Monthly Archives: November 2012

Citizens of the world come together for change in London

Caitlin Burbridge is Research Co-ordinator at the Contextual Theology Centre. Her work on diaspora communities is for the Contending Modernities research partnership. Here she reports on an extraordinary event that took place this week. Hosted by Church House in Westminster, it saw people from across the globe come together to address their common concerns under the banner of the Citizens UK Diaspora Caucus.

‘All of us are…tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’. These were the words powerfully displayed on a screen at the front of the stage whilst representatives of London Citizens 71 diaspora institutions proudly processed into the room waving their flags high and proclaiming the names of their countries.
So what was the purpose of this assembly? The agenda was threefold, to celebrate what has been achieved by this diverse alliance of people; to meet together and build our sense of collective power as we look ahead to the challenges that face us, and finally to commit to a future agenda which seeks to further the capacity, dignity and freedom of people in our UK diaspora communities.

Diaspora Assembly 2012(1)

Oscar-style awards were awarded recognising the commitment of all sorts of people who have worked tirelessly to further the work of this alliance, from those who have worked to establish the New Citizens Legal Service (a new social enterprise to combat the corruption created by cowboy lawyers), to a schoolboy who spent his weekends asking shop keepers in his local community to commit to becoming ‘safe havens’ for young people in danger, as part of the city safe campaign. The celebrations were enhanced by all sorts of cultural displays such as dancing from the Congolese Catholic chaplaincy youth group, to the SOAS Samba band, and Hazara music performed by Zakir Rostami, all of which was accompanied by the dancing, singing, and clapping of those watching. The atmosphere was vibrant and energetic, and displayed a strong sense of delight in what has been achieved by this group of people.

Standing together to build our power

Having celebrated the achievements of so many, it was time to look at where we are now and where we hope to be a year ahead. Representatives from the Mother Tongue campaign articulated what they have achieved in one year. Having campaigned for meetings with OCR, finally members of SPRESA (a group who seek the recognition of the Albanian language as a GCSE qualification) explained how they managed to negotiate with the Chief Executive of OCR to broaden the GCSE language syllabus. Although this is great news, the work begins now to raise enough money and guaranteed entrants to meet the criteria outlined by OCR in order for this to go ahead. However, there was a great sense of momentum in the room. Representatives from the Somali community also stood up and outlined how they had begun their journey towards the same goal for the Somali language. It became clear that in order for these young people to maintain strong relationships with their families back home, as well as have this opportunity to achieve another highly graded qualification, we must all work together to support them.

Looking forward

Finally, it was time to hear the results of the NICER inquiry into enforced removals. At the first assembly last year we spent a minute in silence to respect the memory of Jimmy Mubenga, a member of a Citizens UK member institution in Manor Park, who was killed whilst being deported from the UK. A CITIZENS UK inquiry has taken place over the past year to ensure that this never happens again. The 7 commissioners stood before the CEO of CAPITA, the UKBA agency contracted to undertake deportation, and acknowledged his cooperation and commitment to working with CITIZENS UK over the past year in order to improve the culture of deportation. They then outlined their recommendations for how CAPITA must now improve its practice for the future. The most striking recommendations was as follows:

We believe that there is no place for the deliberate use of pain as a way of controlling people who are being removed, so we are calling on contractors and the government to work with us and experts in the field to develop pain-free forms of restraint.

CAPITA made strong commitments to observe and implement the recommendations. Another moment for celebration. This is only step one in the process, but having already celebrated so many great achievements earlier in the evening, it became increasingly exciting that when we bring people together we can achieve great change for the future.

Daniel Stone is a church-based community organiser at ARC Pentecostal Church and the Catholic Parish of Manor Park.  His comments sum up the vigour and energy held throughout the assembly: ‘It was an exhilarating evening which found the right balance between celebrating the unique offerings of our diaspora communities, while bringing us together as citizens and friends. I have no doubt that attendees have left church house believing that our disparate communities are strong when we stand together’.

In the UK we have a long way to go to bring about the dignity, respect and opportunity to contribute that all people deserve, but this assembly marked a significant progression from when this diaspora caucus first met last December. No longer are we just acknowledging a belief that when we stand together we are stronger, but we can now celebrate examples which proof that this is the case. The assembly gathered momentum and helped us to look forward with confidence that our voices deserve to be heard, can be heard and will bring about justice.

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Reflections and Prayers for Sunday 2 December

Introducing Advent

One of the hardest things for us to do – especially in today’s busy and anxious culture – is to wait.  Our meals are microwaved to cut the preparation time.  Often, they are eaten in front of the TV so we can ‘keep up’ with the 24-hour news.  People live in a perpetual state of motion: despite the huge number of ‘labour saving’ inventions in the last century, our lives seem more crammed full of activity than ever.  For what…?

Advent is a time of waiting.  It reminds us that in the Christian life, it is God’s action not ours that comes first.  Before we can do anything useful, we need to watch and wait, to see where his Spirit is at work.

This Sunday’s Gospel reading

This Sunday’s Gospel is Luke 21.25-36. The reading introduces key themes for Advent –  of being alert and awake for God in the midst of the turmoils and distractions of the world around us.

Have you ever watched an angler standing by the river? It looks a very restful pastime, but as any angler will tell you, it involves a lot of concentration. You’ve got to be patient… willing to wait hours while little or nothing at all happens. But if you don’t also keep alert, you’ll miss the opportunity to catch anything.

Too often in today’s world we’re either rushing around or we’re slumped on the sofa! Neither of these are states of alertness and watchfulness. That state of mind – peaceful, patient and yet wide awake– is one we have to make a determined effort to cultivate.

For most of us, December is a very busy time, with lots of
preparations for Christmas.  Will we make an extra space this Advent to listen to God: a little extra time each day to watch and wait?  We might spend it reading the Bible – slowly and reflectively, letting the words sink in, and picturing the situations they describe.  We might listen to a piece of music, or sit before an icon or a candle (as sign of Christ’s light).  If our extra time of quiet is at the end of the day, we might recall each of the people we have met  in the day…their needs and concerns… the way we interacted with them…the things for which we need to say ‘thank you’ and for which we need to say ‘sorry’.

Advent is meant to be a time of preparation for the God who takes flesh and lives among us.  So we can expect to meet Christ in the flesh-and-blood encounters of our daily lives. Keeping Advent prayerfully helps us recognise him when he moves among us – here and now.

Prayer intentions

Pray for all involved in the social action projects of the Church Urban Fund and the community engagement in churches supported by the Contextual Theology Centre – that the demanding work they are doing may draw them closer to the God who became flesh in Jesus.  Pray that Advent may be a time when they can attend more deeply to God’s presence among them, and find in him the strength and grace to minister.

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With good reason

This week sees the arrival of a new book by Centre Director Angus Ritchie – developing a significant new line of argument within Christian apologetics.  Published by Oxford University Press, From Morality to Metaphysics argues that atheism is unable to account for our deepest ethical commitments.

You can hear Angus discuss the argument with Justin Brierley and atheist Kile Jones on Justin’s Premier Radio show Unbelievable and the associated podcast.  On the show, Angus also discusses the implications of these kinds of apologetics for wider debates about the role of faith in public life – a subject he has written on for the University of Notre Dame’s Contending Modernities blog.

On 6th December, Angus will be debating these issues at the London School of Economics with atheist philosopher Julian Baggini and agnostic (and former Anglican priest) Mark Vernon – with the New Statesman‘s Jonathan Derbyshire in the chair.  This event marks the launch of Angus’ report From Goodness to Godwritten for the public theology think-tank Theos – which will summarise his book’s main argument, and applies them to questions around faith in public life.

Money talks – the Church at its best

Whatever your theology, we can probably all agree that this week has not seen the Church of England covering itself in media glory. So it is ironic that on Wednesday evening a Newsnight report proved that the Church is at the cutting edge of an increasingly visible issue – exploitative lending.

On Wednesday the Office for Fair Trading released a report slamming Wonga and other payday loan companies for “aggressive” and “misleading” practices in collecting their debts. This was picked up by several newspapers and followed by a special report describing payday loan rates as “exorbitant” and “often agony to repay”.

The Contextual Theology Centre is working with London Citizens on a campaign called ‘Just Money’ which is seeking to help ordinary people take back control over money. We’ve produced an essay collection called ‘Crunch Time’ which gives a theological grounding for the campaign. And with a new series of ‘Money Talks’ opening up discussions about people’s experiences of money, momentum is gathering at exactly the right time. Money Talks are beginning to happen across east London.

The stories coming out of the Money Talks are powerful and depressing in equal measure.  One woman explained how she’d taken out a loan for £1,000 in 1999 which she continues to pay off to this day. Another had to bail out her granddaughter for £3,000-worth of debts racked up with Wonga. “I won’t be allowing her no more Wonga-ing” she declared valiantly.

Church of England Priest Revd William Taylor explained why he’d felt it was important to get involved:

“Many of our parishioners are poor yet resourceful. They manage on low incomes, juggling jobs and family commitments. Yet there are patterns of struggle. In particular a number of them get into severe debt problems through being unable to meet interest repayments on short term loans. It is terrifying to see how quickly their lives can become chaotic and out of control.

Parishioners like ours are organising themselves to take more control over their lives. An important first step is talking to each other and bringing the pain and fear and the particular problems into the light.”

From these Money Talks a palpable anger and appetite to see change happen is emerging. Soon the Churches who have pioneered the Money Talks will join forces and take part in a ‘Money Walk’ of their local high street to assess the situation on the ground. If it’s anything like my local high street – Bethnal Green Road – they will be shocked by what they find. One credit union is up against five pawn shops and four payday lenders in the battle to offer much-needed credit as times get hard.

Where the campaign goes from here is up to the people involved. One thing is for certain though – if I was a payday lender charging 4000% interest or a Government minister claiming that we can’t cap the cost of credit, I’d be getting pretty worried. When the local church really gets its teeth into an issue that its members are passionate about, it can be a powerful force for positive change.

Please email David at for more information about the Just Money Campaign and how you and your organisation could get involved.

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Near Neighbours… in business!

Shops and businesses from around east London have come together to form an exciting new alliance. The first meeting of the East End Trades Guild took place this week at Christ Church, Spitalfields. The organisation is going to support small and medium-sized traders, independent retailers and family businesses.

Support and partial funding for the project has come from Near Neighbours. The huge diversity of the businesses involved and the range of different cultural backgrounds they come from is astonishing. The whole world is doing business in east London!


The East End has undergone huge changes in recent years with many boutique shops and creative businesses moving in. But there are still many traditional traders and businesses run by the communities who’ve made the area home over hundreds of years.

The 200 businesses describe themselves as “The Beating Heart of the East End.” Read more about their exciting vision in this story from the Guardian.

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Reflections and Prayers for Sunday 25 November

This Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, and the Gospel reading is John 18.33-37

The month of November has had a particular focus on the Kingdom of God.  On All Saints’ Sunday and Remembrance Sunday, we have been reminded that the earthly, visible church is part of a far greater Body: that we are united not only with Christians across the earth, but across all ages, in one fellowship with Jesus Christ as our Head and King.  Last Sunday, the Gospel reading spoke of the turmoil of earthly empires and kingdoms, and reminded us that our security is found in God’s rule, not in human authorities.

The very first line of each Gospel marks out the tension between Christ’s kingship and earthly empires.  The Greek word for ‘Gospel’ (evangelion) meant the proclamation of good news concerning the Emperor.  An evangelion would be issued to his subjects know that an Emperor had come to power, had a son, or occupied new territory.  In calling their works ‘Gospels’, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are each making an extraordinary claim: that true sovereignty lies in the hands, not of Casear, but of one born in a manger and crucified by the religious and imperial powers of his age as a common criminal.

Jesus’ Kingdom is not ‘of this world,’ not one among many political forces jostling for power.  But it has implications for this world, and for the way it is to be ordered.  The truth proclaimed by Christ the King challenges this world’s idolatries – the things we place our trust in, and build our lives around.

As Jesus himself tells us (Luke 4.18-19), this means “Good news for the poor” release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for those who are oppressed and ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ (that is, a year of Jubilee).  In the Magnificat (Luke 1.46-55), the song used by many Christians in their evening prayers, we are told more about the new Kingdom dawning in Christ, the Son of Mary:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

The Feast of Christ the King is an opportunity for both rejoicing and challenge.  Rejoicing, because if Christ is the King of the Universe, the task of transformation does not fall on our shoulders alone.  Christian ministry is a participation in God’s work of transformation, and the final triumph of Christ’s Kingdom is secure.

For all that, this feast should challenge us – and shake us out of complacency or purely other-worldly piety.  There are dramatic implications for our lives and our society if the one who was born of Mary and crucified under Pilate is not simply a remarkable human being but (to use the full title of this Feast) ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe’.

Almighty, ever-living God, it is your will to unite the entire universe
under your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, the King of heaven and earth.
Grant freedom to the whole of creation,
and let it praise and serve your majesty for ever,
through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God for ever and ever. Amen.

(Prayer for the Feast of Christ the King, Roman Catholic Daily Office)

Prayer intentions

Pray for the Joint Ventures which the Church Urban Fund is setting up with Dioceses across England – and the very practical work they will generate to enable some of the country’s poorest neighbourhoods to experience something of the generosity and justice of God’s Kingdom.

Pray too for the work the Contextual Theology Centre is doing to help Christians make a deeper connection between prayer and social action – so that our lives are neither other-worldly, nor simply full of human activism.  Pray especially for the Quiet Afternoon next Sunday (2nd December) on Mary: Prayer and Action – and for the team of speakers (from Pentecostal, Anglican and Roman Catholic partner churches).

Developing leaders, strengthening communities

Young people from across eastern London came together in October and November to take part in an exciting and dynamic leadership training course with Near Neighbours. The 13 young adults, from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds were nominated by their respective faith communities and Nehemiah Foundation community workers

The training took place at the International Headquarters of the Salvation Army and the Royal Foundation of St Katharine. The topics discussed included communication and inter-faith relations. The training was provided by the St Phillip’s Centre as part of its Catalyst Bronze programme.

Revd Tim Clapton, Near Neighbours Co-ordinator for eastern London said, “It was deeply satisfying watching the Catalyst trainees grow in confidence as the four days progressed. Exposed to some first class teaching and group work facilitation, their feedback showed the extent of their learning. One participant said he has started to use some of his new found skills in his leadership role in the Mosque which had been noticed.”

The trainees were joined by Government Minister Baroness Hanham from the Department for Communities and Local Government, as well as leaders of different faiths. One of them, Revd David Lambert from Stoke Newington said, “What a fantastic opportunity for those young people to gain a tremendous amount of knowledge and participation and to be so appreciative of what they were experiencing. I was really put to the test by the questions that were being asked and they genuinely were interested in what I thought and believe; they were inquisitive, not only of my faith, but by other faith leaders who attended.”

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Reflections and Prayers for Sunday 18 November

Sunday’s Gospel reading is either Mark 13.1-8 (Church of England) or Mark 13.24-32 (Roman Catholic / Revised Common Lectionary).  In each case, the tone is apocalyptic.  Mark 13 begins with Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple and of ‘wars and rumours of wars’, and ends with another prophecy – of Jesus’ return in glory.

In the midst of these dramatic, disturbing prophecies, Jesus offers three significant pieces of advice to his disciples.

– they are not to be alarmed (v7) or led astray (v5): whatever happens, God is sovereign.  Disciples need to keep their focus on, and trust in, him;

– they are not to speculate as to what the future holds (v.32).  Trusting in God means not reading the Bible as if it offered us coded guidance about when the world will end, or detailed predictions about the future.  Human time, and its consummation, are in the hands of God alone.  The disciple’s task is to be faithful – not to second-guess providence;

– they are to to be prepared and to be watchful for signs of God’s activity.  Instead of trying to see into the future, they are attend to what the Holy Spirit is up to here and now.

Discipleship is not about running away from the world in which God has placed us.  God has placed us in present, not the future; on earth, not in heaven.  Our task is to be co-workers with God, embodying and proclaiming his justice, his peace and his love here and now.  We can do this, not because we know exactly what the future holds, but because we know the most important thing about it.  The future, like the present,  is in the hands of a God of justice, peace and – above all – love.

Prayer intentions

Pray for the General Synod meeting this week, and for the work Church Action on Poverty and Contextual Theology Centre are doing to engage Synod with the Living Wage Campaign.

Pray also for the Centre’s partner churches in The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO), as they prepare for their annual assembly this Wednesday.  Pray especially for the work being done to secure a long-term local legacy from the Olympic Park – including affordable, community-owned housing.

November update from the Director

Events for Advent

The Centre has planned a variety of events activities for Advent 2012: a Quiet Afternoon on Mary: Prayer and Action (speakers ranging from a Pentecostal pastor in Newham to an Assumptionist priest in Bethnal Green); the second of our bi-monthly Community Bible Studies (on the theme of ‘Encounters’) and a debate on the religious foundations of morality at the London School of Economics.  Our Advent programme ends with Earthly and Heavenly – an evening of music and reflections on the Christmas story which will be held at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine.

New Resources

The Centre is working with the Church Urban Fund to develop a ‘Community Conversations’ programme – equipping churches to engage their neighbours in discussion and action on economic justice.  David Barclay is available to help churches host such events (  You can find out more here – where you can download the Centre’s resource pack on the financial crisis, along with a range of papers and media articles by staff and Fellows.

CTC is also engaged in a partnership with the University of Notre Dame, which is generating both academic research and resources for local use.  It is focussed on the way Christians, Muslims and secular people negotiate and promote a ‘common good’.  The first fruits of the partnership are already online: including blog posts on the impact of community organising on the Olympics and a new booklet on Muslim engagement in community organising.  In the next month, we will be publishing a report for Theos (the public theology think tank) on the religious foundations of morality, and its implications for the use of religious reasoning in public life.  CTC researchers are also preparing research papers on Christian, Muslim and secular motivations for community organising – and a second, more practice-focused report for Theos.

News: Justin Welby endorses Living Wage; Latest Near Neighbours Grants; Tax Justice Campaign

As well as weekly posts on the forthcoming Sunday’s Gospel readings (with prayer intentions for the work of the Centre and its partners), our new blog includes a range of stories and resources – including news of Near Neighbours (Eastern London), and projects which have received funding from its Small Grants Fund to build relationships between neighbours of different faiths and cultures.

Other recent stories on the CTC blog include our work with Christian Aid’s tax justice campaign; a report on  ‘Highway Neighbours’ (a project of local parishes in Shadwell and Wapping in response to the Olympics), and news of the Bishop Justin Welby’s strong endorsement of the Living Wage Campaign.  We’ll be posting again shortly on  an exciting new piece of work in Newham with our local Pentecostal and Roman Catholic partner churches, helping young people in the area to tackle gang violence.

Drawing the strands together

What draws these diverse strands of activity together?  The Contextual Theology Centre exists to equip churches to engage with their communities.  From the street-by-street interactions encouraged by Near Neighbours, to the way we are engaging churches in community organising; from the very local work of The Shoreditch Group to the sharing of good practice of the Presence and Engagement Network; from the development of the ‘Jellicoe Community’ (of young Christians committed to prayer and social transformation) to our growing range of research partnerships, CTC’s activities are united by their concern for helping local churches to engage prayerfully, faithfully and effectively with their neighbourhoods.

Angus Ritchie

New Archbishop shows support for Living Wage

During a press conference to announce his appointment to the role of Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt Revd Justin Welby has spoken warmly of his support for the Living Wage.

His appointment was confirmed on Friday morning, in the middle of the inaugural Living Wage week. Earlier in the week both Labour Leader Ed Miliband and Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson had show their support for the campaign.

The Living Wage campaign began over a decade ago when churches and other civil society organisations came together under the banner of Citizens UK to campaign for better wages for working people.

The new Archbishop commended the campaign and especially the role that churches have played in winning more than £100 million for the lowest-paid families.

After pointing out that his current Diocese of Durham pays staff the Living Wage, he said, “[It’s] an area in which the church has really made a useful social contribution, a really useful one… it’s something we should be shouting about.”

Hear his thoughts on the Living Wage in full by clicking play here:

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