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Get beyond suburban stereotypes

19 December 2011

The Church in suburbia deserves more attention on its own terms, argues Chris Chivers

TO MOST people, north London con­jures up an image of Middle England: privet hedges, net curtains, and car-washing. Like all stereotypes, there is some truth in it, historically. Certainly, the dormitory element remains the same in com­munities such as the one where I serve.

When the church was conse­crated, 75 years ago, it served a white, largely professional and artisan context; now, the ethnic and cultural diversity is astonishing. At the primary school across the road, 46 first languages are spoken by parents and learners.

There are pockets of some of the severest urban deprivation in Lon­don; so it is not as suburban as people assume. The newcomers are more often African Pentecostalists, or Muslims, from Nigeria, Ghana, and Somalia; and Asian Hindus. At the church, we have worshippers drawn from across Africa, Asia, and Europe. We are on the way to becoming a minority-Christian parish.

Suburbia has changed, but the institution of the Church has not really noticed.

When the Church of England produced its groundbreaking Faith in the City, and followed it up with Faith in the Countryside, it took as an unacknowledged norm an already outmoded version of middle-class, white suburbia, against which to set the “neediness” of “deprived” com­mun­ities.

No one denies the neediness or the deprivation. But the failure to follow up with the final report in the trilogy, Faith in Suburbia, has enabled stereo­types and half-truths to seep into its institutional thinking.

The narrator in Julian Barnes’s novel Metroland (1980) says that he finds “the cosy, controlled rootless­ness” of suburbia “reassuring”. The implica­tion is that suburbia is transient and thin in stories: strong on imposed order, but weak on real narrative content.

Yes, people tend to live parallel lives: drawbridge up, car at the ready, and IKEA as the Saturday, Sunday, and every-other-day shrine. But be­neath all this, it is rich in story.

The history, for instance, of how, in the 1930s, the people of Mill Hill and Edgware built a hut on the hill, then a hall, and then a house of prayer for the whole suburb is a typ­ical sub­urban story, rich in com­munity and commitment. It is not that there is no history, but it has got lost in the turnover of residents. Yet churches offer continuity here as tellers of such stories as still shape lives.

They fulfil this function in a deeper way, too. As a society, we are struggling with questions of cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity. We do not know how to make sense of the changes.

The sociologists tell us that London suburbia will be majority-black within a few years. This is a far cry from where we were even 20 years ago. To many indigenous sub­urban­ites, the whole situation seems like the chaos of Babel. But a church’s job is, of course, to see that Babel is actually Pente­­cost: people using their own lan­guages and cul­tural tradi­tions to tell the wonderful deeds of God. It is this that suburbia can do spectacularly well.

At a recent meeting of our PCC, the concerns of the long-standing and the reality of newcomers met head-on. “The trouble with this community”, one brave PCC member said, “is that none of the African mem­­bers join in with the social events.”

His remark could have been dismissed as racist — he knew that — but it became a moment of epiphany. What lay behind it was African Anglicans’ not attending a parish quiz night. When someone pointed out that questions on the wives of Henry VIII might not figure large on your cultural horizon if you had been born in post-colonial Lagos, the penny began to drop.

Developing this insight, and promoting the dignity of difference comes through real conversation. At Mill Hill, for instance, it happens in the weekly Bible study. African Pentecostalists — who come to us because there is no church from their tradition close to hand, and because they like the parish model with its roots in the community — meet indigenous Anglicans whose outlook is very different.

Those who rarely open the Bible meet people who have not closed it enough. Together, we discover who we are by discovering who Jesus is in the biblical story.

Neighbouring churches use a strategy of Ann Morisy’s — one of the few theologians to pay any atten­tion to suburbia. They find identity by involvement in the story of the USPG projects that they support. Africa afar enables people to make better sense of the Africa around them.

YET my hunch is that none of this is exciting enough for those whose concern seems to be with a success-driven, photo-opportunity version of church, with the emphasis on how numbers grow rather than the depth of engagement that suburbia offers.

This is where the falsest as­sumption about suburbia needs to be firmly knocked on the head: this is the unstated belief that the suburban Church is the cash-cow to be milked through the Common Fund to provide for everyone else.

Parishes such as the one I serve, where house prices are very high, give the illusion of wealth. But look beneath the surface, and you will soon see that the multiple-occupancy of houses — children staying on into their 30s, extended families in homes designed for a family of four — suggests that there are parishioners who are asset-rich but cash-poor.

The C of E needs to see faith in suburbia as it actually is. This is not simply because financial thinking is skewed — and the house of cards will fall sooner than later because of this, leaving the urban Church stranded — but because suburbia, in its rich complexity, is gospel territory in need of more attention on its own terms.

The dependency and depression are more likely to be hidden behind the drawbridges, but it is as humanly complex as anywhere else. The missing report Faith in Suburbia is needed now more than ever.

Canon Chivers is Vicar of John Keble Church, Mill Hill, London, and the author of Fully Alive (Pretext, 2010).

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