The Resilient City

Victoria Hall Methodist ChurchFather Shaun Smith, chair of Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield, shares some thoughts and reflections following the group’s Church Action on Poverty Sunday service in Victoria Hall Methodist Church on 15 February:

We had a congregation of more than 60 people. Canon Nick Jowett prepared and led the service, with the assistance of Revd Jonathan Haigh who hosted the service as minister of Victoria Hall.

We heard different voices from people who had been asked to share their visions of what makes a good society (caring for each other, offering love and support, feeling safe, and open to all), and then we shared our responses with our neighbours in church.

Readings from Jeremiah 29:1-7 and Matthew 5:3-16 then led us into a thoughtful sermon from Canon Dr Alan Billings, Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire.  Drawing on his involvement with the Faith in the City report in the 1980s and reflecting on how things have changed since then, he spoke about spiritual poverty at all levels of society and the role of the church. His address appears below, after the break.

We said together this prayer at the end of the service:

Loving God, you made us in your image and inspire us with your story. Bless us with dreams and visions which are big enough to see your kingdom. Strengthen our hands and hearts as we work with Church Action on Poverty towards that good society where the promise of fullness of life is real for each and every one. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

The Resilient City
(text of Canon Dr Alan Billings’s sermon at the service)

In 1983 I was part of a commission that wrote a report for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. It was called Faith in the City. You may have heard of it.

It tried to explain to the people of this country what was happening as the older industries of the first industrial revolution collapsed. These were the so-called smoke-stack industries – steel, cutlery, textiles, ship building, coal-mining – and so on.

The report caused a stir because up to that point no one had really set out to do that systematically or in what today we would call, an evidence-based way. The report upset the government but also made the church look again at what it was doing or not doing for the country’s poor and the country’s poorer areas and churches.

What we found on our Faith in the City Commission made us ask important questions: “What makes people and communities resilient when a local economy begins to collapse?” and  “Why are some people and communities more resilient than others?” If we are concerned with poverty and the poor, these are questions that are just as important as questions about how you make economies work better for the many and not just the few.

So what makes for resilience in bad times? One of the answers we found was having organisations or places where people could continue to meet, regularly, formally or informally, and get support – that could be a corner shop, pub, community centre or  church. In fact, churches were often quite critical because they were more likely to survive than any other local group or local place. Some churches may be boarded up; but pubs and corner shops have closed at a faster rate. While we Christians should not exaggerate our numbers or significance in today’s more secular world, neither should we underestimate our strengths, should we care to use them.

All of which made me wonder this. If we were writing today, what sort of report might we want to produce for today’s society? It wouldn’t just be an updated version of Faith in the City. Times are different. It would need to break new ground. I think it would alert the country to a new kind of poverty.

Faith in the City was concerned with the material poverty that the collapse of traditional industries had brought about. That’s still important. But I think a new Faith in the City would look at a different kind of poverty, a spiritual poverty that was revealed when the banking system crashed in 2008.

A lot of people in the new industries, the worlds of IT and finance, who thought they were so secure, had to face, at least for a while, the possibility of their world collapsing. It created a deep existential angst and much soul-searching. Ever since that time people have begun to talk about the economy in a new way.

In the past we thought the important thing was to raise material standards. And if you take the long view, we have been relatively successful at that. Unlike the early years of the last century, most children now survive into old age and no one dies of hunger. But the financial crash made people think differently. Many now see the good life not in terms of making money – which is how so many did in the boom years – but about having a sense of well-being.

Well-being. This is new. It’s something more subjective. It’s about how I feel about my life and it’s something that can bring resilience whether our material circumstances go up or down. Well-being is not something that money can buy because it does not come from or depend upon money. Indeed, the endless pursuit of money can be so all-consuming that it crowds out the way you build up the sense of well-being. You don’t make time to reflect on the life you are living – which when you do, may seem shallow or pointless. Well-being is about feeling valued as a person, feeling that you are contributing to some greater good – beyond your own life and perhaps beyond your own lifetime. And that sense of well-being can be yours whether you earn a little or a lot.

And here the Church can offer an evidence base. It can show empirically that people who belong to ordinary Christian congregations build up that sense of well-being that is so fundamental to living the good life, whether you are rich or poor; and the sense of well-being is fundamental to being resilient, in good times and in bad .

A sense of well-being depends in part on what we believe – knowing that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. In other words, knowing that our worth is not dependent on our income, our job, our wealth, what we have, or even the sort of person we are. It’s about realising that we are of value because we are of value to God, whatever the world thinks. It’s also about being valued in the congregation to which we belong. We are affirmed there week by week as we greet one another in the name of the Lord and as we exchange our news; and support one another in times of sorrow and sadness. This is the gospel being heard and made part of our DNA. Well-being brings resilience.

This is not the only way a sense of well-being can be built up; but it is a tried and tested way. It is evidence-based: unspectacular, undramatic, but life-affirming, life-saving ordinary Christianity.  And it doesn’t stop in our congregations, because we take these insights into our communities. We seek the welfare, the resilience, of the city, as the prophet Jeremiah said, knowing that in its welfare lies our own.

Yes, we want a fairer society where wealth and opportunity is more equitably shared. But we also need to understand that money isn’t everything. Whether we are rich or poor or somewhere in between, we need what ordinary Christianity can give us  – a sense of well-being. Lacking that sense of well-being is also part of the poverty of our times.

It’s a poverty shared by rich and poor alike.

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