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Knowing suffering and sacrifice

23 March 2010

Inner-city churches not a problem: they are a resource, as Angus Ritchie learns


What Makes a Good City: Public theology and the urban Church
Elaine Graham and Stephen Lowe
DLT £14.95 (978-0-232-52748-3)
Church Times Bookshop £13.45

AS I write this, an email pops into my inbox about the formula for the dreaded “Parish Share”. In the wake of a recession, what should be the Church of England’s budgetary priorities? What is the future for inner-city congregations struggling to make ends meet? This book is a timely reminder that such congrega­tions are a gift, not a burden, to the wider Church.

One of its strengths is the prom­inence that Elaine Graham and Stephen Lowe give to the lived experience of these congregations. Inner-city churches know what it is to suffer and to sacrifice. They aren’t simply problems, needing additional resources and support. They are a crucial resource. Their congrega­tions have much to teach the Body of Christ about Christian persever­ance, generosity, and resurrection hope. The relationship between different parts of the Body is not merely one of dependency and largesse.

Graham and Lowe offer a robust defence of an Anglican commitment to inner-city presence and engage-ment. They argue that it is essential if we are to have a credible national voice. Related to this is their defence of a distinctive Christian contribu­tion in politics and economics — though in practice they often seem cautious about this distinctiveness.

The authors begin by contrasting their public theology with more “sectarian” theologians, such as Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank. If the Church pursues the “pristine separatism” of these thinkers, they say, it may lose its foothold in the public realm.

This is a common charge, but not one borne out by the evidence. In fact, Hauerwas and Milbank actively support inner-city congregations’ working in alliance with non-Christians. A prime example is broad-based community organising — the movement begun by Saul Alinsky in 1930s Chicago, and made famous in the early career of Barack Obama. (Today, it is known in the USA as the Industrial Areas Foun­dation, and on this side of the Atlantic as Citizens UK.)

Graham and Lowe devote a whole chapter to this movement, and it is a shame that they overlook Hauerwas’s involvement in it; for Hauerwas tells us that it is significant to understanding his wider project: “What I’ve been trying to do all along is simply to make the Church worthy of participating in the kind of political relationships sought by the Industrial Areas Foundation.” Milbank is, likewise, a vocal supporter of Citizens UK in its campaign for a living wage and an end to usurious rates of interest.

Hauerwas and Milbank are not urging Christians to retreat from the public square into a perfectionist ghetto. Their work challenges us to be both distinctive and constructive — to recover our confidence in the gospel as public truth. In this other­wise helpful book, I am not sure the authors do justice to their challenge.

The Revd Angus Ritchie is Director of the Contextual Theology Centre in East London. He is currently editing Crunch Time: A call to action, a book to be published before the General Election, with essays by John Milbank and Luke Bretherton.

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