Centre Director Angus Ritchie begins 2013 with a blog on our work on Christian apologetics:
One old post on this blog that continues to generate interest is the Centre’s Response to Richard Dawkins 2011 Christmas Message. In the intervening year, we’ve continued to engage with the ‘New Atheist’ critique of Christian faith in public life – both challenging its assertions about the impact of Christian practice and advancing a robust intellectual case for Christian belief.
I’ve written a piece in this week’s Church Times which sets out why the ‘New Atheism’ looks increasingly shaky – and why Christians should have no fear of a more robust but reasoned engagement between different worldviews. This is an issue we’ll be returning to in the months ahead, as our research partnerships with the Universities of Notre Dame and Oxford generate further resources and debate.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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 God, written 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.
The Contextual Theology Centre is one of the partners in Contending Modernities – a major research programme of the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame, exploring the way Christian, Muslim and secular worldviews interact in the modern world. Our research is focusing on life in east London (an area which has always received large flows of migrants, and has a consequent diversity of faiths and cultures) – looking at the way in which broad-based community organising helps diverse groups discern and pursue a common good.
Last month – at a historic ‘Citizens Iftar’ – one of the first fruits of this research was launched. A New Covenant of Virtue outlines the theological basis for Islamic engagement in Community Organising, and gives practical examples of this work. Previous collaboration between the Centre and Notre Dame generated a similar book for Catholic Christians, by Austin Ivereigh.
The Contextual Theology Centre is involved in a range of activities related to the London 2012 Olympics. From its foundation, CTC has worked with churches in London Citizens to secure a series of ‘People’s Guarantees’ for the Olympics, on jobs, wages and housing – and the Highway Neighbours project is helping local churches around the Centre to reach out to support their communities.
Our ‘Contending Modernities’ research project with the University of Notre Dame is studying the impact and raison d’etre of Christian, Muslim and secular engagement in community organising – and today, Centre Director Angus Ritchie has blogged for Notre Dame on Faith-inspired community organising and the London Olympics.
Ruhana Ali is the Tower Hamlets Organiser for London Citizens, and part of the Contextual Theology Centre team of researchers on the Contending Modernities project in east London. Here she blogs for us on how different faiths in London are holding the capital’s politicians to account:
On the eve of Wednesday 25 th April, I was reminded how faith is most powerful when in action. As I joined 2,500 other leaders from 240 different churches, mosques, synagogues, schools, universities, charities and unions gathered in Methodist Central Hall for the 4 th London Citizens Mayoral Election Assembly I could feel the electricity in the room. The power brought from being part of a truly diverse community alliance of faith and civic organizations deeply committed to working for the common good. Working with energetic leaders who were confident in their own beliefs, and who understand the importance of relationship; with each other and their elected representatives.
The assembly organized by London Citizens and a team of leaders who had struck deals with all of the candidates for the next Mayor of London over a Citizens Agenda. An agenda concocted from thousands of conversations in our institutions and on streets and doorsteps about what really matters to ordinary Londoners. Affordable housing, dignity for low paid workers through Living Wages, a brighter future for young Londoners with investment in jobs and work opportunities, a commitment to uphold peace on our streets through the City Safe campaign and more accountable relationships with the elected Mayor for Governance of the City.
The celebratory atmosphere on the night was hard to ignore. This was a night of testimony and sharing. We heard stories of triumph over adversity, progress after pain and daily realities of life in London. The message of hope, peace and change was clear. Critics may argue that it was faith overload as we heard choir music, traditions Jewish ram’s horn calling to action and announcements for Muslim sunset prayer.
Faith was not on the peripheries in this Assembly as it seems to have been in so much of the Mayoral campaign race. However is wouldn’t have been at the forefront either if it wasn’t for Politics. Politics of change, by people with a desire to make change for the better displayed best through their actions together than through their words alone.
The power in the room came from action and history. A track record of working together and acting together in public life which lead to trust and relationship the foundation for common understanding. For three months before this night, institutions across the member network had worked hard to sign people up in the community over this agenda. The energy in the room was an amalgamation of the hard work and organized people tasting the fruits of their efforts. The commitments from the candidates a sweet reward for the efforts put it.
In Tower Hamlets alone I saw how faith was being put into action. Our Lady of the Assumption (the Roman Catholic Church in Bethnal Green) had been inspired by their understanding of Catholic Social Teaching – and the teachings of sacrifice and love celebrated in Holy Week and Easter . A team of 6 young teenagers were trained as part of their confirmation to work with the Priest Father Tom, in spreading the word and encouraging the congregation to support the agenda during Sunday Mass and worship times. The social justice agenda, combined with working in the cause of others married beautifully for those taking confirmation.
Just a mile down the road, two mosques (The East London Mosque and Darul Ummah) were busy spreading the message at Friday prayers to the worshippers to be a part of the community and make their voices heard. Inspired by the teachings from the Quran to call to good and work with each other in righteous deeds, they signed hundreds up during prayer times with tables outside the mosque. A show of solidarity with their neighbours and an important understanding that through service in the community you can serve God.
Universities, unions and schools all taking part in signing people up to the London Citizens agenda. Parents, children and friends working together. Many other examples of joint action were being held across other London Borough and the London Citizens network. Thousands of new people were spoken to particularly in the neighbourhoods and on the streets where these faith institutions are located. This was a way for the leaders to reach the community, engage in politics and get to know their neighbours.
An excuse to talk and an opportunity to relate. An an agitation for many. How can you love your neighbour if you don’t know who they are? An important opportunity through politics, to show where faith leads to action.