Monthly Archives: December 2012

Resources for Epiphany Sunday

CTC has produced a short film and sermon notes for The Childrens’ Society to help churches celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany on Sunday 6th January – and to connect the story of Jesus and his family as they flee to Egypt with that of refugee children and families today.

For Christians, Christmas Day is only the beginning.  ‘Twelfth Night’, the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrates the revelation of Jesus Christ to the whole world.  We follow the journey of the eastern kings as they find their way to Jesus – and in doing so, we come together to see his glory, and to offer our gifts in praise and homage.

This revelation is set in the context of danger and violence.  Herod seeks to kill the Christ-child.  Frustrated by the eastern kings, he kills all the firstborn Hebrew males under the age of two – forcing Mary, Joseph and Jesus to flee as refugees to Egypt, where they would have been forced to depend upon the kindness and support of people who they did not know.

What are the stories of those who seek refuge in the UK today? How are we as Christians called to respond?

Use the film and sermon notes to explore these issues – and visit the Children’s Society website for suggestions on how to respond in thought, prayer and action.


For those fleeing danger and looking for safety; for those on the run looking for a new home; for children left destitute in a strange country; Lord, may we offer a welcome as warm as the one we would offer the Child who once fled to Egypt.  Amen

From The Children’s Society


Beyond the sentimental

Reflections and Prayers for Christmas Day and Sunday 30 December

The Gospel readings for Christmas Day are Luke 2.1-14 and John 1.1-14

This Sunday’s Gospel reading is Luke 2.41-52

The Christmas story leaves us with no room to believe our religion is an “other-worldly” faith!  The world-to-come is born in the mess of the world-as-it-is: the story tells us of the decrees of a hated occupying power (as the Romans force all their subject people to register for a poll tax); of displaced peoples (who soon have to flee to Egypt as refugees); and of homelessness.  It is a story of upheaval, powerlessness and insecurity.  And its in the midst of all of this that heaven comes to earth.

After Christmas, the church celebrates the Feast of St Stephen (the first martyr) on 26th, remembers the Holy Innocents (the Hebrew children slaughtered by Herod, because he fears the Christ-child will be a rival King) on 28th and celebrates the Feast of the Holy Family on Sunday 30th.

Each of these days reinforces the un-sentimental nature of the Christmas story.  Christmas joy, Christian joy, is not about a turning away from the pain of the world into an escapist fantasy.  The joy of the Christmas story is that nowhere in creation is beyond God’s concern, and God’s redeeming work.

Prayer intentions

Pray for all Christian social projects which offer shelter, food and companionship to those in greatest need this Christmastide.


CTC has produced short film and sermon notes for the Feast of the Epiphany – connecting the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt with the experience of refugee children in the UK today – for The Children’s Society.

Why sticking plasters are good, but not enough…

The Centre’s Communications Officer, Andy Walton, writes in response to the increasing focus on foodbanks and other ‘sticking plaster’ solutions to poverty.

The explosion in the number of foodbanks opening up across the UK has been greeted with several different responses. Today at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, Labour Leader Ed Miliband suggestion it was a clear sign that things were “getting worse” that “more working people are relying of foodbanks.” Prime Minister David Cameron responded that the provision of this emergency provision was a sign of the ‘Big Society’ in action.

The Christian charity which helps local communities set up foodbanks, The Trussell Trust, now says that up to three such centres are opening per week across the country. A record number of people are thought to have come into contact with a foodbank in the past year. This number is expected to increase again in the coming year with the impeding changes to benefits and further cuts to the public purse.

Here at the Contextual Theology Centre, we are proud of the role we have played in helping to set up Hackney foodbank. It has been a remarkable success since setting up and has seen a number of local churches, schools and other institutions coming together to serve the whole community regardless of the faith position of those in need.

However, we are also concerned that so called ‘sticking plaster’ solutions such as foodbank are not the only response that the church has to the increasingly desperate plight of our poorer communities. Foodbanks, soup runs, night shelters and other emergency provision are absolutely vital to those who face crisis situations. Many of them also do a superb job in guiding clients onto other groups and services which can provide them with the means to escape poverty in the medium term.

However, we also recognise that there is a prophetic role for Christians to play in tackling the root causes of injustice, rather than just its consequences. In ancient Israel, gleaning the fields was allowed to provide for those who needed something to eat. But this was recognised as a temporary solution. The real solution to poverty was the radical redistribution of wealth promised in the Jubilee, the recognition that ultimately everything belonged to God and that to acquire and keep more than your family’s ‘fair share’ was only an ephemeral state of affairs.

For this reason, sticking plasters (or so-called ‘mercy ministries’) will always be an important part of our work, but never the full story. A second component of our social justice effort is focused on ‘justice work.’

As veteran civil rights campaigner Dr John Perkins puts it, “You’ve all heard it said that if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day. That if you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime. But I say that if we are to be truly successful in making this a viable community…we must own the pond the fish live in. He who owns the pond decides who gets to fish.”

To this end, we are involved in a number of campaigns which seek to redress the economic balance of our country and our world. From tax justice to the Living Wage, we want structural change which makes a difference for the local communities we work in, across east London and beyond.

The latest example of this fight for justice comes in the form of our recent appointment of David Barclay. The former President of Oxford University Student Union is an alumnus of our Jellicoe Internship and has recently been appointed to lead our work against the deeply worrying increase in exploitative lending by companies such as Wonga. Keep up to date with this campaign by following this blog and the centre on Twitter (@theologycentre)

Hackney Foodbank: the story so far.

Nationally, 1 in 5 people live in poverty. As many families hit crisis and cannot afford food, people are going hungry in their own homes. Rising food and fuel prices, static incomes, high unemployment and changes to benefits are causing many families to struggle to put food on the table.


This month saw the official launch of the Hackney Foodbank – a much needed service for people across the borough, which has been set up by the Shoreditch Group. The Shoreditch Group is a relational network of local church leaders who seek to collaborate, sharing our capacity and resources in order to meet need and bring hope and good news in our community. Conversations began in 2011 between local churches in the network who were galvanised by the desire to address food poverty in Hackney.


According to the Campaign to End Child Poverty, 44% of children in Hackney live in poverty. This is the third highest level of child poverty in England. Save The Children research documents that 22% of children in Hackney live in severe poverty – where a household has an income below 50% of the median (after housing costs), and where both adults and children lack at least one basic necessity.




Hackney has the sixth highest rate of primary school pupils (36%) and fourth highest rate of secondary school pupils (38%) eligible for free school meals in London. According to the last comprehensive statistics, 15% (13,806) of households in Hackney were living in fuel poverty, the fourth highest rate in London – that is where the amount of energy needed to heat a home to a comfortable standard costs more than 10% of the household’s income.


These stark facts prompted action from a cluster of churches in the south of Hackney, mainly around Hoxton. They were beginning to explore setting up a local foodbank. We contacted The Trussell Trust, a Christian charity whose community projects tackle exclusion and poverty in the UK and Bulgaria. The Trussell Trust’s UK foodbank network partners with communities nationwide to launch foodbanks that provide three days of emergency food to men, women and children in crisis.


The economic downturn has seen the need for foodbanks soar right across the UK. New foodbanks are opening at the rate of three a week and the number of people fed by foodbanks has doubled to almost 130,000 in the last year alone.

So how does it work?

1. Schools, churches, businesses and individuals donate non-perishable, in-date food to the Hackney foodbank. All food given out by the foodbank is donated by local people and collected by volunteers at supermarkets, and is also given regularly and at special times of year – including Harvest and Christmas – by churches, schools, businesses and community organisations.

2. A team of volunteers manage a warehouse operation on a weekly basis, weighing and sorting new donations, managing the rotation of stock and ensuring local distribution centres are kept replenished.

3. The foodbank builds relationships with a wide of local front-line care professionals such as the local Citizens Advice, children’s services, housing, probation, health and other welfare services, as well as Job Centre Plus, who can identify individuals or families in crisis. The foodbank registers these agencies and allocates vouchers which allow them to refer clients directly to the foodbank distribution centres.

4. Foodbank clients bring their voucher to a foodbank centre where it can be redeemed for three days of nutritionally balanced food.  Foodbanks are an emergency food service: to prevent dependency on foodbanks, clients are entitled to up to three consecutive foodbank vouchers. To help clients break out of poverty, we signpost clients to organisations able to resolve the underlying problem.


Over the last several months, Hackney Foodbank has established itself as a registered charity and has now been supporting local people for 14 weeks. It is operating two weekly distribution centres – in Hoxton and in Stoke Newington. Since opening on September 3 we have fed 283 people, referred to us by many of the 48 front line agencies that are already registered as foodbank voucher holders in Hackney. Of the more than 6 tons of food donated so far, we have already distributed over 1.5 tons.

St Matthias, Stoke Newington, where the launch of Hackney Foodbank took place.

St Matthias, Stoke Newington, where the launch of Hackney Foodbank took place.

31 Churches, 15 Schools and children’s’ centres, 15 business and community organisations, and over 60 individual volunteers drawn from local churches and the community have come together over the last year to enable this service to be provided.  The Shoreditch Trust, a charitable regeneration agency, and St Matthias Church are each providing venues at no cost which host Hackney Foodbank’s weekly distribution centres. Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Tesco – who have a presence in the borough have put in place a rolling programme of annual collections. Our Lady and St Joseph Primary School in Dalston collected a third of a ton of food alone. Many other schools and churches have donated their harvest produce, often in excess of 100kg. Woodberry Down Children’s Centre organised a collection on behalf of the Foodbank in celebration of Eid.  Safestore in Stoke Newington have provided us with a 150 sq ft unit to store our food and their staff are able to receive donations of food on our behalf from people coming in off the street.


St Joseph’s Hospice, a registered foodbank voucher holder, has provided staff expertise to train our volunteers in understanding the welfare benefit issues our clients face. In addition, the hospice has set up its own weekly collection point for staff, patients and visitors to donate weekly to the foodbank.


Committed compassionate volunteers with daytime availability, including many drawn from the churches that are supporting us, are the key to ensuring that the food we have been fortunate to amass can be made available to those in crisis. We are grateful for those individuals who have been getting alongside those we are serving.


What is the long term vision for Hackney Foodbank?

In due course, as resources and volunteer capacity grow, Hackney Foodbank will seek to expand the number of local distribution centres in Hackney in order that a greater number of clients in need can more easily access a foodbank in their neighbourhood. All of us are aware of the pending impact of changes to the Social Fund and the welfare benefit cap and in anticipation of increased demand that we expect to see on our service we are already planning for that growth in Spring 2013. We know this is only the beginning of the journey but we look forward to continuing to involve our local community.

Mary: Prayer and Action

Reflections and Prayers for Sunday 23 December

This Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 1.39-44) focuses on Mary and her faithful and passionate response to God’s call.

In preparation for this, CTC held a Quiet Afternoon at St Peter’s Bethnal Green – with speakers from four Christian traditions (Anglo-Catholic, evangelical Anglican, Pentecostal and Roman Catholic) offering reflections on Mary as a model of both prayer.

As the speakers recognised, Mary’s “yes” to Jesus comes at a considerable personal cost.  She is an unmarried woman, and so her acceptance of God’s call may affect her reputation – and jeopardise her marriage to Joseph.  She faces the very real possibility of being left with a child, and without a husband, in an age where that would have meant disgrace and isolation.

The speakers also meditated on the significance of God’s choice of Mary.   Mary came from the social and economic margins – a poor young woman living under an occupying power, in a family forced to flee to Egypt as refugees.

So Mary’s humility and obedience provide us with an example – but so do her strength of will, her disregard for the judgements others may form about her.  Mary shows us that meekness is not weakness: her obedience is passionate, committed and courageous.  These qualities shine forth in the Magnificat­ – her great song of praise which follows after today’s reading – and in her constancy in faith – from the events at the start of Luke’s Gospel through to the foot of the cross and the birth of the church at Pentecost.

Finally, Heather Atkinson reflected on the integration of prayer and action in Mary’s life – the way she embodies the contemplative and loving, courageous service, and teaches us not to see these as competing aspects of the Christian life. In Mary we see that the most powerful, transformative action happens when we begin by waiting on God – discerning and treasuring the signs of his action in our daily lives. Then we, like Mary, become ‘God-bearers’ – because the work is His, not ours.

Father, all-powerful God, your eternal Word took flesh on our earth when the Virgin Mary placed her life at the service of your plan. Lift our minds in watchful hope to hear the voice which announces his glory and open our minds to receive the Spirit who prepares us for his coming.

Prayer intentions

Pray for those whose witness to the Kingdom requires great courage and commitment today – all who face persecution or disadvantage for speaking of their faith, or acting for social justice.

From goodness to God

Last week saw the launch of From Goodness to God a Theos report and based on a new book by Centre Director Angus Ritchie. Both texts argue that religion has a unique ability to make sense of our moral commitments.  You can listen to the launch debate – where Angus is in conversation with atheist philosopher Julian Baggini and agnostic Mark Vernon.

Angus’ report is part of a wider research stream at CTC on the role of faith in public life.  His argument is that we cannot completely separate questions about the intellectual credibility of Christianity from questions about its role in the public square.  That’s why CTC is participating in two major research partnerships on these issues – the Contending Modernities programme of the University of Notre Dame and a research programme on religious and secular philosophy at the University of Oxford.  You can keep up to date with developments by following our Contending Modernities and Philosophy posts respectively.

Making sense of the Census

Centre Director Angus Ritchie responds to the newly-released Census figures on religious affiliation:

Today’s Census figures show a much-heralded decline in Christian affiliation, and a significant increase in the number of English and Welsh citizens declaring themselves to be of no religion. In advance of their publication, there was much speculation as to which side of the psychologically crucial 50% the number of Christians would be (in the end, the figure was 59.3%).

In the midst of the debate which these figures will provoke, it is worth getting some perspective.  The majority of English and Welsh people identify themselves as Christian, at a time when wider social pressures give less and less encouragement to such identification.  There is no room for complacency – and no point in denying that this number has declined substantially in the last decade. But these figures tell of a striking persistence of religious belief and practice.  The public square continues to be a place where people of faith and people of no faith coexist in large numbers – with people of faith forming the substantial majority.

In London in particular, the public square has been a very diverse place for many years, with a significant (and growing) number of people of other faiths.  In particular, here in Tower Hamlets, there is a sizeable Muslim population.  So it is no surprise that the borough is one focus of a major University of Notre Dame study of how people with Christian, Muslim and secular worldviews negotiate and promote a common good.

This study is illuminating the unique role of faith in engaging people in action for the common good, and the ongoing relevance of the national church.  In Tower Hamlets – the one London borough where Christianity is not the largest faith –  the Church of England is at the heart of a wide range of social action.  Among the many examples are Foodbanks and money management services (which meet the needs of the people most vulnerable to the ongoing recession and the increasingly intense welfare cuts); Community Organising ( which seeks to address the root causes  – through campaigns for a Living Wage and a cap on payday lending rates), and “Near Neighbours” – an imaginative programme to build relationships across faiths and cultures, which is proving that the parish network can reach and support people far beyond the church’s walls.

The most casual observer of the news headlines would see that faith is more in the spotlight than ever.  A substantial proportion of the public still turn use language of faith to ask the ‘big questions’ about the meaning of their individual and common life.  This is evident from the increasing numbers of people who darken the doors of our Cathedrals (as well as the members of Occupy who camped outside several last year).  In London, there are signs of church growth which buck the national trend, and is occurring across a variety of social groups – with church planting and migration both identified as significant causal factors.

None of this is to minimise the task which faces the church: to articulate a constructive, distinctive voice in the public square, and so to present Christian Gospel in a way that is accessible and compelling.  But many churches in the most religiously diverse contexts are doing exactly that.

The wider church and the wider society have much to learn from these congregations.  They show that it is possible to combine action together on issues where there is a common mind with peaceable, respectful debate on issues of fundamental disagreement.  Christianity and Islam are both missionary religions – we each believe ourselves to have distinctive truths to share with people outside the faith.  Part of what it is to respect and care for another person is to engage with them on issues of disagreement: to seek to share what one believes to be true, and correct what one believes to be mistaken.   (The same is true, of course, in the relationship between people of faith and atheists – which is why I spent last Thursday in debate with the atheist writer Julian Baggini.  For each of us, respecting the other involves seeking to share with them what we see as the truth.)

Whatever else we make of the Census figures, this much is clear: pluralism is here to stay, with a growing array of religious and secular worldviews commanding significant allegiance.  Whatever challenges this presents to the churches, it is hardly the world the ‘New Atheists’ have been campaigning for.  The task for us all is to negotiate and build a truly common life – bearing witness with confidence and generosity to that which we believe most deeply.

The Centre’s Presence and Engagement Network (PEN) is holding an event in Southwark on Making Sense of the Census on the afternoon of Monday 18th February – before the PEN 2013 Lecture, to be given by the Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Revd David Ison.

A new poverty map

As the 2011 Census figures are released, Andy Mathews blogs on the way one of CTC’s partner churches is using the latest technology to map its parish – and work more effectively for social transformation:

Maps are great when you want to get from point A to point B. I have spent the last three months finding out how this is true in an entirely unexpected way.

Whilst interning at St Peter’s Church, Bethnal Green I have discovered an entirely different way of using maps as a guide; not to get from a geographical point A to a geographical point B but as a means to help get from a general problem towards specific, achievable change.

At the beginning of October I was tasked a mapping project to help better understand the needs within the parishs. To do this I needed to use a very modern type of map known as a Geographical Information System (GIS). If you are unfamiliar with a GIS, imagine an interactive version of Google maps – upon which you can add layers of important information.

What this gives you is an interactive data store tied to specific locations – in other words, a very effective means by which to tailor a church’s ministries and social projects to areas of greatest need.

If you are still unsure, let me give you an example. Recurring themes of our listening within the parish are the impact of unemployment and poverty. From research we have undertaken I was able to find a huge swathe of demographics at multiple levels within our parish; at the borough, ward and estate level. We now have data on unemployment, age, ethnicity and even tenant satisfaction – just to name a few.

So what to do with all this data? We can now use this data to find the estates with (for example) the largest levels of unemployment, or the highest rents and target ministry to these most needy areas. We can now act with precision as opposed to vague gut instinct; we can make a deeper impact for God’s kingdom in Bethnal Green.

GIS is also helping the work we are doing to build a safer neigbourhood.  We have been able to plot on the map the location of our 30 ‘CitySafe Havens’  – shops and businesses which are now working with St Peter’s and Shoreditch Citizens to provide safe havens to people in danger of gang violence.  We’ve also come across this website on London Street Gangs, and are checking and mapping the information.

Modern technology is opening up remarkable ways for us to work for God’s Kingdom – and GIS mapping is one very exciting example. I’m sure Charles Booth would have jumped at the chance to use this when he mapped poverty in London back in 1898!

There will be more information on how to harness demographic data for effective ministry at our Making Sense of the Census workshop on 18th February

Reflections and Prayers for Sun 16 Dec

This Sunday’s Gospel reading is Luke 3.7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance…

And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

There are two kinds of sin which John preaches about here.  One is hardness of heart; the willingness to pass by with more than enough possessions while our neighbour has too little.  The other is the abuse of power.  The soldiers have more money than those around them, and are not to abuse their power by seeking more.  Do those same sins affect our lives, perhaps in more subtle ways?

Advent is a time to ask how John’s words speak to us.  Are we indifferent to our neighbour, or when they experience injustice, will we stand with them to resist it?  And what about the power we wield in home and neighbourhood?  Do we use it to build justice or injustice?

Prayer intentions

Pray for the Community Heroes celebrated on the Church Urban Fund website – and for the countless uncelebrated figures here and around the world who are inspired by the Gospel to work for social justice.

Trading Places, Building Community

Daniel Stone is CTC’s Church-based Community Organiser at ARC Pentecostal Church in Forest Gate and the Catholic Parish of Manor Park.  He blogs about these very different congregations, and the work they are beginning to do together:

The differences between the Pentecostal ‘A Radical Church’ and the Catholic parish churches of St Stephen’s and St Nicholas’ are plain for all to see. For starters, while the parishioners at weekend mass are departing to get on with the rest of their Sunday, the congregation at ARC have just warmed their vocal chords and are settling down for another two hours of their service!  You’re also unlikely to find Pastor Peter Nembhard clothed in priestly robes and I suspect that if Father Sean Connolly hollered “God is Good” in the middle of his oration, he would be unlikely to hear his congregation chime back in perfect unison, “All the time”.

Nevertheless I have found that despite these superficial differences, both churches possess a burning desire to see their faith acted out in a manner that is impactful, faithful and radical.

Both congregations have a passion to serve the East London communities in which they are based. Seven years ago the ARC lost one of their young people, Charlotte Polius, in a senseless act of violence. Since then they have worked tirelessly in Forest Gate and beyond to promote the message of ‘Stop Da Violence’, a project which seeks to provide a holistic response to issues of gang crime. For St Stephen’s and St Nicholas’ based in nearby Manor Park, the questions they have sought to answer are: How can we play our part in responding to the city-wide shortage of affordable housing and how can we best cater for the needs of the elderly members of our community?

Of course these questions have at their heart quite complex socio-economic issues, way beyond what a single church could ever hope to engage with on their own. But what is common to both churches and their leaders is an understanding that change is only possible when working in unity with other institutions. In this past year Father Sean Connolly and Pastor Peter Nembhard have taken part in an exercise not too dissimilar from that exhibited by Eddie Murphy in Trading Places – with Father Sean preaching at the ARC and Pastor Peter speaking at St Stephen’s and St Nicholas.

My hope is to turn this useful cultural experience into a long term project that fuses together the passions and interests of these two congregations, and draws in other religious and civic groups in this incredibly diverse borough. At the ARC we have a group of young people who are meeting together regularly to discuss plans for developing the Stop Da Violence project and in the past few weeks we have begun to successfully integrate representatives from St Stephen’s into the discussions. The remainder of the year is likely to continue this focus on building relationships across, within and beyond these two churches – engaging with young people of other faiths in Manor Park and Forest Gate –  in the hope that we will soon be able to put on our first joint event.

With the talent and testimonies I’ve witnessed over the past few months, I can promise you that it will be energetic, powerful and will be one not to be missed! So watch this space…