Ranters of Mow Cop

Ranters of Mow Cop

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

New Blog for William Temple Foundation

The following blog post is an edited extract from the newly released e-book, 'The Seven Pillars of Religion in the Public Sphere (or what on earth is religion?)' by Greg Smith. Out now!  

My: Temple Tract now live


I'm pleased to say that my new Temple Tract is now live and available to download here: http://amzn.to/2bBg44X



Out now! 'The Seven Pillars of Religion in the Public Sphere (or what on earth is religion?)' by Greg Smith




Is God back? Whether one sees religion as declining or experiencing a resurgence, in 2016, questions of religious beliefs and actions are perhaps more present in public life than they have been in recent times. From politicians publicly professing their faith, to France's infamous 'burkini ban', to legal disputes over icing cakes with slogans supporting same-sex marriage, religion is far from a silent elephant in the room.


Conversely, at the same time religious literacy appears to be declining. Greg Smith takes up the challenge of explaining 'what on earth is religion' writing specifically from the UK's globalised, post-Christian context. Smith suggests that the best way to understand it is through looking at what he coins as the 'seven pillars of religion', which are distinct yet overlapping in nature. In doing so, Smith highlights and clarifies what this increased visibility of religion in public life might actually mean, both in terms of how we perceive modern society, and how we understand the changing nature of religion within it. 





Friday, 29 July 2016

Book review --- Hunger Pains: Life inside Foodbank Britain

Hunger Pains: Life inside Foodbank Britain
By Kayleigh Garthwaite
Policy Press, 176pp, £14.99 and £9.99
ISBN 9781447329114 and 9138 (e-book)
Published 14 June 2016



This is a worthwhile book from an academic who writes in a simple accessible style. It is the result of a health inequality study during which the writer was a long-term volunteer in a food bank in the North East of England . She has done a good job of serving alongside the people who run and listening to the people who use local food bank, and has set out her findings in the context of wider social policy research.


However, those of us who have been involved at any depth in the issues of food poverty or are familiar with the work of the many food banks across the country will learn little that is new. But it is a good book to recommend to people who have little awareness or who are sceptical about the reality of food poverty in Britain today. It gives a sound basic introduction to the statistics on food poverty, although it perhaps relies too heavily on information supplied by the Trussell Trust. While Tussell is the largest coordinated chain of banks in Britain with over 400 branches, and the one with the best monitoring and publicity machine, they account for perhaps only a quareter of the food poverty projects overall. Responses to food poverty extend well beyond the food banking idea, including community cafes, community shops, school breakfast clubs, holiday Make lunch schemes, food growing projects and numerous examples of courses and programmes teaching people to obtain cook and eat nutritious and affordable food. It would be good to have a wider evaluation of the impact of these diverse responses to the scandal of food poverty.


Kayleigh Garthwaite used an ethnographic approach to study the work of a local church based food bank in Stockton-on-Tees. Her writing gives due prominence to the voices of those who face day to day struggles to feed themselves and their families. She writes amusingly at times of the practical and ethical dilemmas of a participant observer researcher. Her first session as a volunteer involved her arriving early enough to join in the pre session prayer meeting at the church. As Christian volunteers prayed in turn around the group, she found herself as an unbeliever thinking that she was expected to offer a prayer and ended up mumbling a few words. And yet after a year of volunteering she still does not get that is spiritual capital that motivates the work that goes on in the majority of food banks, or at least she is so embarrassed about it that she dare not mention it in a secular book.


The stories and interviews reveal a wide range of people who are more than victims and dependent on charity. Rather they are real human beings facing a variety of struggles, often treated unjustly by the system, sometimes just stressed out by the circumstances of life and its random misfortunes, or overwhelmed by the economic and social changes that have impacted the urban areas of the north of England. While there are a handful who can be described as playing the system, and who might be able to overcome some of their problems buy wiser decision-making and better moral choices, the majority of food bank users only accept a referral from another agency as a last resort. Garthwaite writes with sensitivity about the sense of shame which accompanies each visit to the local food bank.


The analysis of food bank usage shows that the major cause of distress is a broken benefits system. Delays and administrative cockups, the punitive nature of the sanctions regime and the sheer meanness of current welfare provision in one of the richest countries of the world account for probably two thirds of food bank referrals. However increasingly our low wage economy and the precarious nature of the flexible labour market mean that more people who are officially seen as employed are faced with choices between feeding themselves and their families, heating their homes or paying bus fares so they can get to their jobs. As chapter 5 of the letter of James says to the plutocrats and tycoons of his time You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.


Inevitably there are some policy recommendations, most of which are sensible and would be welcome. We would all like to see the government recognise the issue of food poverty and that this is linked with the general issue of low income. It would be good to raise the National Minimum Wage so that it was a truly living wage and it would be more than welcome if we could abolish the punitive and arbitrary benefit sanctions and greatly improve the administrative procedures and empathy levels in the DWP. Sadly the government has little or no interest in doing so, especially as long as the majority of the electorate continue to make the distinction between a deserving and undeserving poor and are taken in by a narrative that divides the population into working families and claimants, strivers and shirkers. Although this storyline has been promoted for many decades by the right wing tabloid press it seems that it is now accepted by most of the mainstream political parties. As a result slightly radical ideas such as a basic citizen's income struggle to get on to the political agenda, being dismissed as entirely implausible.


In this context I find it hard to see how we can avoid food banks becoming a permanent institution in the provision of welfare. We really ought to be doing everything we can to do ourselves out of a job. There will be success in the enterprise when the very last food bank is closed. But for that to happen a political analysis and a political campaign is required. As long as the majority of people Christians included, see the main causes of poverty as addiction, poor budgeting and family breakdown, we will fail to address the structural economic and political causes of poverty today.


However minor tinkering on the margins of policy we'll never be very much use unless there is a radical reformulation of the whole market economy. Eradicating poverty before Kingdom Come, or a global revolution, is highly unlikely as Jesus himself recognised. But surely there must be some way of reducing inequality by the redistribution of wealth and income, insuring that adequately paid decent employment opportunities are available to everyone who can work, and that those who cannot for whatever reason, are kept from destitution by the sharing of society's resources. A proper listening to the voices of those who are struggling with hardship should convince us that we are all our brother and sister's keeper.



Overall the scenario for me is not a very hopeful one. But people of faith and Christians in particular, are called the people of hope. Indeed it is they who run and manage the vast majority of food poverty projects in Britain. What then are we called to do at the present time? In the first place we need to keep on keeping on, simply making sure by serving those in need that no one goes hungry. It's possible to do that in more efficient and more effective ways, perhaps by working better together in partnership with other agencies, in sourcing food for our food projects on a more wholesale basis, in ensuring that the food provided is not simply poor food for poor people (think 2000 cans of baked beans!),. We need to be better at signposting and connecting with other projects that can address underlying needs and support people in the wider context of their lives.


We can also strive to ensure that the services of our food banks do not operate as patronising charity, but that by listening carefully and building relationships with the people who use these services, we are operating on the basis of gracious human solidarity. In this context there is no "them" ; we are all us. This is perhaps one aspect of the Christian gospel that Garthwaite does fully understand. She speaks of American research which concludes that "social honour accrues to those who volunteer but stigma to those who are clients". This highlights the temptation for many of us Christians that we tend to serve because of our own need to be needed. Lord preserve us from this trap and teach us how to share love - simply because we have been loved.


There is another useful review of this book here



Review by Greg Smith, Development Worker, Together Lancashire and co-ordinator of Feeding Lancashire Together Network


Friday, 8 July 2016

A selection of Reflections on Brexit

Over the last two weeks I've been trying to understand what happened in the referendum. I've been collecting links to some of the most insightful articles.
The analysis makes clear it's not just about poverty and lack of concern for the northern "Labour heartlands"  the additional factor is that a major element of the disconnect was about White English identity... let's name it as racism... which is linked to authoritarian personality traits... I think this brings us even more dangerously into fascist hinterland..
Was the referendum result the revenge of the 'left-behind' voters? Not the most recently left-behind, says the Resolution Foundation's Torsten Bell. Those ...
When you see see this in the Spectator from a Tory (Matthew Parris) you know something evil has taken place in England
Luke Bretherton is Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University. His most recent book is Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship and the Politics of a Common ...
A referendum can be the pinnacle of democracy, argues Robin Fransman, but it can also result in a large minority having their hopes and dreams smashed by a small majority. The Brexit referendum is a case in point. It reduces democracy to majority rule, but it should be much more than that.
Boris Johnson was only playing, after all. But he was playing with fire
The geography reflects the economic crisis of the 1970s, not the 2010s; It became clear early on in the night that Leave had extraordinary levels of support in the ...
I voted to remain in the EU and was, of course, disappointed to wake up this morning to the news that the UK was leaving it. It is tempting to be ...
Brexit: The Poison and How we Clean it Up. The racism and xenophobia seen in the wake of the Brexit vote has a longer history. The way for society to begin facing up ...
The Bishop of Burnley's piece in the CT about the Brexit vote..  pointing out the long term neglect of the North of England

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Tom Wright's God in Public - A Review

God in Public: How the Bible Speaks Truth to Power Today

by Tom Wright, 21 Apr 2016, Paperback
ISBN-13 9780281074235 Publisher SPCK Publishing  Pages 208

A review by Greg Smith

Make no mistake I'm a fan of N.T. (Tom) Wright. I love his biblical exegesis, his emphases on the "big story" of the Bible, the centrality of the resurrection, the multiple layers of the atonement and his account of the coming new creation. I'm encouraged by his teaching about heaven touching earth  and value greatly his reconciliation of the gospels of the kingdom with Pauline theology. Books like "Surprised by Hope" have refreshed and sustained me in my work in developing Christian social action and community involvement with churches and communities in urban areas. I've listened to his  podcasts and watched youtube videos of his lectures, and I was eagerly anticipating the publication of his new title, "God in Public ; How the Bible Speaks Truth to Power Today "

Undoubtedly there is good stuff in this book and I find myself agreeing with a lot of what he says. I share some of his political concerns about the quality and hollowness of some of the leaders and politics of the present time, and the horrendous consequences of the deceit and self interest that led Western powers to intervene in Iraq in 2003. I can go along with his critique of the world views of both modernity and post-modernity, and his attack on spiritualities that owe more to the Gnostic than the Christian tradition, as set out in the second chapter. I agree that the grand narrative of the Bible gives a much sounder foundation for both personal and social life. However, I do think we need to take more seriously the hermeneutical questions raised by post-modernity - there is no neutral objective reading of Scripture possible and a white male scholar's reading is not the only or necessarily the best way to approach the Bible.

The third chapter, where Tom Wright delves into John's account of the trial before Pilate is the highlight of the book.  It is good to see him looking at John's gospel, which is relatively absent from his earlier books. Without dismissing the traditional evangelical accounts of the crucifixion and the atonement altogether, he brings out the reality of the politics of the events, and the radical challenge to the Jewish religious establishment and the Roman state by one who was labelled "King of the Jews".  And this Kingdom which is not FROM this world brings an authority which is profoundly disturbing to Pilate, and all other rulers since - a power which through powerless love overcomes victoriously the powers and principalities of evil itself.

But then why am I disappointed, and why does that disappointment grow as I read on to the end of the book? The first problem seems to be repetition; inevitable perhaps as the chapters are based on scripts of various talks and lectures given to disparate audiences over recent years, all loosely linked with the theme of God and public life. One can understand that a lecturer needs to summarise and recapitulate key themes from an earlier vast corpus of theological scholarship. But by the end of the book I had concluded that this volume was mostly the product of the Tom/ N.T Wright instant  publishing industry.  I was becoming nostalgic for the quill pens of the monastic scribes of the medieval monasteries, and wondering if the invention of MS Word and the easy techniques of cut and paste actually represent progress in the development of original new thought.

More fundamentally however, I fear that in this volume at least Tom Wright is just not engaging with those who have been grappling with political and public theology for decades.  There is one mention of Jim Wallis, one of Pope Benedict and one of Bonhoeffer,  and on the back cover there is a commendation from Nick Spencer of Theos, and two Christian members of House of Lords. And that is it - I could find  no reference in the index to liberation theology or other forms of contextual theology, to Catholic social teaching on the common good or to Pope Francis. Political and public theologians of the stature of Walter Brueggemann, Luke Bretherton and  Elaine Graham, and Christian  political scientists like Jonathan Chaplain are missing. I'm not sure we should have expected a reference to that most turbulent of East End priests, the late Ken Leech, who inspired so many of us by his combination of theological erudition and practical example, but it would have been enlightening. Nor are the debates following Habermas, on secularization and post secularity recognized. It leaves the impression that there is nothing more than a bipolar conflict between faith and secularism as competing ideologies, with a little bit of Gnosticism thrown in for individuals exploring spirituality.

Unsurprisingly I was looking for links with the thought and practice of William Temple. Apart from the coincidence of the exposition of John's gospel, there was not much else. Temple is not even in the index. At the very least a discussion of God in public needs to engage with the method of middle axioms, and Temple's insistence on the need to draw on wisdom and expertise from other disciplines than theology. And if one is not happy with the methods, theology and politics of Temple, or of various contextual theologies, there is always the Reformed tradition  which recognizes plural sovereignities under God in different social and political spheres, as expounded in the philosophy of Dooyeweerd and the politics of Kuyper.

The kind of God in Public that emerges from this book seems to me to be rather too much of an establishment and churchy one. Wright seems to me rather too trapped in the world of the New Testament, and scarcely emerges from a Pauline communitarianism.  Fundamentally he seems to be looking at the church as alternative society, radically providing an alternative welfare system which would gladden the hearts of those who invented the notion of Big Society. David Cameron promoted this for a while, then forgot about it as his austerity policy condemned the third sector to make more bricks without supplies of straw. Wright's almost sectarian view seems rather Anabaptist at least at the local level, but without the radical elements of pacifism, voluntarism and independent local church government that make it attractive (to me at least). The political role for the church seems little more than the voice of bishops in Parliament expressing Godly dissent within the confines and language of the establishment.

So my problem with the book is that it is not really answering the questions I and my colleagues deal with day to day in local faith linked community work, or those that Christian politician friends or broad based Citizens organizers engage with in their roles. I find too little understanding of the complexity of public involvement and partnership in an age where the welfare state is under attack, inequality and destitution grows, and the Third Sector is under resourced . There is little help about the messiness of negotiation, compromise and the pragmatism of achievable political change.  There is little about the nature of a plural and religiously diverse society, and how people of various faiths and none can speak of God in public, and work together for the common good,  finding allies on particular values and campaigns. While Tom Wright may understand and value holistic incarnational Christian mission, he says nothing about where Christians fit in the processes of community development and community politics at the local level. As a result there is the privilege of the prophet but there doesn't seem to be much space for the voice of poor and the marginalized.

So if you want a book that puts into print some of his latest talks and sermons you might want to read this book. However you might get just as much out of documents and podcasts that are available online at http://ntwrightpage.com/  or by searching for videos on Youtube. But if you want a book that helps you to think deeply about the complexity of faithful action in the contemporary world, or to inform your daily practice as a Christian politician, academic or community activist there are plenty of other publications that will deliver more.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Northern Gospel, Northern Church: Reflections on Identity and Mission -A book review by Greg Smith


ISBN-13 9781910519196            Format Paperback
Publisher Sacristy Press
Publication date 1 Mar 2016
Pages 240
Edited by
Foreword by John Sentamu

This is an interesting book of varying length chapters by Anglican clergy serving in various roles in the North of England. Inevitably like the curate's egg it is good in parts - though at times I felt it the tone was that of a group of "good eggs" discussing theology in the common room after evensong in the college chapel. Indeed it arose from a clergy retreat at Bishopsthorpe and a bishops' retreat on Lindisfarne so it is not surprising that it seems far removed from the stories of the street of Blackpool, Burnley, Bury, Barnsley, Bradford and Bedlington. With so many of the authors raised or educated south of Birmingham it sometimes feels like a view from the south, a missionary account of a distant land. With their concerns for the survival, renewal and resurrection of the Church of England in the northern province, and the dire statistics about membership and age profile of parish congregations their concerns for the re-evangelisation of the region are timely and important.

To start near the end of the Mark Powley's chapter on Vocation and Resurrection faces up to the difficulty of attracting clergy to Northern parishes and advocates a contextual training model for new clergy. This surely must be the right approach, although to train clergy in the context of ministry in the church as it currently is, is not to be confused with localised contextual theological reflection, or a missiology which is informed by a sociological or anthropological understanding of the life worlds outside the institution.. In fact the book as a whole is weak on social analysis. The assumption is that it is the ancient history and geography that shapes the spirituality and ethos of the region as a whole. There is little discussion of the detailed social ecologies and local identities between counties such as Yorkshire and Lancashire, between cities like Bradford and Leeds, or  Liverpool and Manchester or the segregation by class and ethnicity that divides towns like Blackburn and Oldham  or Blackpool and Lytham. It's curious too that most of the authors are based in Yorkshire or the North East. Apart from a short excursion to Bootle the land west of the Pennines features hardly at all.  In the midst of current devolution debates, and the longing among some for Scotland to move the border down to the M62, the question remains as to whether the notion of the North of England has any real substance.

Many of the chapters are steeped in the Christian tradition of the region, with many of the writers retelling the stories of the Northumbrian saints of Saxon times. Inspiring though these may be, and however attractive their relics and monuments remain for the tourist and the pilgrim I'm not convinced they are particularly relevant in the face of more recent history. The Industrial Revolution, (Gavin Wakefield's chapter gives about three pages to this period) that transformed the North an the 19th Century, and the devastation of industry in the late 20th Century profoundly shapes the image, the culture and the social realities of the region. And far more deeply than the stereotype of flat caps, warm brown ale and whippet racing that persists to this day in many minds. Particular industries, their location and the housing alongside them shaped local class solidarities, labour politics and gender relationships.  Stephen Spencer's chapter on William Temple's relationship with the working men (sic) of the North (which as a Temple fan I enjoyed reading) explores the relationship between the North and the national church  at the height of  industrial activity. There is room for more study and reflection, and maybe a different book, about the social and economic impact of the post Thatcher era on the region, and how that has impacted the religious landscape of north.

The industrial revolution and more recent economic globalisation both triggered major people movements with migration of labour from rural hinterlands and distant countries. This shaped the religious ecology far beyond the parishes of the established church. In the Northwest Irish migration added to the persistent recusant tradition of Lancashire produced a Roman Catholic ethos distinct from that of Yorkshire, where the Non Conformist chapels played a major role, while German merchants and Jewish refugees brought minority religions to places such as Bradford and Leeds. David Goodhew, in his chapter on the emergence and growth of new churches, concludes that ethnicity is everything in contemproary church growth. There are indeed some signs that the trends of growth that have renewed London churches are spreading north. Even in a relatively small place like Preston, new congregations of Romanians, Pakistanis, Poles, South Indians, Chinese and west Africans have emerged in the last decade.  Goodhew realizes too that most of the new life is found in denominations outside the Church of England and is willing to learn from them, though I'm not sure that the conclusion can be other than that it's better not to be Anglican.

There is a tendency to perceive the whole of the North of England as urban and multiply deprived despite the existence of such affluent enclaves as George Osborne's Tatton constituency in Cheshire, and the "golden triangle" between Harrogate, Ripon and York. Nonetheless widespread poverty and inequality is obvious between the North and the South and within the North of England and within it's various communities. John Wigfield's chapter addresses these issues  in terms of "the Spirit level" and links this with a reading of the Biblical texts in Deuteronomy. There are some useful insights though I'm not quite convinced that these are the most apposite passages of Scripture or that they will lead us to a missiological application where practical social action and social justice ministries will flourish. 

Su Reid's first chapter does better in grounding her theology in the social action networks of Together Middlesbrough, and in her commitment to "let the poor speak". She has some trenchant insights about the concept of sin, and the way that liturgies such as confession can speak condemnation on people who are struggling. In her second chapter she reflects on the parallels between Northern England and Samaria in the time of Jesus. Her reading of Christ's encounter with the woman at the well in John's gospel, is radical and possibly controversial. Clearly she is right in seeing the story as one where boundary fences of ethnicity, religion and gender between the righteous me and the unrighteous "other" are dismantled. Yet this reading seems to me to take away some of personal moral responsibility from the woman and those who identify with her today as marginalized outsiders, and perhaps could be seen as diminishing the personhood of the poor. Personally I would rather understand and apply the text as multi-layered and nested with multiple meanings and applications, and to see the incident at the well as one of those "blurred encounters", increasingly common today of which Chris Baker and John Reader have written, and which I described in a blog about the messy church in my own parish.

In summary this is a book that is worth reading if you are concerned about the future of the church in the North of England. But it is not the last word, it lacks as much as it contributes and is really only "your starter for ten".