Category Archives: Mission in Multi-faith England

Building Community Through Music

Tom Daggett, CTC’s Church-Based Community Organiser at Stepney Salvation Army blogs on how community is being built through music and the arts:

Many people understand that music-making is great for bringing people together. I’ve had first-hand experience of this through my work with the Salvation Army in Stepney (www.hopeasha.org.uk). Each week, three projects keep my musical sensibilities in check – and have helped me to recognise how powerful music-based activities can be in bringing people into stronger community.

‘Babysong’ has been running in Roland Philipps Scout Hall each Thursday morning during term-time since September 2011. Babysong is a singing activity intended to develop psychological bonds between parent/carer and child, and social bonds between people in a diverse community. We spend around 45 minutes singing a cycle of songs (which I accompany on the piano), each with a different focus – songs of welcome; songs with movement; songs with instruments; and songs for relaxation and calm, during which children listen to a live piece of classical music. We’ve seen around 100 local families – of diverse ethic, faith and social backgrounds — come through our doors on a regular basis since 2011 – and the group’s reach continues to grow broader and deeper.

The second group is ‘Smart Crew’, an extension of the work of ‘Smarties’ – an after-school kids club which the church has been running for a number of years. Smart Crew is a musical theatre group for kids aged 8-14. I co-ordinate this group (as Musical Director) in partnership with a professional actor, and we’ve now put on two hugely successful shows – ‘Jonah’ (based on the biblical story) and ‘The Landlord’s Cat’ (a fresh take on the nativity story). I have great fun teaching the kids about singing and general musicianship; there is so much energy to be channelled!

Smart Crew

Added to these, I direct a community gospel choir which meets every Tuesday evening in Departure Arts Café, Limehouse –part of the London City Mission. We’ve been running since October 2012, and are starting to do something quite special. Again, the spectrum of people inolved is considerable – and it’s difficult to think of other activities which would bring such different people together in union with one another. And that’s the real emphasis of community-based music projects such as these – they’re intended to be fun, socially rewarding, and to offer relief to other aspects of life which can seem burdensome. That’s why the Contextual Theology Centre recognises the missional potential of music for inner-city churches and communities – and it’s why we’re in conversations with others about scaling this work up, helping others to recognise this imperative and be inspired to do the same.

Investing in the transformation of London

The Bishop of London has officially launched the London Missional Housing Bond. The Bond is seeking to raise £2million to enable a partnership of churches and Christian organisations to buy houses and flats. These properties will then be rented, at affordable rents, to church workers serving in our capital’s most deprived communities.

The Bond was launched in the Mercers’ Hall in the City of London – the historic home of commerce and finance. The wealth of the City contrasts starkly with the deeply ingrained poverty to be found in the areas which will benefit from the Bond – including the East End; worlds apart, yet less than a mile away. The purpose of the Bond is to begin to reconnect London’s wealth with its disadvantaged communities, through the church.

House prices in London have now reached astronomic levels, even in the most disadvantaged communities in inner London. It is arguably now a social crisis. For churches attempting to promote the social transformation that is so badly needed, the price of housing has become a major obstacle to mission. Churches cannot afford to house their youth workers, community organisers and interns in the same neighbourhood. These staff often commute long distances or even move to work somewhere else.

_MG_0211

The Bond tackles this problem head on.  By raising funds (starting from £5,000) from a range of investors – individuals, churches, institutions – it will be possible to buy houses and flats outright and then rent them to church workers at more affordable rates than anything the open market provides. The business model allows the payment of a modest rate of interest to investors (up to 2%).

That is why this is a social investment. Investing in the Bond will not make you rich! It will, however, enable local churches in some of London’s most deprived communities to take on workers and kick-start much needed missional projects. Investors will know their money is working hard giving a social return.

The Bond is being delivered by Affordable Christian Housing, a long established Christian housing association based in London. They are working on behalf of three key partners:

– The Diocese of London, overseeing a network of parishes

– The Eden Network, which places teams in estates across London

– The Contextual Theology Centre, which supports churches across East London to engage in integrated mission to their communities.

These partners will oversee the Bond, decide where to buy the houses and select tenants.

IMG_6379

The Bond launch event itself was a resounding success. It brought together a diverse mix of bishops, clergy and potential investors as well as some of the church workers who might benefit from the Bond – youth workers, interns and community organisers. In this mix, we might perhaps also see the glimmerings of a second social transformation – not just of the deprived communities that stand to benefit, but also of the way that wealth is viewed and invested by those fortunate enough to own it. In an era of irresponsible capitalism, new attitudes to the use of money are needed.

Here we see the church playing an ancient role – bringing rich and poor together and reminding them both of their equality in the eyes of God. What markets and governments cannot do, perhaps the Church can?

For more information on how to invest in the Bond, please click here.

UPDATE: The Bond launch features in today’s Daily Telegraph City Diary (27/02/2013)

The Diocese Of London website now features the Bond and quotes for all partner organisations.

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.

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.

A Postsecular Politics?

Luke Bretherton, Senior Lecturer at Kings College London and a Fellow of the Contextual Theology Centre, has published an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion entitled A Postsecular Politics? Interfaith Relations as a Civic Practice.

In it, Bretherton critiques the way in which interfaith dialogue is often abstracted from the reality of the social, economic and political contexts in which it takes place.  Instead, he restates interfaith dialogue as being explicitly political and civic.  It is rooted in the desire to forge a common life among disparate communities; something which, Bretherton believes, requires an acute sense of place and context.  What is needed are “civic practices of listening, a commitment to place, and the building and maintenance of institutions as central to the formation of a politics of the common good”.

Tagged ,

Fear and Hope

The Searchlight Educational Trust has recently published Fear and HOPE.  This report, based on extensive polling research, gives a fascinating snapshot of current attitudes to identity and extremism in Britain today.

The report captures both the good and the bad.  It demonstrates widespread suspicion of ‘the Other’ – especially Muslims – and shows growing support for a non-violent alternative to the EDL.  A clear correlation between antagonistic views of immigration and economic pessimism means that in the current fiscal context the issue is only likely to worsen.

One the more encouraging side is the apparent fluidity of attitudes to identity, and in particular the openness of younger people.  Furthermore, a huge majority of people reject anti-Muslim extremists as being as bad as Muslim extremists.  Around 60% of respondents believed that positive approaches – including community organising – were the best way to combat extremism in their communities.

The report is worth reading for its empirically based insights into the current situation.  It highlights graphically the dangers of leaving the issues of race, immigration and integration unaddressed. The report’s authors deliberately throw down the gauntlet to the political classes to confront the issue head-on.  As Jon Cruddas MP argues in the Foreword, the core findings of the report “should ricochet through the body politic”.

Yet while the report is focused on “the politics of identity” it also raises interesting questions for Christian readers.  If the imperative to respond is so great for politicians, then surely it must be so for church leaders too.  Does the church today articulate a robust enough “theology of identity” in an age when the search for belonging and community seems to be growing?

Of course there are Christians articulating answers.  Organisations like the Presence and Engagement Network are beginning to address this question by resourcing church leaders and congregations.  Recently, the Contextual Theology Centre helped secure a bid by the Church Urban Fund to run the Near Neighbours programme.  Yet however valuable they are these remain limited in resources and geographic reach.  It is also obvious that Christians need theological resources as well as practical ones to feel equipped for the debate that is becoming unavoidable.

How do we affirm our common humanity with those of different cultures and religions while also engaging with the very real concerns felt by the majority of the population?  In seeking to be hospitable to the alien in our midst, who might the church risk alienating?  How can the local church be a catalyst for community cohesion?

These questions and more need to be answered.  In the meantime, Fear and HOPE provides a much needed look at the state of the issue today.

Tagged , , , ,

Cameron and Multiculturalism

David Cameron made a speech recently in Munich on the subject of state multiculturalism and religious radicalisation.  You can read the speech in full on the Number 10 website.

Amidst the flurry of public reaction to it, a great deal of which relied on misrepresentation of what was actually said, it is worth drawing attention to several different responses from the Christian blogosphere.

First, John Milbank, a Fellow of the Contextual Theology Centre, wrote a response to Cameron’s speech on the Respublica blog which argued for a more communitarian understanding of multiculturalism.

Milbanks suggests that “mere liberalism encourages a clumping into a restricted number of group-identities and so gives us, precisely multiculturalism of the most anarchic kind”.  He writes, “if Cameron could express more boldly the positive shared character of the British identity, including its peculiar religious aspect, he would far less risk offending Muslims and corroding British solidarity for the future. In order fully to reject merely liberal multiculturalism he needs to move beyond mere liberalism. But in doing so he could be kinder to a multiculturalism of a more organicist variety.”

Second, Robert Jackson wrote an insightful comment on the website of think-tank Ekklesia which sought a more nuanced understanding of the reality of a multifaith culture than the picture painted by Cameron.  In particular, Jackson argues for the importance of religious education in schools in facilitating greater understanding between religions and cultures.

Finally, the Charities Parliament blog from Faithworks has a short response from the Christian and Muslim Forum.

Tagged , , ,