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Summer riots 2011

13 July 2012

General Synod: York 6-9 July 2012

THE Church's response to the riots of last summer was the subject of a debate on Sunday afternoon, based on the report Testing the Bridges: Understanding the role of the Church amidst riots, disturbances and disorder.

"We live in an age when the public understanding of religious belief is often woeful," the Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Price, said at the start of the debate. "Religion is perceived as irrational and therefore socially useless, if not undesirable. What we have tried to highlight in the report is the way that the things Christians believe shape the way they act, and how their actions demonstrably support the good of all.

"Last August proved that serving the common good is what a lot of Christians do, almost instinctively, even in hard, dangerous, and frightening circumstances." Christians were not the only ones who were influential on the streets, he said, but being a member of a faith community seemed to have been "a major factor".

Addressing a possible cause of the disorder, he said: "It is perfectly possible to empathise with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and those responsible for policy, recognising the immense pressure they are under from the financial markets and credit reference agencies, and at the same time to sound a clear warning note about the social consequences of austerity measures which hit the most vulnerable hardest and leave the very rich unscathed."

He said that he would not be "sentimental" about those who "took to the streets last August and destroyed property, ruined other people's lives, and walked off with looted trophies. Riots embody appalling evil and criminality, and those who get drawn in often display great wickedness."

He continued: "The tragedy of our times is that we have a large population of young people who are desperate to escape from the constrained lives to which they seem to be condemned. Where hope has been killed off, and with no prospect of escape, is it surprising that their energies erupt in anti-social and violent actions? In a consumer society, is it surprising that lusting after high-status goods is seen as a way to find meaning?"

He said: "If similar outbreaks of disorder happen this summer, or next, or the summer after, we will be asking ourselves why we did not learn more quickly and thoroughly from the churches which were caught up in last year's events."

The Revd Jacqueline Stober (Liverpool) spoke of her desire for a "more relevant" part for the Church to play in responding to unrest. During the riots, she had had a high-visibility jacket, wore her collar and cloak, and had imagined herself "going back and forth across barricades, reducing tensions". A policewoman had told her that she might make cups of tea for elderly people at the church. Yet nuns, for instance, were "picking out children in the crowd, calling them by name, and sending them home".

Ian Fletcher (Bradford) commended the report, but argued that it should have referred back more to the events of the past, such as the Bradford riots in 1995 and 2001. Riots had a "lasting effect" on neighbourhoods. Although the riots of 2011 had not spread to Bradford, there was a "nervousness" because of this "knowledge from the past".

After riots, people faced criminal charges and prison sentences: there were "all sorts of pastoral issues still to be dealt with". He attributed the calm in Bradford last year to the work that the Church had done after the riots of previous years, and the influence of the Team Rector, George Moffat, in Manningham, for whom people still expressed thanks. Some of those imprisoned after those riots were now working with young people "to give them guidance into being good citizens". The paper needed to look to the past to enable lessons to be learned from it.

Prebendary Philippa Boardman (London), a priest in a parish where looting took place, asked where the Church should go from here. "How do we help young people to find purpose in their lives, and build personal resilience? How do we help young people find a sense of their own value and self-worth?" She appealed for thought to be put into how Christian youth work could be kept going "so that young people can find their value and purpose in Christ and in his Church".

The Archdeacon of Walsall, the Ven. Christopher Sims (Lichfield), said that a cleric who had sat in a police patrol car during the riots told him how fearful and powerless the police had felt. Archdeacon Sims also asked whether the media had "overstepped the mark between thorough coverage and obsession. In our area, the scenes of the riots were played over and over again," and might have "been instrumental in the riots' spreading around the country".

Simon Baynes (St Albans) spoke of his diocesan Penal Affairs Group, which was set up four years ago. "It has built up an unstoppable momentum, driven by people who care." He said the objective was to "weave a Christian thread into the justice narrative", adding: "to be really effective we need similar groups in every diocese."

The Revd Michael Booker (Ely), in his maiden speech, said that the report Testing the Bridges was an "endorsement of local church, parish-based ministry. Local clergy living and known in their parishes, locally rooted congregations, and relationships with schools were clearly of immense value, and withstood the test of the strain put upon them."

But could the Church be present in every community if some of those communities were not geographical, but "mobile, networked, and inter-related"? Alluding to the Fresh Expressions report, he said that if the Church wanted to be rooted in every community, it must include expressions that "won't stand still but which move with young people and their mobile phones as they move across parish, deanery, and even diocesan boundaries".

The Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, the Rt Revd John Packer, who chairs the Urban Bishops' Panel, urged the national church institutions to acknowledge the importance of ministry in urban areas. In Leeds, he said, it was recognised that the presence of youth workers on the streets helped to prevent minor disturbances' developing into riots; and the Church needed to do all it could to strengthen this provision at a time when secular agencies were cutting theirs.

The Revd Philip North (London) briefly told the stories of three former members of his youth group. One, James, had, a few months before, been "dragged off" a bus and "pinned to the ground" by police officers. When they realised that he was an actor and writer, not a drug-dealer, he was charged with resisting arrest.

Lucy, a 15-year-old of South American origin, when asked what she wanted to do in ten years' time, described having a house in Essex with a helicopter and other riches. She was "a girl who has bought into the consumerist lifestyle".

Finally, Julio, aged 20, and filmed throwing empty drinks cans into police lines, had received a prison sentence of two years and two months, though he had no previous convictions - "brutal justice".

Regarding the report, Mr North wondered if he was alone in finding in it a feeling of "Didn't we do well?" "We haven't done well, because we are part of a culture in which these terrible events can take place." The Church needed to address the issues that riots gave rise to, as illustrated in the stories of the three young people mentioned. Policing was still perceived as deeply divisive and racist; the story of Lucy showed the "fatal combination" of social inequality and a culture that "measures success in terms of material acquisition"; and the story of Julio showed the "ambivalent attitudes" society had to growing up. "We worship children, yet are terrified of adolescents." Young people had been presented as "feral youths on the verge of destroying civilised society". He urged the Church to confront the issues "honestly and with vigour".

The Revd Andrew Howard (York) welcomed the report "warmly", and referred to several of the issues raised, including relationships with ecumenical colleagues and those of other faith backgrounds, and support for those who ministered in areas of potential rioting. He asked whether public-order awareness training was part of ministerial training. In times of social unrest, the Church could be a "beacon of hope and unity".

The Synod took note of the report.

Gavin Oldham (Oxford) then moved a following motion calling on the Government to work with the voluntary sector to "harness the energy and creativity of unemployed young people by offering non-exploitative work experience" in light of the "exploitation which has occurred in some unpaid work schemes within the 'for profit' sector".

After a very brief debate, a procedural motion was used to adjourn the item until a later group of sessions.

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