Category Archives: Will the First be Last?

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


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)

Looking forward

News of materials for Epiphany and Lent… and reflections on this Sunday’s readings

The second day of Advent may seem a little early to be looking forward to Lent, but many churches will now be deciding on their Lenten courses and activities!  So we thought it was a good time to highlight the fact that CTC is working with the Church Urban Fund on a Lent course on how churches can make sense of – and respond faithfully to – the continuing economic crisis.

We’re also producing some materials for the Feast of the Epiphany (Twelfth Night), a feast often overshadowed by Christmas holidays, but an important reminder of the cost as well as the joy of the Incarnation.  The visit of the Wise Men led on to Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.  CTC and The Children’s Society will be releasing some materials to help churches reflect on issues of asylum and migration around that feast, and the associated Lectionary readings.

Reflections on the readings for Sunday 9 December

More immediately, though – here are our regular reflections on this Sunday’s Gospel – Luke 3.1-6

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight…56 All flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

The Gospel readings in these three Sundays before Christmas show us the impact of God on three lives – John the Baptist, Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary.   Their hearts and lives are well-prepared for Christ, and in different ways they show us how we can use this as a season of preparation.

John’s message is deeply challenging ,  but it begins with a word of hope.  God is active, and has power to deliver.  His salvation will be seen in the flesh, and those who groan under the weight of injustice and sin will find their freedom.

John’s ministry emerges out of time set aside for prayer – an encounter with God in the wilderness.  That’s what makes him so sensitive to God’s will.

John’s example is a challenge to us – a challenge facing anyone involved in Christian social action.  When we work together for change, we need to have John’s courage – discovering our potential to speak and act in public, in ways that move us beyond our comfort zones!  But we also need to be humble; to realize that true leadership involves helping others to grow, not dominating them and keeping them in the shade.

Getting that balance right requires time for reflection, repentance and learning.   And above all it requires us to focus on Christ and not on our own ego – so that, like John the Baptist, we recognise the time to speak out and the time to stand back and let others take the centre stage.

Prayer Intentions

Pray for all those preparing devotional materials for use in the year ahead – that they may help Christians to ground social action – as John the Baptist did – in the grace revealed to us in Jesus Christ, not in our own energies and ideas.

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:

Tagged , ,

All aboard for tax justice…

Last week, the Contextual Theology Centre joined forces with Christian Aid and Church Action on Poverty to hold a debate on the moral imperative for individuals and corporations to pay tax.  It is covered on the latest Sunday programme on Radio 4 (begins at 4 mins 57 secs).  

CTC’s Communications Officer Andy Walton blogs on the event and the issues behind it:

Tax is boring. This common misconception seems to be everywhere. Accountancy is caricatured as a dull profession. Paying taxes is bracketed with death. And even HMRC’s own advertising campaign protests a bit too much – “tax doesn’t have to be taxing” they assure us.

This week Christian Aid, Church Action on Poverty and The Contextual Theology Centre offered a radically different perspective. Far from being dull, tax is actually a vital topic of conversation, debate and campaigning. The three organisations held a debate at Christ Church, Spitalfields which was part of a nationwide tour for ‘tax justice’ being undertaken by a converted London bus.

So what’s the problem with tax? Well, according to Christian Aid’s research, more than 160 billion pounds every year is retained by big companies around the world who should be paying it in tax. That’s more than the entire global aid budget. This comes from a mixture of tax evasion (which is illegal) and tax avoidance (which is legal, but morally suspect).

The campaign to highlight these simple facts is gaining momentum. As the global slump continues, more and more politicians, campaigners and NGOs seem to be realising that there is an injustice at the heart of a system which allows so much money to be creamed off and diverted away from the public services it could be used for.

At Christ Church this week we heard powerful testimony and arguments on the issue. The panel was ably chaired by Revd Canon Dr Giles Fraser, who shot to public prominence after he resigned from St Paul’s Cathedral during the Occupy camp. His light touch and probing questions meant we never lost sight of how serious the issue is, but it never felt like a worthy yet dull evening.

In his introduction, Giles described Dr Richard Wellings as the evening’s ‘pantomime villain.’ Richard was happy to play up to this role, espousing his libertarian views and at one point suggesting that all tax was akin to theft. But his contribution was vital – it can’t be taken as read that everyone thinks that big companies should pay their taxes. Dr Wellings made the point that some would indeed see it as a moral obligation not to pay.

Savior Muamba was keen to argue the point with Richard. He is a Zambian campaigner for tax justice who highlights the role played by big mining corporations in his native land. Savior pointed out to the audience that his country needs infrastructute and investment. While private companies are a great way to find this much needed boost, they need to do so through taxation as well as through their creation of jobs and markets. His appeal was simple, “I believe in reality. We saw an increase in educational spending, in healthcare spending when tax dodging became harder.”

Savior was supported by Revd Dr Sabina Alkire from the Oxford Poverty and Development Initiative. An economist by trade, Dr Alkire pointed out that supporting fair taxation didn’t mean a commitment to a large state. In fact, she argued that fair taxation was only the start of a system which allowed people all around the world to reach their potential, “poverty is where human beings aren’t flourishing” she said.

The final member of the panel was the Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator Peter Oborne. Peter has written passionately about the need for increased integrity and probity in public life. He made clear during the course of the debate that he sees tax dodging as completely opposed to that. And what was Peter’s advice to those who share his disappointment in the corporations? “We have a duty to shame companies that don’t pay their taxes” he said. He repeatedly asserted his Conservative credentials, shattering one of the distortions around this topic. To be an economic conservative doesn’t mean supporting tax dodging. In fact, Peter offered his full-throated support for the campaign.

At this point, one of the most important parts of the evening took place. Having had a chance to hear the debate and look round the tax bus, the audience themselves were then given a chance to have their own say. Led by community organiser David Barclay, we were encouraged to get into groups. David led us through a simple process which is being developed by CTC, called a ‘community conversation.’

The groups introduced themselves to eachother and began to discuss what made them angry about the current system, and about the financial sector more generally. David then asked us to widen our thoughts to include any issues in our local communities which needed reform. He suggested examples such as the proliferation of betting shops and pay day lenders on our high streets. Citing the hugely successful Living Wage campaign, David encouraged us to reconvene in our groups and discuss how some of these issues might be tackled by us building our power as communities and working together alongside the different institutions we’re all part of, such as churches, schools and residents associations.

By the end of the evening, we’d been stimulated to think and to act.

What happens next is the truly exciting part.

Archbishop Sentamu to lecture on Good Childhood

The Centre has begun a research partnership with The Children’s Society on child poverty, theology and inequality.  So we are especially pleased to publicise their 2012 Edward Rudolf Lecture by the Archbishop of York.  The event will launch the Good Childhood Report 2012 – with empirical research which complements and informs our ongoing programme of theological reflection on the issue

The Children’s Society invite you to join us and the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, in a presentation of our groundbreaking Good Childhood Report 2012 on 12 January 2012 in Church House, Westminster SW1P 3NZ.

The Good Childhood Report, based on the views of 25,000 children and young people, contains compelling evidence on the factors that affect the well-being of children.

 The evening will be an engaging exploration of the ingredients of a happy childhood, consisting of a presentation of the report followed by a lecture by the Archbishop of York, who has been an outspoken advocate for young people in the UK for many years.

 The writers of the report as well as the Archbishop will interact with the audience in a Q&A session following the lecture. Registration opens at 5.30 pm and all are invited to the post-lecture reception lasting until 8.30 pm.

To attend, please email or telephone The Children’s Society’s Supporter Care Team on 0300-303-7000.

From ideas to action

As part of our series of posts from the recent theological consultation with The Children’s Society, here is a reflection by CTC’s Adam Atkinson and Angus Ritchie (both priests at St Peter’s, Bethnal Green)

‘The world as it should be’ preoccupies many of us.  It can be a distraction as well as an inspiration.  Our contexts is Bethnal Green, aka ‘the world as it is’.  If you stand on the steps of our parish strip club on Hackney Road and pointed out a mile radius – the context of that area is not just cultural creatives, Tec city entrepreneurs, boutiques and nightlife.  It is also 40% unemployment and 54% child poverty.

As Anglican priests in Bethnal Green we are living, working and praying for transformation: for the spiritual, social and cultural transformation that the Gospel brings, as the Kingdom of God comes near in the person of Jesus.  We lead an institution that is trying to love God and love neighbour, faithfully and effectively.

Soon after arriving as yet another immigrant to East London (albeit a new-wave middle class one), Adam was introduced to a community organiser.  They spoke about addressing the social need of the city and the organiser asked Adam why he was here.  Adam replied: ‘To be a voice for the voiceless.’  The organiser shot back “Why do they need you to speak for them?  How about helping them to have a voice?’

The voice of the poor has to be at the heart of social transformation.  This Consultation has explored the gap between rhetoric and reality on issues of poverty and inequality.  We hear a great many words – from politicians of all stripes – about the excessive gap between rich and poor.  Indeed, we have an unprecedented political consensus on the urgency of tackling domestic as well as global poverty.  And yet the gap between rich and poor gets wider.  This isn’t a party political point: both the last government and this one fall short of the agreed targets for cutting child poverty.  Lots of edifying words: but few of them becoming flesh in Bethnal Green.

Time and again, we find the redistribution of power is the essential prelude to real change.  ‘Being a voice for the voiceless’ is not enough.  Is the voiceless who feel the urgency of poverty most keenly. It is when they find their voice and build their power that change becomes possible. That’s why The Children’s Society is so committed to including young people in this conversation.  It is also why community organising – the systematic building of power among the poor – has a crucial role to play in closing the gap between rhetoric and reality on the issue of child poverty.

What is power?  The best definition we know is this: ‘the ability to act’.  Power is not good or bad.  That depends on how you use it, and to what ends. We are familiar with different types of power: Positional power – where a leader operates through the mandate given to them by an office of some sort, a Mayor, a Bishop, a boss in an office hierarchy.  Often people with such positions of power confess that they don’t feel that they really do have much power.  Ironically people without positional power often assume that they need to achieve the position before they can really affect change for the better.

There’s financial power – we’d all quite like more of that.  Indeed the ebbing tide of financial power in families as well as in governments is causing much anguish.  A growing – and painful – inability to act.

As Christians, we share a real and dynamic notion of spiritual power.  We pray, things happen.  It is borne out by our experience and by that of the church.
 There is also such a thing as relational power.  Indeed, relational power when combined with any of the above renders them especially potent.  But it is potent on its own.  Relational power is what community organizing works with.  Relational power really is powerful, it is also something we all need but it happens to be freely available.

 At its heart community organising is about the building of these relationships.  Relationships within and between ‘institutions’: organizations of free association, places that have a life of their own where people gather such as churches, schools, mosques, TRAs, community groups.  These institutions then decide to work together for the common good.

Relational power – sometimes referred to as ‘relational capacity’ – is built through one-to-one conversations.  If I want to build relational power I need to create, develop and keep good relationships.  Again, this is an astonishingly simple idea but often more honoured in the breach that in the observance. 
 A simple personal calendar test will suffice to see if this is something we really do prioritise.  Ask how I spent my time in the last week or month and you will get a fairly clear idea of my priorities.  How many times did I meet with people simply to get to know them, to find out what makes them tick, to build a relationship?

A Catholic priest friend of ours has put three one to one conversations in his calendar every week for the last three years.  As a consequence he can say that he has built a relational culture, where people have followed his lead and carried out one-to-ones themselves, where he certainly knows and is known as a person not just as the parish priest, and where people’s gifts and passions are uncovered and therefore stand more of a chance of being fulfilled.

‘Community organising’ sounds like something new.  With the rise of Barack Obama, it has come (no doubt fleetingly) into fashion.  In fact, it calls us back to some traditions the church has forgotten, as it has followed the wider culture in becoming more project-driven and less relational.  The importance of relationships to young people’s wellbeing, and the pressures in modern life which lead less time to be invested in them, is well documented The Children’s Society’s own Good Childhood Inquiry.  As John Milbank has reminded us, the Church is called to embody – as well as to promote – true reciprocity and society.  And as he suggests, practicing what we preach is central to authentic and effective evangelism.

Community organising is not a distraction from the church’s central task.  Rather, it recalls to a more faithful embodiment and proclamation of the Gospel.  In so doing, it builds the power of our poorest neighbourhoods: enabling the vision of society we have shared at this Consultation to move from the ‘world as it should be’ into the ‘world as it is’.

Theology, poverty and inequality

Two thought-provoking papers on theology, poverty and inequality are now online – from our Will the first be last? consultation with The Children’s Society.

Michael Ipgrave’s paper opened the discussion, setting out some conceptual and existential questions relating to poverty and inequality.  It is an excellent starting-point for theological reflection on these issues.

John Milbank’s paper argues for a distinctive Christian commitment to  ‘the social’ as distinct from the State and the market.  He explores the implications of this for effective ways to address child poverty.  The paper is a powerful example of the distinctive contribution theology can make to these debates; providing far more than a religious gloss on pre-existing political positions and commitments.

Welfare Reform: a view from The Children’s Society

Back in July,  the Contextual Theology Centre’s launched  Will the first be last? – anew research partnership with the Children’s Society on poverty and inequality.  Some of the papers from our initial Theological Consultation are now on the Centre website.

In the next few weeks, we will  be adding new blog posts on the issues raised.  Today, Dr Sam Royston (The Children’s Society Policy Advisor on Poverty and Early Years) blogs on the Welfare Reform Bill.

Now is a time of enormous upheaval for families living in poverty.   A number of cuts to financial support, and services for the most disadvantaged families have already been made in the emergency Budget and the Comprehensive Spending Review last year.  These cuts are part of the Government’s wider deficit reduction plan and their impact is just starting to be felt.  Looking forwards, the Welfare Reform Bill currently going through the House of Lords has been referred to as “rewriting Beveridge” – a fundamental overhaul of the very foundations of the welfare system providing support to millions of children living in poverty.

Some of the reforms in the Bill are to be warmly welcomed.  The introduction of the Universal Credit is intended to simplify the complicated Benefits and Tax Credit systems, and to improve work incentives to help families to “make work pay”.  However, many of the provisions for families are much less progressive.  Cuts to support with housing costs, cuts in support for families with disabled children and young carers, and a punitive benefit cap for out of work households are all going to contribute to what the outgoing Chief Executive of The Children’s Society has warned will become a “decade of disadvantage”.

Because of our commitment to ensuring that children have a good childhood and fair life chances, The Children’s Society will continue to work hard to ensure that children do not lose out as a result of the changes coming down the line – our work in collaboration with other organisations has already helped to ensure £300 million of additional investment in help with childcare costs.  There is clearly still a huge amount to be done.

And the Church has been a crucial partner for these debates.  Christian and other religious groups, helped to bring attention to our petition against cuts to support for disabled children, which now has around six and a half thousand signatures.

Most recently, eighteen bishops signed an open letter to the Observer about the impact of the Benefit Cap on more than 200,000 disadvantaged children, potentially making as many as 80,000 homeless.  The letter, which was supported by both Archbishops, emphasised that “The Church of England has a commitment and moral obligation to speak up for those who have no voice. As such, we feel compelled to speak for children who might be faced with severe poverty and potentially homelessness, as a result of the choices or circumstances of their parents. Such an impact is profoundly unjust.”

We supported Bishop John Packer in presenting amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill which would mitigate the impact of the cap, for instance, removing Child Benefit from household income for the purposes of the cap, and introducing a twelve month “grace period” following the loss of employment, where the cap would not apply.  We will continue to work together closely to get these amendments accepted as the Bill moves through Parliament, in order to avoid the most regressive impacts of the policy.

However, it will take more than action on one reform, or one Bill, to ensure that the most disadvantaged children get a fair deal.  We must not forget that the government has pledged to end child poverty by 2020 – a commitment taken so seriously that it is enshrined in law through the Child Poverty Act.  But current policy is heading directly in the wrong direction – for example, the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently estimated that on the basis of current policy 800,000 more children would be living in poverty by 2020.  Turning this freight train around, particularly in the current economy, is a huge challenge but is one that neither the children’s sector or the Church can look away from.

The Children’s Society will continue to work closely with the Church to express our shared concern for the most disadvantaged children in our society.  We know that economic times are tough, we know that this is a period where the government is committed to making savings, not spending – but this simply must not be done at a cost to children and families living in poverty.   Getting this message across is the biggest challenge we all face in coming years and is one that can only be achieved through shared moral and practical commitment to the cause.

Will the first be last? New research project announced

At a time of economic turmoil, and political controversy over spending cuts, there is an unusual consensus on the issue of inequality. Politicians and intellectuals across the political spectrum agreeing the gap between rich and poor is too wide, and that this ultimately impoverishes all concerned.

The Children’s Society and the Contextual Theology Centre are beginning a year-long consultation – exploring (i) the impact of inequality and the related impact of poverty on children and young people; (ii) a Christian vision of the common good; and (iii) the practical contribution the Church can make to a more just social order. At a time when the Church is being invited to play a greater role in the ‘Big Society’, these are issues on which reflection is much needed.

Will the first be last? will include

– an online conversation, with regular posts on the Faithful Citizens blog

– seminars, reports and articles

– materials for study groups

It will inform the work of The Children’s Society, and of the Contextual Theology Centre and its inner-city partners – Baptist, Catholic, Church of England, Methodist, Pentecostal and Salvation Army congregations.   But we hope the conversation will be of wider relevance to the Church and to all concerned with faith and social justice.

In early September, we will be bringing together leading thinkers and practitioners for a theological consultation – with input from Adam Atkinson, Robert Beckford, Giles Fraser, Ann Morisy, John Milbank and Michael Northcott and Bishops Tim Thornton and David Walker.   Over the next few months, our blog posts will include material preparing for and generated by this event.

By Angus Ritchie, Director

Tagged ,