THE 3 R’S OF THIS ERA
Address to the National Estate Churches Network
So many words have been spoken about the pandemic, but let me begin with an image. What happened was like a giant earthquake. Most, but not all of us, were inside as the ground shook beneath our feet. As it subsided, we began tentatively to step outside. There was masonry all over the place. An earthquake is indiscriminate, as buildings are levelled. The temptation is to run to the first piece of rubble and try to move it to find out what is beneath. The smarter thing is to walk round, take in the scene, and listen out for the quiet cries for help that lie beneath some pieces of rubble. Those bleeding from superficial injuries may need first aid, but the ones who are trapped are most at risk.
This is our task today. We’re not coming out of the pandemic. It is reasserting itself, like the after-shocks from an earthquake. So there will be further casualties. But one thing in particular shows. Despite first appearances and the way an earthquake levels things, it actually hits poorer places harder because they are less well built and poorer people live, almost literally, on top of one another.
This is, pretty much, what we’ve found today with the pandemic. Though all cohorts have lost out, because a tiny virus does not differentiate, it turns out a pandemic works just like other crises in life: it hits the most vulnerable hardest. Older people, poorer people, those with underlying health problems or from a BAME background. And especially when more than one of those identities combine.
If you live on an estate, rent from a negligent private landlord, have no garden to call your own, are sharing bedrooms within your property, lockdown was simply harder. It’s been said the new definition of working class is that you have to leave home to work. This also made poorer people more vulnerable to the virus as they made daily trips on public transport and were exposed to a wider range of people.
But for the majority of people who live on, it’s the economy that will really hurt them. Zero hour contracts, punishing, sometimes humiliating, jobs, no loyalty to employees, if they are even called employees, no savings. The last decade of austerity gave us a new term for such people: the precariat. There is no certainty; people are watching over their backs all the time for something to go wrong. This kind of precarious life more properly belongs in the animal world, where creatures have to stay one step ahead of a predator. This should not be the condition of a human being. But their numbers are going to grow, all the more so as the online giants and those who control the gig economy are the big winners from the pandemic.
This kind of poverty is linked to mental illness. If we didn’t know the statistics, we could guess them. There are signs that mental health may rise up the political agenda. We can be sure future generations, who are much more open about the state of their minds, will make it a priority. But as it rises on the agenda, we must be sure to distinguish between two states. Mental illness is a diagnosable illness of the mind. Those who experience conditions like schizophrenia, clinical depression, bi-polar disorder, panic, anxiety and eating disorders are some of the most unwell people in the country. And their number is being added to by the pandemic.
In trying to deal with the rise in mental illness, attention has been drawn to mental well-being, a good state of mind where we are not afflicted by nagging bad thoughts. Unpleasant as these are, and worthy of attention, they should be distinguished from clinically diagnosable mental illnesses. We are not all in the same boat and it is disrespectful of the very ill to blur the two, putting them at risk of not being taken seriously. The low-grade sadness I have felt through the pandemic is nothing compared to the crushing depression of others where they feel they have been left in a dark room and the key thrown away. If I can put this bluntly, we must not let mental illness become a branch of the middle-class wellness industry.
The growth in the economically and mentally vulnerable are big outcomes from the pandemic and they will be prevalent on our estates.
In responding to the virus, I have suggested to churches in Rochester that they might employ the three Rs: recovery, re-imagination and reach.
There is a clear work of recovery. Though we may have been unsatisfied with aspects of our churches beforehand, there is a lot we need to return to, and to return to well. This includes: public worship; focussed pastoral care on those who have or are losing out because of the virus; understanding and steadying church finances; assessing the new actual size of the volunteer base; and deciding what to do with existing projects and events in the light of all that.
There is also a work of re-imagining church. I know some will groan on hearing this. There is understandable weariness about being endlessly told that everything presents us with a fantastic opportunity to do something new for God that will make the difference we’ve been waiting for. And I want to be sensitive to this. I’m guessing not all those returning from exile wanted to be frantically re-building the walls and enforcing the covenant with the relish and work ethic of Nehemiah. I suspect we would each have had some sympathy with them. But those with energy will want to spend that energy.
The historian Margaret MacMillan, who has spent time reflecting on responses to major crises has said: invest all the resources you can in figuring out what you’re up against. Similarly, the renowned geographer Jared Diamond has said the challenge for institutions is to figure out which parts of their identity are already functioning well and don’t need changing and which parts are no longer working and do need changing.
So there is a task of re-imagining church. And it can be done in bite sizes that don’t make us choke. We need to: listen to people’s stories and assess community needs; re-align our ministry in the light of these; attract volunteers from outside the church as well as inside, to assist with bottom-up creative social action; end some things so new plans can be made and resourced; cluster better with other churches to enable all these.
In particular, we need the better joining up of word and action, evangelism and community engagement. To be holistic in mission. We are all aware that trust levels in the professions have dipped in recent years. What most have missed, but which has been uncovered by the politics academic William Davies, is that trust levels have fallen most in those jobs that depend most on words: politicians, journalists, estate agents, clergy. In contrast, trust levels have held up best in those professions that care for, nurture or protect the human body: doctors, nurses, teachers, the armed services.
Words come cheaply today, lies pervade our public spaces. Unless these words are supported by tangible, sincere actions, demonstrating care for people’s bodies, they will be ignored. This is hardly a revelation for the Church. That’s the Gospel. It was authenticated in the early Church by the way its preaching was joined to healing and acts of charity. Any church that longs to make an impact in its local community must make the same joining. The pandemic, in its malign way, has simply reinforced this point.
The third component of a post-virus church is a new awareness of its reach. This includes: understanding the profile and needs of those who prefer to engage online; creating digital capacity; responding to new or deepened community needs in the coming recession; a renewed commitment to pastoral care, especially among those who have lost out in the pandemic. And that includes that greater focus on mental health, which is a bodily question.
As numbers are added to the precariat in this recession, many people will be experiencing deep needs for the first time. They will find that the systems they imagined were in place to look after them are more precarious than imagined. The famous safety net for the needy has lots of holes in it. It is hard for some to access these systems because they require verbal and computer literacy. After a few weeks, it feels like a game of snakes and ladders, where they keep landing on the snakes. The system is faceless and it feels like no-one really cares about you.
Our systems can leave much to be desired at times. But there is another side to the story. There are charities, advice services, information points. Lots of people want to offer the support others need to get through. They will listen, give time and space and have helpful things to say. That there are so many third sector services shows just how much love and care there is. Sometimes it feels there are too many services and that they don’t talk to one another. If so, this is where community hubs come in. Churches can bring these groups together in one space that is visible and accessible. Clients can see what’s on display and talk face to face with real people, not automated voices. The agencies, in coming together in one space, can also make contact with one another, and the local church can have its space, and credibility, in marrying human needs to practical support.
This is one step churches can take if it does not already exist. It is one specific response to a puzzling and disturbing crisis.
How parishes engage with their estates right now is a similar issue to their care homes. Both are places of significantly increased need. But the parishes best placed to help are those which have an existing relationship with the estate or care home. It will not be easy to generate one quickly in a socially distanced world.
There is one final thing I’d like to say, and that concerns inequality and identity. There has been much talk in recent years of the white working classes, who are believed to have been overlooked, patronised or even sneered at by so-called affluent metropolitan elites. Issues of identity came to the fore again during lockdown with the appalling death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and many protests of visceral anger. This led to a provocative counter-response in some places, symbolised most acutely by the light aircraft that flew a banner ‘White Lives Matter’ over the Manchester City football stadium, apparently devised by fans of Burnley FC.
Issues of identity are fundamental in life and have produced some terrible injustices through the eras. But issues of class remain important and they cross ethnicities. White working classes exist, but so do black working classes and Asian working classes. In fact, the pandemic has shown how vulnerable BAME working classes have been to the virus. To be working class is to be economically poorer than the middle class. The working class does not comprise one ethnicity. To suggest it does permits some people to ignore it, as if it’s no more than a white grudge at work. In that way, issues of inequality can be conveniently sidelined. Part of our prophetic role in this era is to talk about the ethnically diverse working class and the issues of poverty that assail many within it. It is a fundamental part of our witness to, and support of, all those who live on our estates.
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