Ranters of Mow Cop

Ranters of Mow Cop

Saturday, 20 December 2014

With Best Christmas wishes to all who see this.

In the public square in Preston still the Christ child makes an appearance...and light shines all around..


Monday, 8 December 2014


If you are stuck for a Christmas present for your Christian friends, vicar or minister I can recommend this book I've just been reading.
It's an excellent account by two charismatic evangelicals of poverty in Britain today and attitudes towards the poor. It grounds the study in real life experience which emerges when churches and community projects set out to meet local needs, in the history of Welfare provision in the UK, in analysis of popular media portrayals of poverty and in a survey of Christians' perceptions and attitudes towards  the poor. Sadly but perhaps unsurprisingly these seem to correlate more closely with the newspaper people read than with the Biblical narratives. The authors set out a "biblical case for radical mercy" dips into the extensive Biblical material (concentrating on the gospel accounts of Jesus) and ends with a call to action involving simplicity, generosity, proximity, community, strategy and expectancy in prayer and faith for the miraculous.  It's a short book of just over 100 pages and if there is a weakness it is that it does not grasp the nettle of engaging in political action and whether or how poor communities can get organised to struggle for their voices to be heard and to establish justice for their communities. Nonetheless it's really good to see this level of understanding and engagement with the people and the issues from this section of the church and should be on every Christian's reading list.

If you would rather or also hear a podcast of a seminar by one of the authors (Natalie Williams)  follow this link

A Christian response to poverty in Britain today 

When you think of poverty in Britain today, do you picture innocent children going without food or scroungers lounging on the sofa all day watching TV and cheating on benefits claims?

For Christians, what we think about the poor in our nation needs to be shaped by biblical values, but can so often be framed by the dominant narratives of the day, which affect our attitudes and actions.

Have we fallen for the myth of the undeserving poor?

Book Facts:  
TITLE: The Myth Of The Undeserving Poor
AUTHORS: Martin Charlesworth & Natalie Williams
PUBLISHER: Jubilee+ Ltd
TYPESET & PRINTED: Grosvenor House Publishing Limited
RETAIL PRICE: £7 for book. £5 for e-book
ISBN: 978-1-78148-875-1
e-ISBN: 978-1-78148-320-6
PAGES: 113

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Coverage and response to the the publication of the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Food Poverty and Hunger

A digest (or prehaps given the topic an indigest ;-) ) of some early reaction to the Food poverty report.
Keith Hebden... a detailed critical response here

Guardian coverage www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/dec/08/tories-avert-rift-church-food-bank-report

++ Justin in the Mail   http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2863784/State-food-banks-says-Welby-Archbishop-Canterbury-steps-austerity-row-radical-report.htm

Niall Cooper... Church action on poverty http://niallcooper.wordpress.com/2014/12/08/feeding-britain/


Retweeted Chris Baker (@DrChrisRBaker):

We must ensure Hungry Britain report focuses on structural and political issues & not simply recycling unwanted food http://t.co/b5lHO9vaG0

Andy Turner

"A clear moral case to address the shortcomings that exist in our ‪#‎welfare‬ system."

Martin Johnstone

If we really want to deal with the issue of ‪#‎foodpoverty‬ we actually need to deal with the issue of ‪#‎corporategreed‬. ‪#‎FeedingBritain‬

and published earlier http://cos.churchofscotland.org.uk/blogs/priority_areas/2014/08/14/food-poverty-its-time-to-get-angry/

Retweeted Ben Phillips (@benphillips76):

When the Sun & the Guardian front pages both highlight the new all-party church-backed report on hunger in Britain... http://t.co/nNoSQzz6eB



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Friday, 21 November 2014

Religion and the rise of capitalism - Rediscovering Tawney in a neo liberal age


 Times are hard for the shopping centres of the North of England, and the shopping malls of places like Preston have numerous empty units. One of the biggest vacant properties was vacated about three years ago when the T.J. Hughes chain of discount stores went out of business. But rather than being left empty it has been offered to an enterprising charity called "Healthy Planet" who use it mainly as a "shop" for recycling pre-loved books free of charge. I'm not sure this alternative economic model represents the route to future prosperity for our community, but as a volunteer managed operation it is both socially useful and environmentally friendly. And as far as I am concerned it is the best form of retail therapy, for you can wander in, donate volumes that are clogging your bookshelf, and pick up two or three good books which best of all cost nowt.


Recently, I was browsing through the shelves and came across a 1948 hardback edition of Tawney's "Religion and the Rise of Capitalism"  and decided this was something I must have.  I first read this book 45 years ago when I was studying for my History A level and have not looked at it again since then. I found I was in for a real treat and the rediscovery of ideas that are relevant to Christian socialists in the contemporary wilderness of neo-liberal hegemony.  


So who was R.H. Tawney? As I quipped recently he must have been a really wise guy to have both an owl and a vintage port named after him.  According to a recent biography by Goldman  R. H. Tawney was the most influential theorist and exponent of socialism in Britain in the 20th century and also a leading historian.  A hundred years ago


he was given a rifle and sent out to France to kill Germans. As an act of egalitarianism he refused a commission, choosing to join as a private soldier, and progressed no further than sergeant. …..Tawney fought in the Battle of the Somme, and was shot through the chest in the early stages of the battle.  (Labour List blog by Paul Richards)


He survived the Great War to and became a tutor travelling the country for the Workers Education Association and eventually an academic, writer and  professor of economic history at the LSE. He stood unsuccessfully for Parliament for the Labour Party and turned down the offer of a peerage.  He was a committed Anglican Christian, though with a degree of distaste for the Church of England as a class ridden institution.  




In the 1940s along with his old school friend Archbishop William Temple, and fellow Balliol student (and brother-in-law) William Beveridge, a Liberal he identified five "Giant Evils" in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease, and went on to propose widespread reform to the system of social welfare to address these.  As a child of poor working class parents growing up in those early post war years I benefited from the cod liver oil, the free prescriptions and the free grammar school education that had just become available under the welfare state. My whole generation continues to gain much from the social and economic conditions that ensued, though today we look round with sadness and often anger at the way this great achievement is being destroyed under the influence of neo-liberal economics and the cult of individualism.



So what do we learn from his greatest book, a study of the development of British capitalism from the late middle ages to the 18th Century in the context of the theological upheaval of the Protestant Reformation? Covering some of the same ground as Max Weber in "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" Tawney takes a different view, in that he sees Christian ethics, both of pre Reformation Catholicism and of the early Protestants as resisting the growth of individualism and of the autonomy and supremacy of economics. His starting point is the Biblically based and Church enforced condemnation of usury as mortal sin.   Church Councils in the 13th and 14th centuries declared that usurers were "excommunicate and were to be refused confession, absolution and Christian burial until they had made restitution."  Usury was not simply about lending money at high interest, but was identified as a wider sin of avarice, so that merchants who hoarded supplies to produce shortages and higher prices, or who charged unfair prices, or exorbitant rents were also found guilty.


Inevitably there were bankers and merchants who sought to justify themselves, and roundabout ways of providing financial services, most notably by allowing the Jewish bankers to lend at interest to rulers who wanted to finance wars or public works. Tawney himself accepts the wisdom of a distinction that allows the provision of credit at interest as a form of investment, as long as the financier shares some of the risk of the venture. Like the church throughout the ages his ire is turned against those who lend to the poor who need to sustain their livelihood, then demand in return much more than the principal of the loan, and cruelly extort or foreclose on the debtor. One does not need much imagination to see how this might be applied to the Wongas, Brighthouses, Money Shops and Providents of the present day.


Tawney shows how the Protestant Reformers for the most part fully endorsed the traditional view of Christian economic ethics, though they were struggling against a tide of mercantile activity triggered by the navigation of the oceans that opened up trade with the east and European pillage of the New World, bringing with it a crisis of inflation.  In the 16th Century in England, Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries was a cynical land grab, which opened the way for the nobility to run rampant in their enclosure of common land and destitution of the common people. To their credit the new Protestant bishops appointed by Henry and his young son Edward spoke with prophetic fire against the oppression of the poor.  To quote Tawney:


During the greater part of that period, from Latimer in the thirties of the sixteenth century to Laud in thirties of the seventeenth, the attitude of religious teachers had been one of condemnation. Sermon after sermon and pamphlet after pamphlet—not to mention Statutes and Royal Commissions—had been launched against depopulation. The appeal had been, not merely to public policy, but to religion. Peasant and lord, in their different degrees, are members of one Christian commonwealth, within which the law of charity must bridle the corroding appetite for economic gain. In such a mystical corporation, knit together by mutual obligations, no man may press his advantage to the full, for no man may seek to live outside "the body of the Church."


The social character of wealth, which had been the essence of the mediaeval doctrine, was asserted by English divines in the sixteenth century with redoubled emphasis, precisely because the growing individualism of the age menaced the traditional conception. "The poor man," preached Latimer, " hath title to the rich man's goods ; so that the rich man ought to let the poor man have part of his riches to help and to comfort him withal."



However, after the short reversal of the reign of Mary, during which not only the hopes, but the defenders of the poor, were reduced to ashes, the Protestant settlement under Elizabeth involved a process of secularisation. Ecclesiastical courts lost power to judge on economic matters. Puritanism focussed on the individual's spiritual walk with the Almighty, and in its train established a new orthodoxy of individual property rights.



it is perhaps not fanciful to detect in the ethics of Puritanism one force contributing to the change in social policy which is noticeable after the middle of the century.


The loftiest teaching cannot escape from its own shadow. To urge that the Christian life must be lived in a zealous discharge of private duties—how neces­sary. Yet how readily perverted to the suggestion that there are no vital social obligations beyond and above them! To insist that the individual is respon­sible, that no man can save his brother, that the essence of religion is the contact of the soul with its Maker, how true and indispensable ! But how easy to slip from that truth into the suggestion that society is without responsibility, that no man call help his brother, that the social order and its consequences are not even the scaffolding by which men may climb to greater heights, but something external, alien and irrelevant—some­thing, at best, indifferent to the life of the spirit, and, at worst, the sphere of the letter which killeth and of the reliance on works which ensnares the soul into the slumber of death! In emphasizing that God's Kingdom is not of this world, Puritanism did not always escape the suggestion that this world is no part of God's Kingdom


New forms of welfare provision asserted that the rich should contribute the very minimum to the common good, and that the poor should work, indeed do any work to support themselves to avoid destitution. Only in extremis should they have any claim on a residual safety net provided by the local parish.


In England, after three generations in which the attempt was made to stamp out vagrancy by police measures of hideous brutality, the momentous admission was made that its cause was economic whip had no terrors for the man who must either tramp or starve. The result was the celebrated Acts impos­ing a compulsory poor-rate and requiring the able-bodied man to be set on work. ……………But the Elizabethan Poor Law was never designed to be what, with disastrous results, it became in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the sole measure for coping with economic distress. While it provided relief, it was but the last link in a chain of measures—the prevention of evictions, the control of food supplies and prices, the attempt to stabilize employment and to check unnecessary dis­missals of workmen—intended to mitigate the forces which made relief necessary. Apart from the Poor Law, the first forty years of the seventeenth century were prolific in the private charity which founded alms-houses and hospitals, and established funds to provide employment or to aid struggling tradesmen. The appeal was still to religion, which owed to poverty a kind of reverence.



In an age of welfare cuts, the demonization of the poor as Chavs, and benefits sanctions it is not hard to see the relevance. It seems that only Christian believers (and not all of them at that) have the desire and the courage to speak up alongside the voices of those who are now made destitute by our welfare stateless society.


The Civil War period was one where Puritanism and Parliament were in a holy alliance against a King who asserted his Divine right to rule as a paternalistic despot. While Cromwell and his friends were undoubtedly sincere in their Christian faith, they represented the interests of the property owning and merchant classes.  Tawney quotes a contemporary source who wrote that in Bristol:


The King's cause and party were favoured by two extremes in that city; the one the wealthy and powerful men, the other, of the basest sort, but was disgusted by the middle rank, the true and best citizens.


It comes as no surprise then, that Cromwell and his army commanders, when faced with the radical claims of the Levellers and Diggers, for a popular democracy that would give voice to and represent the interests of all of the common people, ruthlessly suppressed the challenge. Maybe the relevance for us is that we now are at a time of renewed constitutional debate, and in Scotland at least of widespread popular engagement with political issues.  As Christians on the Left perhaps we need to be ideologically sceptical of those who belong to the political class, and represent the economic interests of business, even if they wear the respectable clothing of Parliamentary Democracy, or use the language of Zion as spoken in the  pamphlets of the Centre for Social Justice ---  and maybe even when they are in control of the institutional levers of power  within the Labour Party and Trade Union movement..


The grand narrative of Tawney's historical account is for me an account of the struggle between a powerful economic individualism that removes God from politics and society and a resistance movement which values equality and solidarity and which can best draw authority and inspiration from the Biblical tradition and our response to the Christian gospel.  Secularisation as a concept has many meanings, and we can argue as much as we like as to whether Britain is a Christian, a secular, a plural or a post-secular society. However, I am convinced that Tawney would see the extreme form of secularised capitalism in the global neo liberalism that surrounds us today.


The rise of a naturalistic science of society, with all its magnificent promise of fruitful action and of intellectual light ; the abdication of the Christian Churches from departments of economic conduct and social theory long claimed as their province ; the general acceptance by thinkers of a scale of ethical values, which turned the desire for pecuniary gain from a perilous, if natural, frailty into the idol of philosophers and the mainspring of society—such movements are written large over the history of the tempestuous age which lies between the Reformation and the full light of the eighteenth century. Their consequences have been worked into the very tissue of modern civilization. Posterity still stands too near their source to discern the ocean into which these streams will flow.


Though as a historian Tawney from his time did not want to predict our present, or indeed our future, I think he would be disturbed at today's world but not surprised. In reading his work again, we can find help for our understanding and inspiration for our political struggles. He calls us to a political struggle for a democratic and ethical form of socialism, building on solidarity with the poor and excluded and offers from the Christian tradition a politics which should be attractive to citizens of all faiths and none.


As Christians on the Left what then is the place for spirituality and what form should it take?  Tawney quotes a wonderful prayer written in 1551, probably by Bishop Hugh Latimer at a time of economic crisis and the enclosure of common land.  It pulls no punches in the way it talks about landlords who exploit the vulnerable"We heartily pray thee to send thy holy spirit into the hearts of them that possess the grounds, pastures, and dwelling-places of the earth, that they, remembering themselves to be thy tenants, may not rack and stretch out the rents of their. houses and lands, nor yet take unreasonable fines and incomes, after the manner of covetous worldlings . . . but so behave themselves in letting out their tenements, lands and pastures, that after this life they may be received into everlasting dwelling places."..  Maybe we should pray like that today.





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Monday, 17 November 2014

Tip of an Iceberg: A Christian Response to Winter Homelessness


My new blog post for William temple Foundation on responding to homelessness blog post is now live here:


Please Share


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Friday, 31 October 2014

William Temple -- 70 Years On.



Archbishop William Temple died 70 years ago this week, in the same year as my own maternal grandmother. I personally never met either of them as I was not born until 1951, yet I suspect both had a significant influence on my life and wellbeing.




As a child of poor working class parents growing up in those early post war years I benefited from the cod liver oil, the free prescriptions and the free grammar school education that had just become available under the welfare state. And it was Temple along with his friends Beveridge and Tawney who identified five "Giant Evils" in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease, and went on to propose widespread reform to the system of social welfare to address these.  My whole generation continues to gain much from the social and economic conditions that ensued, though today we look round with sadness and often anger at the way this great achievement is being destroyed under the influence of neo-liberal economics and the cult of individualism.


Temple is perhaps best known for his 1942 book Christianity and Social Order, which set out an Anglican social theology and a vision for what would constitute a just post-war society. He argued powerfully for the right of the church, and of individual Christians to engage in debates in the public sphere, and to propose radical policies that would bring about a more just and equal society. By advocating an approach of drawing evidence and wisdom from across the disciplines of economics, the social sciences, politics and theology he avoided the temptation of directly bringing Bible texts to bear directly on modern social issues. However he ensured that fundamental Christian values could be applied in the service of the common good.


As a radical evangelical non-conformist I still have some difficulties with the whole notion of Archbishops, especially when they themselves were the son of an archbishop and drawn from an elite social class. Temple himself was educated at Rugby School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he obtained a double first in classics and served as president of the Oxford Union. I would also have had some difficulty during the war with Temple's robustly non-pacifist patriotism. However I am willing to give him credit for his Christian socialist credentials and for his ministry as bishop in the North –west of England. His legacy locally includes the secondary school in Preston where my own two children were educated.


I continue to value being an associate fellow of the William Temple Foundation and to be one of a team involved in productive thinking and research into the relationship of the church with the economy and the public sphere. And I'm really looking forward to being involved next week in the exciting conference


Reclaiming the Public Space:

Archbishop William Temple 70th Anniversary Conference

Monday 10th November – People's History Museum, Manchester


I hope to see you there.  You can still book tickets by clicking on this link





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Thursday, 16 October 2014

Inequality, Social Justice and the DWP: My posting for International Blog Action Day 16 October 2014

My posting for International Blog Action Day 16 October 2014 http://blogactionday.org/ in response to a request from Church Action on Poverty

Twice in 24 hours in the last week I was in an audience hearing a presentation from an official of the Department of Work and Pensions describing and trying to justify the basis and practice of their social justice strategy. Much of both presentations seemed to follow a script and one had to feel somewhat sorry for the poor civil servants who seemed rather unconvinced of the political ideology and ethical views on which their programme is based and less convinced still of its outcomes and achievements.

The official definition goes something like this.;

Social Justice is about making society function better – providing the support and tools to turn lives around… The term 'Social Justice' is one which has many facets, but only one outcome. A life-changing difference that offers people a chance to rebuild their lives.

And the analysis drawn from work by Iain Duncan Smith's think tank the Centre for Social Justice is summarized as:

…..  family breakdown, low educational attainment, worklessness, problem debt, and addiction combine to cause the entrenched poverty affecting many of our communities.

The DWP strategy includes action to:
  • help troubled families turn their lives around
  • improve mental health
  • reduce child poverty and make sure that children are properly supported so that they complete their education
  • make work pay, and help people to find and stay in work
  • help people recover and become independent if things have gone wrong
  • work with the voluntary, public and private sectors to deal more effectively with complex problems
The flagship policy is welfare reform.. and in particular the introduction of Universal Credit.

Where does one begin to critique this approach? For the problems of poverty in the UK  are real enough, and the aspirations are noble. Even some of the mechanisms such as making benefits rates flexible enough to make earning a living worthwhile in a flexible and casualised labour market are fine in principle. However, at every level philosophy, policies, and practices they are wrong, and the outcomes we observe everyday seem to produce increasing social injustice.

An alternative view of social justice  - from the Bible.

The Bible indeed often speaks of the need to turn lives around and about transformation of people and communities. But that turning around involves both a change of mind (metanoia – usually translated as repentance) and a conversion (from sin and self towards the love of God and of neighbour). This is the basis of a new creation, of the power of the age that is to come, the power that raised Jesus from the dead, breaks into the present age and to some measure is brought under the lordship (kingdom rule) that comes from heaven. Such a change is good news for the poor, and liberation for the captives. But it is also a judgement on the oppressor, a justice that in Mary's words brings down the mighty from their thrones, and scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

Biblical social justice therefore is not just about individual rights and responsibilities which are functional for society but is both relational and radically egalitarian. We could start in Genesis with John Ball who in 1381 asked "when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentle man".  Or we could go down with Moses and the slaves of the 19th Century to "tell old Pharaoh, let my people go." Or we could rage in streets with Amos against the "cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, "Bring us some drinks!" and refuse to worship until " justice rolls on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream".  We could sing with David of the perfect anointed ruler who is to come who will " judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice" and trace the fulfillment of this in Jesus who "though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor" and told parables where the invitation to the banquet went "out into the streets and lanes of the city to bring in here the poor and crippled and blind and lame". Or we could observe the first assembly of believers in Jerusalem where.. "there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need".  Or we could read the instructions of Paul to the church in Corinth that  " Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality…"

It is clear then that a Christian view of social justice is more than offering poor people a chance to rebuild their lives. Rather it offers a chance for the rich and powerful to look at things differently, and to change the way they live and act, before it is too late and they look up to Lazarus in heaven to discover they are on the wrong side of an unbridgeable gulf.

An alternative analysis of the causes of poverty

No one can deny that across the UK there are problematic levels, and local concentration in certain neighbourhoods of family breakdown, low educational attainment, worklessness, problem debt, and addiction . However, it can be argued cogently that these are the symptoms rather than the causes of people's distress. The DWP/CSJ analysis tends to put the blame for these ills on the individuals who suffer from them. Of course all people are more than victims, as human beings they are agents, who take decisions and make choices, some of which may be wrong, bad or irrational. However, the available choices are often constrained by economic and social structures and by political decisions made by powerful people at a great distance from their lives.

Describing poverty in terms of individual pathology is central to the ideology of neo liberalism. Four decades of minimally regulated global capitalism has left many former industrial areas without industries to provide sufficient employment, and  left only service industries based on casual low paid work . The same decades of reckless lending has produced an epidemic of debt and usury. The lack of hope has produced poverty of aspiration among many young people, and many have turned to drugs and alcohol to dull the pain.  Family and community relationships have weakened, and one can argue about the contribution of social and economic stress, compared with the social liberalism that has promoted the cult of the autonomous individual.  Indeed as Paul Verhaeghe argues Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us.

The outcomes of the social justice policy and the need for alternatives

So if the philosophy, and the social analysis of the DWP/CSJ is wrong what about the policies and their outcomes? We only need to look at a few examples. The troubled families programme even if it succeeds with some inevitably stigmatises a small number of households who are drowning, without offering much support to the much larger numbers who are just about keeping their head above water. Universal Credit judging by the delayed and cautious rollout is an administrative quagmire,  and the gains are likely to be offset by the consequences of people who wont be able to cope with the change, to understand the implications or to manage monthly payments and budgeting. More significantly the welfare reforms which introduce harshness and conditionality, and reduce claimants disposable income are fundamentally unjust. Arbitrary benefits sanctions, unwarranted medical judgements about fitness for work and disability and the bedroom tax leave many people in destitution and despair. The evidence is there not least in the rising use of foodbanks, which increasingly are needed by people who are in employment as well as by those who fall through the holes in the welfare safety net.

Also in the background are the unjust effects of the austerity programme where cuts and efficiencies in public sector employment, reduced funding to local authorities, and the creaming off of profits by commercial contractors for public services have an unjust impact on local economies in already struggling areas, especially outside of London and the South East of England. Without solutions to these macro economic problems there seems little chance of an end to work-less-ness, a long term reduction in child poverty, more stable family life or an improvement of mental health and wellbeing.

Even if we give the DWP the benefit of the doubt and accept that they sincerely want the lives of the poor to be improved, the social justice strategy is deeply flawed and likely to prove an utter failure.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Giant's Cause Way and the Paisley Passing


Last week I was in Northern Ireland for the first time since 1989. I was in Belfast. I was there for three days for a European academic conference on the sociology of religion in the public realm, where I learned more about orthodox soup kitchens in Moscow, Bible translations in Bosnian and Muslim organisations in France than about the ethno-religious divisions of the host city.  We followed this with a family holiday in the breathtakingly beautiful Antrim Coast and glens, drenched in a week of almost unbroken September sunshine. We took in a boat trip to Rathlin Island, the waterfalls of Glenarriff Forest, a couple of trips back south to take in the Titanic visitor centre, and Mountstewart Gardens, and couldn't miss the precarious Carrick a Rede rope bridge and the obligatory trip to the Giant's Causeway. We were a ten hour car and boat journey away from Liverpool, but could see Scotland in the shape of Islay and the Mull of Kintrye less than 20 miles across the water. Then on Friday, about 16 years since the Good Friday agreement, and a week before the referendum on Scottish independence we heard of the death of one of Unionism's most prominent voices, Rev, Dr Ian Paisley.


As an English outsider I am reluctant to pontificate about a society of which I know so little and where  @pontifex is not universally popular. But I will hazard a few observations.  Firstly it is obvious that over 25 years Belfast, or at least the city centre has greatly changed for the better. Armed troops in battledress no longer patrol the city streets, and high security in most places (other than police stations and courts) is noticeable by its absence. The city centre and its waterside in particular shows all the typical signs of urban regeneration. A city airport, shopping malls with all the global brands, music venues, arts centres and back street galleries, cafes and wine bars, new hotels and gentrified apartment blocks. Dockside museum developments in this case a shrine to the Titanic in shiny stainless steel, competing with similar sites in Salford, Newcastle and Silvertown's Royal Docks. Tourists in plenty from all across the world and a surprising new variety of languages and ethnic groups among local residents. Similar signs of life and hope were found on the Antrim coast.  Polish voices among the fishermen casting their lines into the bay, and an iconography where pink (rather than orange or green) was the predominant colour, with flags, painted bicycles, cars and donkeys marking the recent early stages of the Giro d'Italia.


There is of course another side to the story. There is tension reported in the power sharing government. Communities and schools are still highly segregated into Loyalist and Nationalist enclaves. A drive into Belfast along the Newtonards Road in Loyalist East Belfast, shows all the signs of continuing urban deprivation, and bristles with flags and murals. Union Jacks, the red hand of Ulster, and the banner of the UVF still fly proudly declaring loyalty to the crown and the United Kingdom. It was near here that Paisley built his  Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian mega church. I was told by one friend who grew up there in the 1960s how the acquisition of the site robbed her and her classmates of one of their few adventure play spaces. We didn't have time or reason to visit Nationalist West Belfast but from what I can make out the communities there are a green hued mirror image of orange East Belfast. We don't hear that much about it in the media but it looks to me as if the peace dividend has mostly benefited the rich elites and the middle class, while poorer working class communities are divided in their struggles for resources such as work, housing and education. It reminds me of similar divided communities in the North of England where poor Pakistani heritage Muslims and working class white Lancastrians lead parallel lives in adjoining economically struggling neighbourhoods.


Religion in Northern Ireland is all too evident. There are churches in abundance both Roman Catholic and of numerous Protestant denominations. While there are signs of secularisation and declining numbers in congregations you can't help noticing that on Sunday morning church car parks across the province are full, and the language of faith is everywhere, and there are numerous Christian bookshops. It seems a conservative form of Christianity, I twice noticed pro life groups campaigning around  Northern Ireland's restrictive abortion laws..   Colleagues in the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland have long been engaged in the politics of the peace process and often speak of the need to distinguish Biblical Christian Faith and discipleship from the Protestant Loyalist culture in which they move. Religion, communal identity and politics are closely intertwined, as the career of the late Ian Paisley illustrates. The rabble rousing fundamentalist preacher of the 1970s exacerbated the troubles with his call to "No Surrender" on the Union. Yet  in more recent times he became an elder statesman  of the peace settlement and a personal friend of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness. There must be hope in this, both that the grace of God can soften the hearts of the most intransigent characters, but also that the political process which recognizes the role of faith can bring about positive change, that violence cannot.


I'm wondering then what the experience of Northern Ireland has to say about politics today. It's interesting that after a century of struggle to keep the six counties within the union that the greatest progress has been made under a regime of significantly devolved local power sharing. As Paisley said to McGuinness, "We don't need Westminster to solve our problems, we can sort it out ourselves". In a similar way the Scottish claim for independence is the same script writ large. The tired arguments of the "Better Together" campaign seem to major on the economic risks, and in doing so one can't help suspect that they are advanced not in the interests of local people, but in those of global capitalism and the London political elites. If I lived in Scotland I would have to vote "yes". But whatever the result next week it is going to be messy and new political processes and negotiations will be lively for many months if not years. In the end Scotland is no longer the question but it becomes more about the nature of a participatory democracy that might free the regions and local communities across the UK from the discredited rule of Westminster parliaments.  If we in the North of England are not able to ask an independent Scotland to annex us and move the border down to the M62 then at least we can hope for some stronger powers at the local or regional level.


 This of course is the notion of subsidiarity, which derives from Catholic social teaching, and suggests that decisions are best taken at the smallest possible level. In theory it is the basis of collaboration in federal systems, and even if rather ironically of the European Union itself. But a more radical Christian tradition in the Anabaptist style might take the argument a step further. If as we believe Christ alone is Lord, the problem in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is not so much that it is united or not (with or without one of its constituent tribes) but that it is a Kingdom and that it aspires to be Great. Therein is the language and ideology of dominance and control, rather than the Jesus ethic of shalom and forgiveness and the sin of pride rather than the virtue of humility. Political leadership as even Ian Paisley came to realise in some measure by the end of his life is about servanthood, peace and justice, which starts small as a mustard seed, and then as the honeycomb like steps of the Giant's Causeway reaches out across the seas..      


Isaiah 42 ;2-4

He will not cry out or raise His voice,
         Nor make His voice heard in the street.

A bruised reed He will not break
         And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish;
         He will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not be disheartened or crushed
         Until He has established justice in the earth;
         And the coastlands will wait expectantly for His law."




Thursday, 19 June 2014

Book review ; Discourses on Religious Diversity Explorations in an Urban Ecology by Martin Stringer


Discourses on Religious Diversity Explorations in an Urban Ecology

  • Martin D. Stringer, University of Birmingham, UK



A brief review by Greg Smith…


This is a short but insightful book drawing on a career of engagement with communities and faith in the inner city. Martin Stringer's career began as a community worker in Manchester and has now spent many years as an academic in Birmingham, where he supervised a number of research projects and postgraduate students working on religious topics. As a leading well respected scholar he knows the field and the literature in great depth, and across a number of disciplines, but has kept his feet on, and his ear close enough to the ground to bring a valuable contribution that should be appreciated by academics and practitioners alike.


The book has emerged as a compilation of papers given at various conferences, and although this clearly shows, the text has been well edited so that it is not particularly jerky, (and indeed there is no reference to such chicken even in narratives centred on the Lozells Road). The urban landscape is well sketched and easily recognized if, like me, you have lived most of your life in similar urban communities, and have visited Birmingham on numerous occasions. I am less sure how a reader who had spent their lives in suburban Surrey or rural Cumbria and had never explored an inner city would make of it, though of course it is less likely they would want to open the book.


Chapter 1 sets the context in the disciplines of sociology and urban and community studies and chapter 2 looks at the methodology of discourse studies which guides Stringer's approach. The next two chapters are focused on religion in two contrasting neighbourhoods Highgate and Handsworth. This is followed by two chapters describing and reflecting on public processions and celebrations of diversity, the second of which takes the author to London for the Chinese New Year. The final chapters reflect on the social significance of religion as part of urban memory, and on the policy related issues of managing religious diversity and the conflicts that can arise over differing discourses, representations, mechanisms of "othering" and exclusion, space and territory.


My own research and writing on these themes would bring me into sympathy with the book at a number of points. Recognizing that in metropolitan cities we enter into a realm of super-diversity and hybridity where a top down macro view of simple satellite geography and of reified monolithic and unchanging cultures and religions is a point that seems self evident. Religious super-diversity is tolerated, even celebrated in such settings though Stringer suggests this is largely because the majority of folk are indifferent to it, or at least don't  notice the differences in belief and practice that are so significant to the believer, and the theologically educated.  However, current discussion on the teaching of core British values, and the spectre of "Trojan horse" plots in Birmingham schools makes it clear that powerful discourse makers do not see the world the way some of us take for granted. Values, and divergent readings of faith traditions are contested and remin politically significant.


I agree about the importance of locality in shaping the dynamics of community and faith relationships; even in a globalised world Highgate and Handsworth have their own inter ethnic and religious cityscapes and ethos. People speak differently about social reality both in those places, and about them, though in both places there are myriad voices, varying by age, gender, ethnicity, religious practice and much else besides . There would be a very different picture in Newham, Bradford or (especially) Burnley. In many northern towns there is not yet super-diversity but polarized and segregated territories, where "the other" is clearly and visibly as well as linguistically marked. A key issue which arises and is pointed out in the book is that for the most part religion (in terms of belief and practice) is secondary to ethnicity and race as a boundary marker between communities, and becomes further nuanced by distinctions such as gender, generation and social class.


The chapter taking to the streets in my view is particularly interesting and valuable. Together with buildings and artifacts, and some of the "signs" and signs in the city these are the most overt public manifestations of urban religion and local "community" that are accessible for study.  In Newham in the 1990s the borough council invented a new autumn festival of lights, lantern parades and fireworks that seemed to combine Guy Fawkes, Diwali and Eid celebrations.  But this too was in a decade where, Christians had their March for Jesus, Shia Muslims had Ashura processions, and the Africabana carnival brought steel bands and samba to the streets of Forest Gate. In Preston Guild in 2012 there were similar processions which I talked about in the Socrel conference in 2013  I think Martin Stringer is correct in suggesting that such events are probably more significant in the public profiling and understanding of religion and culture than the acts of prayer, worship, study of and interpretation of scriptures or the verbal recitation of creeds. Which makes it somewhat of a pity that both the book and this review are limited to the medium of text. To appreciate such "signs" in the city and open conversations about them  we really need a multimedia presentation, with photos, music, film and a walk through the neighbourhoods in question.


So if I have a frustration with this book is that it is limited in perspective because of the way it concentrates on discourse, even though I am convinced about the power of discourse to shape our worldview.  His research method which seems to rely heavily on "eavesdropping" of casual conversations, and notes of  his own interactions in the street seems a little thin at times, and  maybe  would be stronger if there was a more detailed account of who was saying which things.  I'm sure Martin Stringer as a social anthropologist recognizes this and has looked at the visual and material, and has had students who have done more sociological work with qualitative analysis of in-depth interviews, providing thick descriptions of aspects of urban religion, and that he has also done the macro level analysis of census and survey data. It's just that I'm eager for more, rather than less, and look forward to reading more studies about such research in Birmingham and the debates on social science and policy that they will generate.