Author Archives: Chris

Licensed Economic Inefficiency – some thoughts on God and Social Justice

Lev 19:9 “When you harvest your fields, do not cut the grain at the edges of the fields, and do not go back to cut the heads of grain that were left.
Lev 19:10 Do not go back through your vineyard to gather the grapes that were missed or to pick up the grapes that have fallen; leave them for poor people and foreigners. I am the LORD your God.”

This commandment, illustrated in practice in the story of Ruth, demonstrates an attitude to economics that contrasts sharply with our modern capitalist emphasis on efficiency. We are so used to the ideal of picking up every single grain, every single grape, that it still comes as a bit of a shock.
Our economics are built on a theory of scarcity, which at once leads us to be grasping and ungenerous. After all, if resources are so limited, we have to look after Number One, don’t we?
But there is another ethic, built on a theory of abundance. When there are resources, it’s silly (and wrong) to hold them to ourselves, so let’s share them.
Why silly? – because resources of food especially are perishable. When a villager killed a pig, everyone in the village could expect to benefit – otherwise the meat would go bad. And the same applied to many other foodstuffs.
Why wrong? – because people in villages belonged together. If Mrs Jones was left out of the pork sharing, she was being left out of the village community.
Now, I have lapsed into the past tense and a village setting, because I can’t imagine this happening in an urban context in the present day. But two or three generations ago, it happened in poor urban communities: here are two quotes from one of my parishioners in Leeds, whom I interviewed in 1992 for my M.Phil thesis.

“If anybody saw you were in difficulties in the old days, they would knock on your door and say, “What can I do?” …In the street where I lived – in those days the electric bill was about £2 or £3 at the most, and this particular woman was threatened – her electricity was going to be disconnected. And one of the neighbours, she went round knocking on doors, saying, “Well, look, can you lend us a shilling, and you will be paid back the shilling in two or three weeks.” So she went to enough houses to borrow a shilling, so that the woman, her electricity bill was paid, and then the woman paid somebody back each week. If she could afford three shillings she would pay three people. The better off – even in the back-to-back houses you still have the better off. And sometimes they’d say, “Well, forget it”; it was only the really desperately poor people that would say, “Oh thanks, that will come in handy this week, it’s been a God-send, it’s been like someone’s been saving it for me.”

“But they are so busy and so frustrated with getting on with what they’ve got to do [preparing for Christmas], that it would be lovely if we could show peace and goodwill to each other every day … It’s a shame that it has to be something like that [a sponsored marathon or other event] and not the fact that the next door neighbour says, ”Would you like – I’ve made quite a large meal – would you like to…” But you see, you used to do that in the olden days, used to say, “I’ve made a big, ginormous pan of stew, there’s loads, do you fancy it?” But you see, people today can actually be offended if you do that…”

Such generous inefficiency was commanded in the Torah, and practised in the time of the Judges. It was even practised in rural and urban contexts a couple of generations ago – “in the old days”, but still more or less within living memory. With those more recent examples in our minds, is it easier for us to imagine how the commands in Leviticus might have worked in ancient Israel? Now that society has moved even further away from the ethics and economics of abundance, is it possible that a more intentional community could rediscover not just the theory but the practice, and model it to the rest of society? How important was it that early Israelite society was a theocracy?

Written for a theological table-talk supper as part of Leicester Diocese’s Social Responsibility Group, 26 September 2016

The Story of “Discovery”

The Story of “Discovery”

Learning for Christians without Essays and A-Levels

1. How it began

In October 2002 I started work as priest in charge of St Peter’s Braunstone Park, a large outer urban council estate with multiple deprivation and a controversial New Deal for Communities programme that was trying to tackle the estate’s many problems. As well as getting to know the community and its many organisations and informal groups, I was beginning to see growth in the church – to some extent in numbers, but especially in spiritual life, and in the confidence and willingness on the part of a few individuals to minister personally to others. One woman, only recently confirmed, got out of her seat to put her arm round an elderly gentleman who had been overcome by emotion during our annual Remembrance Sunday service. That may not sound like much, but it was a new departure for St Peter’s and a breakthrough for Linda, as well as healing for the gentleman.

I began to discern in Linda a potential for pastoral leadership and wanted her to do some training, with a view to her being authorised for lay ministry by the wider church. But Linda, in common with many Braunstone residents, had no educational qualifications. She had left school at 15, being told by her teachers that she was stupid. I met many parishioners, inside and outside the church, who told me they had had the same message from their schools – “Oh, you live in Braunstone; you must be thick. So we’re not really going to bother with you…” Not surprisingly, three or four generations of “Braunies” responded by not really bothering with the education system, leading to one of the lowest educational attainment statistics in Leicester and even the UK. (I’m glad to say that the New Deal for Communities has had an impact on this state of affairs. But there is still a long way to go.)

My first clergy meeting in Leicester Diocese included a discussion about the Hind Report, which seemed to me, in my ignorance, to be aiming to make training for ministry in the Church of England more, not less, academic. This threatened to put it even more beyond the reach of the very people whom, I sensed, God was calling to minister in His Church. A year later I was invited to teach the Worship and Spirituality module in the diocesan basic lay training course, then called “Exploring Christian Life and Faith”. The co-convenor of my course, Pat Ward, was also vice-chair and treasurer of St Peter’s (and becoming a friend), and a member of the diocesan Black and Minority Ethnic campaigning group. She said to me, “You know, this course isn’t reaching ethnic minorities in the church,” and I reflected that no, it wasn’t reaching members of Urban Priority Area churches either. In order to cover six modules in a year, each module was squashed into half a term, which (with home reading and essays) required a great deal of academic confidence as well as discipline, and enough leisure to be able to make the course a top priority. Fine for university graduates, but not for most people in areas like Braunstone and churches like St Peter’s.

So we called a meeting of a few interested parties in St Peter’s. Along with Pat and myself, there were Chris Florance, community worker and educator, Ruth Souter, curate and “local lass”, full of insight into the local scene and immersed in the work of Unlock, formerly the Evangelical Urban Training Project – Roz my wife, trainee Reader and adult educator and trainer in her work, and Linda, without whose personal experience we would have gone nowhere. We shared our concerns and ideas, and then called another meeting, to which we invited Peter Burrows, then the diocesan director of training. The long journey had begun.

2. Values, ideas, methods

It took 2 or 3 years before we started to deliver any training, but the time we spent thinking it through was worth it. We shared what we considered our core values – these were:
• Excellence. Our potential participants are intelligent (if sometimes under-educated) and deserve the very best. We will not “dumb down” or patronise.
• Centred on learning rather than teaching. It’s not what we write or say, it’s what people learn that’s important. So the course will be experiential, rooted in participants’ context, and not book-centred.
• Valuing of people, their cultures and styles. For many (including some of the original core group) learning has been a negative experience, involving put-downs and even humiliation. We want to inspire confidence by affirming and encouraging our course participants.
• Releasing people to be themselves and minister to others. Learning is not just an end in itself (though it is valuable in itself, not least for the confidence it can impart). In Christian ministry it has an immediate practical outcome, and we want to enable people to use their learning, and to discover their own gifts and become confident to use them.

As we continued to meet, we invited a couple of vicars from other Urban Priority Areas in the city to join us. Alison Roche and Philip Watson are very different people (and different from us) and their insights and energy were an important addition to the mix. Peter Burrows left us to become Archdeacon of Leeds (he is now Bishop of Doncaster) and we invited not one but two of his successors to join us – Mike Harrison the Director of Mission and Ministry, and Stuart Burns the head of the newly set up School for Ministry.

Two ideas shaped the way we devised the course material. The first was the Pastoral Cycle, developed by Paolo Freire in Brazil, which empowered many powerless people to deepen their Christian faith and, at the same time, to put that faith into practice in the struggle for social justice.
The process starts where participants are strong (their experience) – not where they are weak (book knowledge). This allows them to contribute positively throughout the process, and makes learning more important than teaching. It helped revolutionise the Christian formation of basic communities in the deprived urban areas of Latin America, and we believed it to be equally relevant to urban communities in Leicester.

The Pastoral Cycle
• Experience – sharing our stories, both good and bad
• Analysis – thinking together about what our experiences mean; making connections
• Theological reflection – the “input” stage, bringing an aspect of the Gospel to bear on our thinking (and making more connections)
• Action – putting our learning into action, leading to more experiences to share …

The Pastoral Cycle – diagram
pastoral cycle

We resolved that each session would travel round the pastoral cycle, starting with the sharing of experience and moving through analysis and theological reflection to action. In practice some of the modules followed this cycle more closely than others.

The other idea was original to us. In my former parish in Leeds I had been part of a city-wide group set up by the archdeacon and UPAs officer to look at social justice and urban culture. The recently appointed diocesan UPAs officer produced a paper, which was then discussed mainly by the other clergy present, leaving those lay people (invited for their urban experience and wisdom) silent and marginalised. Suddenly my friend Joyce said into a silence, “Of course, it’s all jargon really, isn’t it?” Consternation! – but the other lay people’s mouths were opened too, and the whole conversation was transformed. Joyce and I were tasked with translating the document into plain English, and (while on holiday, accompanied as I remember by some red wine) we evolved a way of talking about it that led to a translation. Joyce would ask what a particular sentence meant, and I would try to explain it in plainer English. Then Joyce (who had a way with words) would say, “Oh, you mean …” and put it in a different way that made its meaning obvious. Then I would write that down, and we’d move on to the next obscure sentence or idea.

We adapted this bit of pastoral experience for designing the six modules we had decided to use as our basic structure. Each module design team would have an expert consultant, in other words someone who lived in an Urban Priority Area and was empowered enough to tell the clergy and tutors exactly how it is. There would be a conversation between her (or him) and a tutor, based on what Joyce and I had learned and done, and, as things became clear between them, a second tutor would write it down. In that way the course content was devised – though, looking back at the finished product, some module writing groups seem to have worked better than others.

Designing the modules – diagram

Preferred learning styles
We learned that people learn in different ways, and used the “VAK” analysis in our session plans to ensure a variety of learning methods. So, for people who learn best visually, there was plenty to see (illustrations, flip-charts etc), while for people whose preferred learning was auditory, there were loads of discussions and, in some sessions, songs or music. The third learning method was more challenging – kinaesthetic learners learn best by doing, moving or touching and feeling. So we looked for ways that participants could learn by doing, and in one particularly demanding session (prayer in the darkness, in Module 2) we deliberately introduced “praying with clay”.

The Six Modules, and their associated Study Skills – Moderation and Validation
The modules were based on the original diocesan course, which seemed to cover the sort of content that our people would want to learn something about. In addition, we wanted to help them learn some study skills that would help them in any future training.

One basic skill was keeping a “learning log”, which could include written notes, photos and even tapes of spoken material. Creative endeavours which would never be kept could still be photographed, and the prints kept as evidence of learning. These logs were handed in at the end of each module to the Head of the Diocesan School for Ministry, who would assess what each participant had learned and validate that learning, eg for future training on a diocesan lay ministry course. It was agreed early on that Discovery (completed over two years) would count as equivalent to the first, more intense, year of diocesan lay training.

1) You, me and God (together in Christ’s body – and something on confidence)
2) Coming closer to God (prayer and worship, including the Bible and the Dark Night of the Soul, and working together on a closing Eucharist)
3) Oh God, why? (Evil and the God of love, including the story of Ruth)
4) Jesus and the first Christians (New Testament)
5) Back to our roots (Old Testament)
6) Watch this space! (Mission in today’s world)

Study Skills in each Module
1) Learning log, presentation, discussion
2) Making connections, team work for liturgy
3) Creative listening
4) Finding your way round the New Testament *
5) Finding your way round the Old Testament *
6) Discerning vocation, yours and each other’s
* In Modules 1 to 3, we printed out the Bible passages – finding your way round a 1,000-page book is a study skill to learn later in the course.

The first course participants
The first 3 modules were finally ready, and we started with 5 course members in September 2006. One dropped out at Christmas (she had too much else in her life) and four people finished Module 3 in June 2007. We still had not written Modules 4, 5 and 6 by then, and there were 5 more people wanting to start. So we repeated the first 3 modules in 2007/8 with another group, and combined the two small groups to start Module 4 in Sept 2008, with a cohort of 8 (one more having dropped out). The first course graduated in June 2009.

3. Theological reflection

“Poured out on all flesh”
The theological idea for Discovery has been with me at least since the early 1970s, and comes from one of the effects of Pentecost – “The Holy Spirit will be poured out on all flesh” (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17,18). Almost all religions have had their “special holy people”, whether priests or prophets, shamans, witch-doctors or wise women, who were believed to have special access to God or the gods, and who in consequence wielded considerable power that was attributed to them by the people. This can be seen even in the stories of the Old Testament (see, for instance, the story of Saul looking for his father’s donkeys in 1 Samuel 9.) So the prophecy in Joel 2 that the Holy Spirit would be poured out on “all flesh”, including both sexes, all ages and even slaves, was indeed to prophesy a radical new departure, a sign of the Day of the Lord. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter quoted the prophecy to point to current events as a sign of the Day of the Lord, the coming of the Kingdom of God. Ordinary people, fishermen and so on, were speaking languages they had not learned, proclaiming the works of God to pilgrims from all over the known world.

The disciples didn’t have an A level between them, but Jesus entrusted them with the worldwide mission of passing on the Gospel. Over the centuries, as the Church became more established and institutional, the power to teach (and even learn) was restricted to a priestly elite; then, after the Reformation opened learning up again, the professional preachers quickly took back the power to teach, and the ability to share learning was shut down again. The Anabaptists were known for their refusal to collude with this – they believed in and practised a multi-voiced teaching ministry, and included unlettered men and women, along the lines of Paul’s description in I Corinthians 14. This was shocking to one Lutheran spy, sent to infiltrate their meetings, and it is a matter of record that the Anabaptists were persecuted with equal enthusiasm by Catholics and Protestants alike.

Lay theology
The charismatic renewal, as I experienced it in the early 1970s, believed in and practised multi-voiced worship, in their prayer meetings if not their Sunday worship. Michael Harper articulated a theology for this in “Let my people grow” (Logos International, Plainfield, NJ; 1977) but not many charismatics at the time knew that similar ideas were proposed by J A T Robinson a decade earlier – “A New Reformation?” (SCM, London; 1965) where a Lay Theology was envisioned to replace previous loci of theological thought in seminaries and/or secular universities.

Resourcing churches in deprived urban areas
At the time of Discovery’s genesis (2003-6) churches in Urban Priority Areas (UPAs) were vulnerable to the economic argument that a retreating Church of England should concentrate on areas, and demographics, which were most likely to give a return for investment. To put extra effort and resources into deprived areas, where the church has been historically weak, is – so the argument goes – to throw good money after bad. Against that is set the Church of England’s historic mission to every parish in the country, and to every demographic. Further back in our founding theology is God’s own bias to the poor, seen throughout the Old Testament and assumed (and sometimes made explicit) in the pages of the New Testament.

My experience in Leicester Diocese has been positive in this respect – Bishop Tim Stevens (2000-2015) had a background in urban ministry, and was unfailingly supportive of clergy and churches in UPAs: he even appointed two successive archdeacons of Leicester with urban experience – Richard Atkinson (Sheffield and Rotherham) and now Tim Stratford (Liverpool and Kirkby). But I hear of other parts of the C of E where a more monetarist stance prevails, and inner city and outer estate churches are more or less left to sink or swim by themselves.

But even that sort of isolation doesn’t have to separate us from the love and power of God. Small struggling churches in hostile cultural environments go right back to the New Testament era – how can we learn from them to help our brothers and sisters to thrive in similar situations today? Surely one way is to train and encourage potential leaders to learn, and to pass on their learning, in a way appropriate to their culture.

So we set about devising training that would help us (2 or 3 small parish churches, and by extension others too) to move towards a Christian community that could learn, and teach, and minister in Christ’s name, in a cultural language appropriate to its setting. We haven’t got anywhere near that goal, but I do think the attempt has been worth making. And a small number of individual lives have been transformed, as we shall see below. The “Ark” project in estate parishes in northern Bristol has gone further in this – see the writings of Joe Hasler who worked there for many years.

4. Did it work?

The spirit in the first two pioneer groups was warm, co-operative, and life-enhancing. The participants had not expected to be allowed on to a course that gave them training in Christian ministry – such things are still unconsciously reserved for the clergy – and, with the emphasis in the first module on building confidence, even those who had been put down at school (like Linda) found themselves learning and achieving. The learning logs were helpful in this, as they allowed participants (with guidance) to record their learning in their own way. There were no essays, and no text-books except the Bible: even then we printed out the Bible readings for the first three modules – finding your way through a 1000-page book is a study skill to be learned, not something we assumed everyone could do confidently.

At the diocesan awards ceremony in October 2009, the bishop who had been invited to give out the prizes said, “This evening is the result of a huge amount of individual work.” He was probably right about those who had done the other, more academic courses, but I remember thinking that, as far as Discovery was concerned, he had missed the point. The awards were the culmination of a huge amount of shared work, of mutual help and encouragement, of laughter and tears at the sessions and between them, and of surmounting the immense cultural barriers that make it so much harder for people without academic education to succeed in completing a course. Some lasting friendships were made across different churches, and two participants went on to train as Pastoral Assistants. In St Peter’s Braunstone, where the course had started, the handful of church members who have done the Discovery course over several years have had a subtle but significant effect on the way we do things – not least the PCC, where a silent and compliant culture has changed into one where it is OK to express one’s opinion – and even OK to disagree with the vicar! Linda, with whom it all started, became PCC secretary while doing a catch-up English course at a local college. She trained as a Pastoral Assistant and is now convening the Pastoral Care Group in the church. Before she qualified, she was taken into hospital with bowel cancer, which (several years later) she has overcome with courage and a smiling, positive attitude.

Discovery has been run 4 or 5 times since that first pair of courses, and I acted as tutor for two modules in 2013-14. I was surprised that one of the study skills (creative listening in Module 3) did not feature – I altered the module (along with my co-tutor) to include it, only to discover that two of the participants (admittedly from more middle-class backgrounds) had done extensive listening training and didn’t see what the need was! Not all the modules followed round the Pastoral Cycle, and some of them were unbalanced in learning styles. If we had been more thorough in the initial module planning, we might have been more consistent. I wonder what effect that would have had in helping to transform the lives of our participants, especially those from UPAs. But after our initial enthusiasm and aspirations to thoroughness, other priorities crowded in and we ended up ruled more by deadlines than our values. I wonder whether there is energy among the UPA churches to revise the course?

One other limitation on the effectiveness of Discovery has been its take-up by UPA churches round the diocese. Most of the parishes who have sent participants have had clergy who were enthusiastic about lay training. That is only 5 or 6 parishes. Very early on, we had invited all the UPA clergy in Leicester to an introduction and taster session, to interest them in the potential of the course. Most did not come, and many of those that did, did not share the vision. But the future of the Church lies in leadership by local lay people, not by the fewer and fewer imported and professionally trained clergy. If we cannot find a way for emerging leaders in UPA churches to learn and to lead, those churches will die – or they will be replaced by more indigenous independent churches who begin with basic assumptions that are more open to the Spirit, poured out today as in the New Testament era, on all flesh.

Tackling Poverty – Foodshare, Community and Spirituality

This is the script (modified slightly) of a talk I was asked to give to the MA students in the School of Social Work at the University of Leicester, in November 2013. Like the other essays and stories I’ve posted, it is intended as a discussion starter – what if any of it chimes with your experience?

My thanks to Janet Couloute, lecturer to the MA course, who heard of what we were doing in Braunstone and invited me to give the talk.

The paper is in four sections. They are –

  1. What’s it like to live in poverty?
  2. A brief history of Braunstone
  3. How Braunstone Foodshare works
  4. Values and spirituality


1. What’s it like to live in poverty?

I’ve been a church minister for 39 years, and served all but 7 years in Urban Priority Areas – inner city or outer council estates with multiple deprivation. While I was vicar in inner city Leeds I did an M.Phil research degree (1990-95) on “Spirituality in the Inner City”, based on 26 in-depth interviews with parishioners. Some of them (though not all) talked to me about their experience of poverty. The quotes that follow are from those interviews. They illustrate different aspects of poverty – financial, social and spiritual.
Yvonne was a young single mother, bringing up two young children on benefits. She said: “I suppose we all tend to feel as though we’re like the lower end of society – not the dregs – but you do feel as though you’re not important. But nobody really is all that bothered about the fact that you’re in a rotten rough estate, and that none of you have any money, and that your houses are in bad condition, and that your schools are bad, well, nobody cares, so then you think, ‘Well, why should we?’” Yvonne was alternating between a feisty “up yours” outlook and despair, propping up her shaky morale with more alcohol than was good for her. But she enjoyed the interview and was energised by it to start volunteering at the local Advice Centre run by our church. From there she got a full-time job – a happy ending to the bit of her story I know.
That also happened with Andrea, another young mother I interviewed, who told a long and lurid story of her abuse by her father (it took three hours over two visits). She said at the end, “I’ve never told my whole story before to anyone outside the family. It feels like I’ve got it out of the house.” A year later she was engaging in community action with other local young women who’d missed out on their education – they got to make a presentation to “Business in the Community”, in front of the Prince of Wales.
Simon, a young man in his 20s, was introduced to me as someone whose life had been transformed. But having come out of prison, he was bored, a prisoner in his own home. “Yes. There’s nowt to do. It’s the same thing for me, day in, day out… Whatever I’ve done yesterday I’m going to do today. Whatever I did last week, I’m going to do tomorrow. It’s the same for me every week.” Simon didn’t get an education – with that and his prison record, he didn’t think he’d ever get a job, though he was actively looking.
Greta was a middle-aged member of my congregation. She started coming to church after a suicide attempt, when I visited her in hospital. After years of being assaulted and sexually abused, she told me her best friends were gay people who didn’t threaten her. She had been reduced at one time to working as a prostitute in order to feed her family. She tells a story about the Housing Manager, whom she’d asked to do something about her damp window-frames. “The Housing Manager came round to see my moss green window frames. He tapped my walls and said, ‘Well, your walls are sturdy!’ And I said, ‘I hope so, because there’s seven blocks of flats above me.’ Your walls! So… he looked at the moss green, but he tapped the walls and he said, ‘Your walls are firm, now your window frames might be moss green and ready for falling out, but by! have you firm walls!’ It’s all a load of waffle…”
Jenny’s four children were taken into care while they were at a church event. Four police and two social workers interrupted the proceedings, and I confess I was reduced to tears of rage and helplessness. Jenny had been a victim since childhood of persistent sexual abuse, and was judged incapable of protecting her boys from the same abuse, from some of the same men. The church gave support above and beyond the call of duty – even at times, beyond the call of prudence. Twenty years later the boys, now grown up, are back in touch with their mother, and Jenny herself has come such a long way that she has recently been ordained. But the level of care and support she received could never be expected – indeed, it was severely criticised at the time.
Susan, who became a close friend, talked several times to me about what it was like to live in a poor area. She had a neat turn of phrase – “When you’re poor, you’re robbed of choice.” Who makes the most important decisions that affect Susan’s life? Housing Managers, the Department of Health and Social Security (now DWP), Social Services… All of them live outside the area, none of them know what it’s like to be in Susan’s shoes. She contrasts life in 1992 with life in the financially worse off communities of her childhood, when families all lived in the same street and everyone would help out when someone was in need. “Oh, I’ve got this ginormous pot of stew – would anyone like to have some with me?” One change from the “good old days” to the present is that then there was hope. Now, often, there is none.
People who live in areas like that one in Leeds, or Braunstone in Leicester, tend to be relatively powerless. They perceive those in authority as having power over them – “them up there”. Of course, from the perspective of a Housing Manager or Social Worker, life can feel just as powerless, one’s available choices just as limited. On the other hand, my feelings of powerlessness as a worker trying to do the right thing for a client (or parishioner) are nothing compared with the feelings of powerlessness experienced by someone whose major life direction is being determined by officials she doesn’t even know.
Indeed, when you’re poor, you’re robbed of choice, and too often robbed of hope as well. And that can lead on the inside to low confidence and self-esteem, thence self-defeating behaviour (you know the scenario – “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory”), spending money as soon as you get it, indulging in expensive habits and getting into debt because it brings a little excitement into your life.
And from the outside you might well feel patronised by everyone with power, from the Government to the Media, to local housing managers, the DWP, teachers, doctors – dare I say social workers and the church…? All that isn’t financial poverty, though it goes hand-in-hand with it. But it is a deep poverty of hope, of opportunity, of the stuff that makes life worth living. And if you’re in that situation, you’re often made to feel it’s your fault.
One definition of poverty is the level of what used to be called Income Support, which was fixed as the minimum a person or family could live on. That level has now been cut, so we as a society are colluding with the statutory imposition of poverty below the breadline. The government seem to think that food banks are a positive sign of the Big Society. I think they are an indictment of the society that makes them necessary. And do we really want to go back to the days of Poor Law, of Workhouses and Parish Relief, when the vicar (God help me!) was one of those powerful people that decided who were the Deserving Poor and who were the undeserving??

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2. A brief history of Braunstone

The Braunstone Estate was built in the 1930s by Leicester Corporation as “homes fit for heroes”, to house those who’d come back from the 1st World War to the slum areas in the centre of Leicester. They had used compulsory purchase to buy the estate, along with its stately home, from the Winstanley family, who had been Lords of the Manor of Braunstone since 1650. The houses are solid brick built family homes, with their own gardens, wide streets and lots of green space. And Braunstone Park still sits in the middle of the estate, the lungs of Braunstone, surrounding the now derelict Braunstone Hall at the top of the hill.
Braunstone thrived for many years – it’s a stable community, with many families still living there from the 1930s, some in 3 or 4 generations. But gradually the estate began to suffer from the vicious circles of multiple deprivation. In terms of child poverty, in 2001 it was the 25th poorest area in the country. In terms of education, it was the 9th poorest in the country.
Braunstone got a reputation for being self-contained and hostile to strangers – the sort of place that police went into in 2s. There was rivalry between the two halves of the estate, known as “Dodge City” and “Texas”. When I arrived in 2002, there were regular incidents of car theft and destruction, with burnt out cars often turning up in front of the church. It was not seen as a desirable place to live, so potential council tenants would put it low on their list, while Braunstone residents would be applying for a move out of the area. One part of the estate, the “Six Streets”, was almost entirely boarded up, and the Council were going to demolish the lot.
Into that story came the New Deal for Communities, a programme by the Labour Government after the 1997 election to invest around £50 million into an area of about 5,000 houses, to regenerate the physical fabric and social networks of an estate, and at the same time to empower local residents by giving them the power to decide where and how the money was to be spent. Braunstone was awarded one of the New Deal grants, and the programme started in 2000. Almost at once it became clear that the empowerment side hadn’t been thought through: no training was provided to the local residents who were elected to the board, and there was a complete mismatch of culture between the local way of doing things and the government bureaucracy that insisted things be done properly!
In addition, there was conflict over the direction of the programme, between those who thought it should major on economic growth (job creation etc) and those who favoured a more social regeneration strategy. The first AGM I attended as vicar in December 2002, there were 40 people at the back with placards, protesting at the smallest issue, even the minutes of the last meeting and re-appointing the auditors – the meeting went on for an hour and a half, after which we were expected to lead some carol singing! I felt at the time it was like “bolt-on peace and goodwill” – though it did have an effect on the atmosphere of future meetings.
The government body, East Midlands Development Agency, were about to pull the plug on the whole thing, until the Bishop intervened and the Archdeacon (one of the Bishop’s senior staff) stepped up to become Independent Chair of the Braunstone Community Association. From then on, amid a flurry of hate mail from the opposition, he helped the local volunteers see through a programme that gave Braunstone its Leisure Centre, a library and community centre, a business start-up centre and a new health centre – also the refurbishing of the “Six Streets” by a housing association, and the repair of many other houses.
The social fabric was attended to through a crime reduction and security project – the fear of crime is now greatly reduced (as well as crime figures themselves) and an education task group brought in some innovative ideas that have seen a spectacular improvement in GCSE results over 10 years. From a queue to move out of the estate, there is a now a queue to get in. The community is stronger and more confident, and the Braunstone Foundation, successor to the Community Association, is still flourishing.
So it’s rather galling that we now have to be thinking about food poverty, something that we’ve long thought of only in connection with the 3rd world. The clouds began to gather after the banking crash of 2008, and it’s systematically, and in my opinion deliberately, been made worse by the present government’s so-called Welfare Reforms. Braunstone, with its many well-built 3-bedroom family homes, is being particularly hard hit by the Bedroom Tax. I’ve had the local Housing Manager sitting in my kitchen, in despair at the measures she’s going to be forced to take, in order to implement these reforms.

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3. How Braunstone Foodshare works

By the end of 2013, St Peter’s Braunstone had been host for nearly two years to Braunstone Foodshare. We had been wondering, back in summer 2011, whether food poverty was about to hit Braunstone – then, just before that Christmas, I was asked by three households if I could find them some food to tide them over the holiday period. I went to Fareshare, a national food redistribution project, and asked for some food. They replied, “Yes, but are you going to join up on a regular basis?” And that’s how Braunstone Foodshare started.
Now, we’re not a food bank. We don’t store food at St Peter’s Church (though some food is stored at the Neighbourhood Support Centre) and we don’t restrict people’s access to food, except a very basic limit of one bag per household per fortnight. You can’t turn up any time to receive a bag of food: we open at specific times. And we’re run entirely by volunteers, though the staff of Neighbourhood Support do help.
Supposing you’ve discovered that your money doesn’t last as long as your month – your larder is empty and your children are hungry. You hear about Braunstone Foodshare and turn up one Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning. You wonder, “Will I be made to feel a failure? Will they ask questions about my income or benefits? Do I have to come cap in hand like a beggar?” There’s some good-natured banter in the queue before you get in – then at opening time there’s a determined move for the door. The volunteers inside ask you, as a new member, to fill in a form. So you go over to a table and another volunteer helps you fill in a simple form, giving your name, address and phone number, the name of anyone you wish to authorise to collect your food bag if you can’t come yourself, and your ethnicity. Nothing about your job, income or benefits. Some families in work are facing food poverty – they are so low paid that they need to come to Braunstone Foodshare.
As soon as that’s done, you go back to the reception table and hand in the form. You’re given a token which you take over to the tables on the other side of the hall. There, another volunteer takes your token and hands you a plastic carrier bag full of food. Most people leave at that point, but you’re invited to stay for a cup of tea and a cake. You see that some people are already doing that – there’s quite a lively chat going on, and one or two seem to be greeting each other like long-lost friends. “How long have you been coming here?” “I haven’t seen you since we were at school together.” In that way, we try to make Foodshare a community event, not a mere handout. Next time you come, you’ll be given your membership card, which you then bring along each time.
Behind that experience lies a huge amount of volunteer work. Foodshare is run not by the vicar but by a steering group (soon to become a management committee) of local residents, with one representative from each of the venues where Foodshare is distributed. One week it’s at St Peter’s (Monday early evening and Tuesday morning) – the other week it’s the other side of the park, at the United Reformed Church on Monday evening and the Brite Centre on Tuesday morning.
We used to get all our food from FareShare, but as they have expanded and the demands on them have increased, the food they provide has become a bit erratic and sometimes quite inadequate, so we are now looking elsewhere, mainly to local supermarkets. FareShare themselves have arrangements with supermarkets and food wholesalers: they collect unwanted food that would otherwise go to landfill, and store it in their warehouse a few miles from Leicester. (There’s an environmental aspect to their work, as well as the relief of poverty.) They organise the food on to pallets and then deliver it – we never know quite when it will arrive, so Austin the churchwarden has to stand by from Monday lunchtime to open up the church. While he’s waiting he gets out all the tables we need, and puts them in place.
The food is brought into the church hall in trays and boxes, and unloaded on to the tables. Ron the co-ordinator goes in his ancient Land Rover to Sainsbury’s or Asda or Aldi, to ask if they have any unwanted food. Some supermarkets are now operating a food-drop, inviting customers to buy one extra and donate it into a large bin. The other week I was invited to talk about Harvest to a local pre-school nursery. I don’t often get the chance to engage with a load of 3-year-olds, and I quite enjoyed it. The next week two of them turned up (with their mothers who happened to be staff members) and donated their harvest collection to us, tastefully arranged in baskets and boxes! So that’s how we get the food in. Ron takes away the waste, but Austin is the one who separates it into recycling bags – orange – and rubbish bags – black.
Once that’s done, an army of volunteers fill the bags. As the filled bags accumulate and the food levels go down, Ron watches anxiously to see if we’ve got enough. Altogether we have 25 volunteers, of whom about 12 will be there at any one time. And that’s just our side of the park. 30 bags are set aside for the Tuesday morning distribution – they go into the church which is cooler, and on tables, so the small furry creatures can’t reach them! Then the worst of the mess is swept up from the floor and tables, we all have a cup of tea, and one or two volunteers who take food bags to housebound members collect their bags first. The vicar often goes out to chat to the growing queue of members, until at 5 o’clock everyone’s ready and the doors are opened.
Postscript – this is a snapshot from 2013. There were regular rows between volunteers, and I don’t know in 2016 whether Braunstone Foodshare is still going, or whether it has imploded.

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4. Values and Spirituality

We all need to be aware of our values, especially those we don’t discuss, or would rather not own up to. Otherwise they will impose on our work without our realising it, and distort it. My own values are informed by my Christian faith – but also by my relatively privileged upbringing. I have never personally known what it’s like to face poverty. My mother and wife both trained and qualified as social workers, so I’ve always been aware of that dimension to life. I don’t keep myself aloof from those I live and work with – I have made some good friends from parishioners both in Leeds and in Braunstone – but I can’t help being aware that my tastes, my aspirations and my life experience are very different from theirs.
Christianity has had a long history of working to help the poor, although sometimes the church has had a rather patronising attitude to those in poverty. Christians are still disproportionately represented in the caring professions in this country. It will be interesting to see if, in time, other faith groups become as strongly represented.
Someone said once, in a talk I heard, that her mother had criticised her for being “common”. She took that as a compliment. If we think of other people as “common”, we are almost bound to look down on them. Conversely, if we are comfortable with being common ourselves, we are more likely to find common ground with our fellow humans. To get into Christian theology for a minute, I believe that Jesus, the Son of God, made himself common with humanity. He didn’t look down on us, but instead became one of us. But whether or not you take the theology, the value of respect, of empathy, of common humanity, is I think a bottom line value for anyone going into social work, community development, church work or even food sharing. (Perhaps especially food sharing, because of its unfortunate history of patronising the poor.)
Let’s put it another way. When I was a young curate (or apprentice vicar) the usual advice from experienced vicars was not to make friendships within the parish – to keep a reserved distance. Fortunately, however, my own training vicar had based his entire ministry on friendship, so I felt confident to ignore that advice! I guess social workers are given the same advice – don’t get too close, don’t get emotionally involved. That may be right up to a point: you can’t make lasting friendships with people whose children you may have to take into care – but I would ask you how much of your humanity you lock away if you never share your emotions or your vulnerability with those you work with. To put it bluntly, if some of your cases don’t lead you to tears, then, sorry, there’s something wrong with you!
We all need a constructive way to deal with our emotions, whether we take them to our life partner, or to the place of prayer, or even to the staff meeting. We are going into “caring professions”, aren’t we? – whether vicar or social worker, or something else in that field – and in the last analysis, our shared humanity is the best we have to offer. Take that away and we become mere functionaries, bureaucrats who apply external rules and regulations without consideration for those who are often powerless already, and can become our victims, not those we help. And this is a real danger: I’m afraid many social workers out there are regarded by many of their clients as oppressors, not supporters.
Earlier on I mentioned hope. How can we offer hope to those who have none? My interviewees Yvonne and Andrea received hope simply by being listened to in depth, without being judged or criticised. But we mustn’t underestimate the depth of hopelessness, of despair, that many people feel who are trapped in poverty.
A few thoughts about spirituality. My research project was about this, and it led me, not exactly to a new definition of spirituality, but to a new way to think about it. Human spirit, I argued, is expressed by two contrasting aspects of our humanity: belonging and individuality. We’re not isolated individuals like billiard balls – we exist as we relate to each other. I am who I am because my parents and other people I relate to have made me that way. But that doesn’t completely describe me – I am also an individual and I’ve made many individual decisions over my life. We’re not like billiard balls, but neither are we like mashed potatoes: we are each unique individuals. These two aspects are built up over time – and time (with its companion concept story) is my third aspect of spirituality. So in my interviews I was looking for qualities of belonging, time/story and character, the individuality that builds up over time as our personhood is shaped by our relationships, our decisions and our stories. This model is not religious (as you will have noticed), but it is derived from the Christian doctrine of the Trinity – the outrageous notion that there is relationship, and even community, within the nature of God. And using those concepts yielded some very interesting insights into those people I interviewed and the communities they belonged to.
And so I pray for my parishioners – well, you could say I’m paid to do that. My wife, who now works for the Citizens Advice Bureau, comes home with some heartrending stories: she shares them with me over the supper table (without revealing names or breaking confidentiality) and I know she also prays for those people, although she doesn’t of course preach at them. Being in a caring profession engages us at our deepest level: intellectual, emotional and spiritual. And that includes those who have no faith: one of my good friends and close colleagues in my last post was a senior officer in the City Council, whose compassion and commitment put many religious people to shame, but who had no religious faith himself.
Each of us must ask the question for ourselves – what does spirituality mean to me? How deep am I prepared to dig in my engagement with the people I work with, and how will I get help for myself to cope with the demands and challenges that such work presents?
And finally, here’s another question – most of us go into the caring professions out of a sense of altruism, even of vocation. How can we stay true to that vocation, and resist the strong pressure to conform to a model of bureaucracy that leaves out human caring and empathy?
© 2013 Chris Burch

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Wallace and Gromit – symbolic Anabaptists?

I was brought up on cartoon characters whose whole lives revolved round violence. Tom was always after Jerry, intending to kill and eat him. Jerry evaded him with ingenuity, often managing to do him serious injury into the bargain. Cartoon films were full of “Splatts!” and the shape of an unfortunate animal in a wrecked door, when said animal had been extruded through it at high speed.

But Wallace and Gromit are different. True, their adventures get them into scrapes, but their stance is basically nonviolent. Even when they are hired to catch the rabbits who have infested Lady Tottington’s lawn they seek a humane way to dispose of them, and that story ends with the converted peeress opening a bunny sanctuary in the same lawn. The villains in that and the other stories are never eliminated by pseudo-heroic acts of violence: they meet their come-uppance through their own over-reaching pride.

There is more. We neo-anabaptists rejoice in doing things differently and unexpectedly. Wallace and Gromit are nothing if not ingenious, from the early morning automatic breakfast routine to the outlandish (and often malfunctioning) machines that Wallace invents. (No, they are not infallible – but that isn’t an anabaptist doctrine either.)

The repeated routine shots of breakfast time in the Wallace household remind us that they inhabit a story, as we believe we all do – as anabaptists we lay especial value on our narrative, believing it has something to teach us about ourselves and our creator. (By the way, I am told Nick Park is a Christian. Could we tell that from his stories?) They are also a community – admittedly a small one – with a strong bond of loyalty and affection between them. Gromit would surely not put up with Wallace for long, unless he had a deep commitment to him – perhaps almost a spiritual commitment? Their community is open to newcomers, however annoying or even dangerous: Wallace welcomes in the evil Penguin, and it takes Gromit’s gift of discernment to see through him. And Shaun the Sheep is given a home, although he appears to misunderstand and even abuse the sacrament of Wensleydale cheese by hiding in the cheese dish. But Wendolen cannot join Wallace, however smitten he is with her (and however willing he is to forgive her dangerous error with Preston the mechanical dog) – because she cannot bring herself to like cheese at all.

Gromit has the wisdom and discernment that the childlike Wallace lacks. He also has a tendency to fly around like a World War I fighter pilot, but doesn’t have the killer instinct of his opponents.

The routine of raising the ladders to clean windows in “A Close Shave” reminds me of the barn-raising that is emblematic of the Amish sense of mutual help in community. The two heroes have their routines off to a fine art, with a combination of close team-work (requiring mutual trust and respect) and some gadgets that appear normal to them but outlandish to everyone else. And when they get into trouble, through their innocence and the ill will of others, they always get rescued by an unseen hand that looks after them.

Wallace and Gromit – symbolic cartoon Anabaptists for our time??

An Anglican drawn to Anabaptism

Like most others I had hardly heard of Anabaptists, except as a glancing reference, a footnote in school history books. But when I first encountered Anabaptist ideas as an adult, at a life-enhancing day conference in Leeds in 1983 on “It all fits together”, the ideas fell on fertile soil. As I began to get to know Anabaptist people and ideas better, they helped me to articulate feelings I’d had for a long time –
• That the Church of England was rather wedded to the Establishment, whereas Jesus had founded an originally subversive movement;
• That the unconventional is not always wrong, despite some Anglicans’ horror at the unusual. By temperament I like to look for different ways to do things. I was attracted to the Anabaptists’ habit and teaching of “confounding people’s expectations” as a Gospel way of doing things;
• That peace is more Christian than war – a conviction that was growing in me through the 1980s;
• That the Holy Spirit having come on all flesh (Acts 2:17), the gospel and its ministries must be open to “ordinary people”. The C of E has always been rather elitist, and recently seems to be getting worse. But the gospel, it seems to me, opens the way to all Christian disciples to offer their gifts for the common good – even if they have no educational qualifications, like many of my parishioners in Urban Priority Areas.

For most of my ordained ministry (yes, I’m a vicar) I’ve been in inner city or outer estate parishes – what the Church of England calls “Urban Priority Areas” or UPAs – but in 1995 I confounded my own and everyone else’s expectations by becoming Canon Precentor at Coventry Cathedral. Being at the heart of the establishment took some getting used to, and I was glad to be invited to join an Anabaptist Theological Study Circle that was just coming into existence at that time. Almost at once I sensed that here was a way of doing theology that engaged the heart as well as the analytical part of the mind, that involved our relationships with God and each other, instead of splitting them off in the interests of academic rigour and objectivity. Indeed, our sessions began (and still begin) with a time of personal sharing and mutual prayer. At times we have been privileged to hear deep things being shared, leading to a sense (for me) of being on “holy ground”.

But what do I hear, and how do they impact on my continuing Anglican membership and convictions?
• The thing that grabbed me back in 1983 was the integration of evangelism and social justice, spirituality and action in the world, which had been opposites for a long time, in the church and in my mind. As a young vicar struggling to make sense of a new ministry in a small church in a deprived inner-city parish, this was a breath of life to me.
• A few years later, when I was still in my Leeds parish, I was aware of Anabaptist influence in resolving a dispute in the parish over the annual observance of Remembrance Sunday. We brought a group together, and the process of listening to and respecting each other became more important than the outcome. I was amused when Alan Kreider told me he was using this story as a case study – but I guess it’s no surprise that I’m now involved with Bridgebuilders, the mediation and reconciliation arm of the London Mennonite Centre.
• I was beginning to be uncomfortable with the evangelistic techniques of my evangelical background, which seemed often to verge on the manipulative, and yet could not turn my back on our Lord’s command to “make disciples of all nations…” (Matt. 28:19). So the Anabaptist insistence on demonstration, living the gospel in a way that authenticated its proclamation, was attractive. Now I’m more confident in proclamation as well as demonstration, but do not feel bound to any one method or ideology.
• In 1993 I was invited to a conversation between Anabaptist and Anglican representatives, under the hospitality of the (Anglican) Council for Christian Unity. Having thought of Anabaptism as more a set of ideas than a tradition of people, I was taken aback by the living sense of hurt communicated by some Anabaptists – the last time the two traditions had been in conversation (in 1575), it had led to torture and burning of the Anabaptists by the Anglicans, and the memory was far from dead. I think this was when I began to see the early Anabaptists as real people, in their strangeness as well as their commonality with my own outlook. And I realised that I was in some way sharing in this tradition, however strange some of its stories are. From then on, I began to see aspects of my own tradition through different eyes – both accepting that some of my antecedents were also strange, and having a different perspective with which to view my tradition, allowing me a more objective critique.
• At the Theological Study Circle we looked at Anabaptist ways of interpreting the Bible – still a multi-faceted and sometimes confusing subject, as the early Anabaptists were no more monochrome than any other tradition – and tried to make sense of the homosexuality debate in that light. We had a fascinating conversation with the American theologian Jim McLendon (now sadly died) who started his systematic theology with a volume on ethics (yes, demonstration comes before theory!) and taught me something about Christian believing in a post-modern age. We looked at art and spirituality, and at war and peace in the aftermath of the latest invasion of Iraq. I’ve learned to examine Anglican presuppositions with an Anabaptist lens, and was glad to review (for Anabaptism Today) a booklet by Anglican authors arguing passionately for the disestablishment of the Church of England, a position I’ve always held, though instinctively rather than articulately. Having originally been the only Anglican in the Study Circle, I’m now intrigued that many of its most committed and articulate theologians are Anglicans.
• This is where some points of tension come in. I’ve never thought the Church of England has any theological right to be the established church, and the booklet made me realise how the Church has always given the State a much better deal than it has received in turn. A few years ago I visited South Africa, where the Anglican Church manages to be an effective witness to God’s justice and his love, without any of the trappings of political power or constitutional establishment. But I am able to do things for my marginalised parishioners that they cannot do for themselves, by virtue of enjoying an unspoken trust because of my position. I can indeed be the “parson” – the persona – for my parish, representing them not only before God in prayer, but in at least some of the corridors of power. How much has this to do with my being vicar of an established church? I could argue “nothing”, and point you to equally eloquent and effective Christian ministers in South Africa – but I know that the work I did in Coventry for the Anti-Poverty Forum, or for the Tackling Poverty group in the Local Strategic Partnership, derived straight from my position in the heart of the establishment, in Coventry Cathedral. (Not that such a “top-down” position could penetrate deeply to the grass-roots – but I could and did influence the conditions under which grass-roots community groups were able to work.)
• It’s unfashionable at the moment, but I believe in the parish – that our Anglican bit of the church takes on some sort of responsibility for every person in the land, even those who do not believe our gospel and will never darken the doors of our churches. When my time came to leave Coventry, I was appointed to a large outer council estate parish in Leicester, where my remit was primarily to engage in Christ’s name with the New Deal for Communities, a government investment of £50 million into one estate that had brought expectations but also confusion and conflict. With a population of 13,000 and a church membership roll of less than 40, my job could hardly be justified by the congregation alone! As it’s turned out, my involvement in the NDC is indirect and not at the seat of power, but over the last three years I’ve got to know most of those who try to make the programme work – and the church congregation has become more involved in the community, and more aware that this is part of their Christian ministry. (They are more confident about their faith too, and even beginning to grow in numbers – why am I sounding so surprised??)
• Although it’s easy to think of the Church of England as primarily an arm of the Establishment, my experience of it for most of my life has been in a small and committed but beleaguered group on the edge of society – often on the edge of the church as well. We have had plenty of opportunities to confound expectations by unconventional, even risky ways of doing things. Sometimes our initiatives have been squashed or threatened by those in power, in church or society. Sometimes, of course, they were right and we needed to let go our immaturity. But on one occasion we persisted against what we saw as an unjust abuse of power, and finally won through against the might of the City Council. Local creativity (and a deep-rooted faith in God) can enable us to outmanoeuvre the big battalions – “We can’t outgun them (the City Council or whoever it is…) but we can outthink them, outpray them, outwit them, outlast them and out-suffer them.” That’s a profoundly Anabaptist insight, but it’s Anglican too. (If you think of a City Council as a dinosaur – and most of them are so large that they need a brain at each end! – then small churches and community groups are like the primitive mammals that scurry around under their feet, keeping out of the way but surviving by their wits and adaptability.)
• But how are these little groups going to hand the tradition down? Even the Church of England can no longer afford to place a paid minister in every parish – will the congregations survive? Many have been used to being babies – spoon-fed the gospel by priestly parent-figures – or passengers, travelling in the Gospel-train without expecting to have to get their hands dirty. The Anabaptist tradition, by contrast, expects to discern the presence of God in the meeting of the gathered congregation, as they bring their different contributions together and arrive at a consensus. Having stayed in UPAs when many other churches closed down or pulled out to the suburbs, the Church of England must now give up its elitist habits of training and ministry, and expect the Holy Spirit to come upon its most ordinary members. Then it must resource and train these, in a way appropriate to their own culture, not expecting to squeeze them into its own mould. There is hope – we started a UPA Training Project, which we hope to pilot among the UPAs and Ethnic Minority Christians in Leicester. To our surprise, it has received warm support so far from the diocesan leadership – now we must see how many ordinary Christians want to take it up.

Chris Burch
Autumn 2005