergy of his day. He had passion and prayerfulness, humour and charisma. Above all, he was inspired by the conviction that the life of God could and should become flesh in every earthly community.
Jellicoe studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, before trained for the priesthood at St Stephen’s House. Upon ordination in 1922, he was appointed as Magdalen’s missioner to the slums of Somers Town, near Euston Station. Jellicoe regarded the state of his parishioners’ housing as a scandal. He preached against it as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace.” Jellicoe had been born into privilege and used his many connections to assemble a powerful alliance for change – enlisting the support of the Prince of Wales, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Housing Minister in his St Pancras House Improvement Society.
The Times’ obituary gives some flavour of Jellicoe’s extraordinary energy and enterprise: telling its readers that Fr Jellicoe “resolved that he would not rest till his people had homes fit to live in, and the rehousing schemes started by his society have already provided many excellent flats with gardens, trees, ponds, swings for the children, and other amenities. Although the rents charged are not more than what the tenants paid for the old slums, the loan stock receives 2 per cent and the ordinary shares 3 per cent.”
As Diarmaid MacCulloch has observed: “Half a century before the development of London’s docklands, Fr Basil Jellicoe had pioneered an economically viable and morally inspiring form of ‘regeneration’. More recent initiatives have all too often alienated and displaced the original residents. Jellicoe’s version of neighbourhood renewal took local people seriously, and ensured their needs were given pride of place.”
There was a breadth and generosity to Jellicoe’s vision, which transcended the narrower tendencies of the Anglo-Catholicism. Rowan Williams recounts a characteristic incident: “Father Basil was challenged by some of his more narrow-minded High Church friends about why he would come to celebrate and preach in a parish church like [St Martin-in-the-Fields] where the Blessed Sacrament was not reserved. Father Jellicoe said he had no problem at all in coming to preach in a church part of which was reserved for the service of Christ in the form of his poor.”
Seven decades on, the Jellicoe Community was founded. Its initial aim was to enable another generation of Magdalen students to live out these convictions, on residential placements in East London – more recently, interns have been drawn from a much wider range of colleges and universities. Today’s students are part of a movement for social justice initiated by those living in the inner-city. In the last couple of years broad-based community organising has received a new prominence in the media. Some of you will recall the Citizens UK Assembly on the eve of the General Election, attended by the three party leaders, in which Gordon Brown encountered a Latin American family, the mother of whom cleaned the Chancellor’s office for rather less than a Living Wage. Many more will be aware that it was the community organising alliance in Chicago that trained the young Barack Obama.
Today’s Jellicoe Interns are placed in Christian congregations involved in broad-based community organising. These churches span a wide variety of traditions – Pentecostal, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Salvation Army and Church of England.
These churches are all members of London Citizens, the capital’s broad-based alliance. It contains over 160 dues-paying organisations – alongside churches there are mosques, temples, schools, student and trade unions. Their common action has achieved some striking results. London Citizens has won over £30 million pounds for low-paid workers, and secured the world’s first Living Wage Olympics. The Citizens UK Assembly in May secured commitments from David Cameron and Nick Clegg to the end of child detention in the asylum process, and to Community Land Trusts as a way of achieving decent, affordable housing in our own generation.
In organising, the common action grows out of the relationships – relationships based on an attentive listening to people’s circumstances, passions and values. Community organising is not unique because of the things it campaigns for –– what’s distinctive is the process. The action is not merely for the poorest and most marginalised in society – it is taken by them. People used to being passive recipients of whatever the political process deals out become agents of change. The process matters every bit as much as the results.
Those who run the Jellicoe internship programme have been surprised and heartened by the interest it is generating. At a time when people are supposed to be apathetic, we are finding a real appetite for engagement with social and economic justice – engagement driven by the very people who are supposed to be hardest to involve. At a time when young people are supposed to have given up on institutional religion, we find them increasingly drawn to a form of social action built on the life of local congregations. And at a time when the media is full of stories of church disunity, we find Christians working together across a wider and wider range of denominations and traditions. The approach of community organising is to build relationships around the issues on which we can agree. This is not to evade the serious issues of disagreement. Rather, the hope is through organising on the areas where passion and vision are shared, we can come to more contentious issues with deeper bonds of trust and solidarity.
I’m delighted to be joined tonight by two of our summer interns – Antonia and Arabella, and two of organise the programme with me, Ian and Sr Josephine (who is the Chaplain to our Community). There will be an opportunity to discuss our work and yours over tea and cake after the service.
The growing interest in Jellicoe internships – and in their combination of prayer, reflection and action – has led us to explore the idea of a wider ‘Jellicoe Community’. This will bring together people, initially in Oxford and East London, who wished to give more depth and structure to their spiritual life and their social engagement. We envisage a combination of local cells, occasional larger gatherings, and one-to-one mentoring by a team of Community Chaplains – helping members of the community to discern and live by a personal Rule of Life. The development of this fellowship is at an early stage, and we are keen to learn from other communities such as your own.
In denouncing slum housing as “an outward sign of an inward disgrace “ Jellicoe’s words, and indeed his whole life, proclaimed the intimate connection between spirituality and social justice. Jellicoe knew that when the Spirit of God warmed and transformed human hearts there would be evidence of this in the public sphere as well as the personal.
In many different Christian traditions, through many different initiatives and communities, there seems to be a new hunger for this holistic transformation – this renewal of hearts, of neighbourhoods and of societies. May the Spirit of God, who has placed this work on our hearts, give us the wisdom, the grace, and the companions to fulfil that calling. Amen.